I have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving Day, including that I’m not Dan Hawkins.
Hawkins is what professional journalists call the “embattled” or “beleaguered” head coach of the University of Colorado Buffaloes football team. But I’m just going to call him a chump, and join the legions of football fans who are calling for his resignation or firing.
Hawkins was hired in 2006 to lead CU’s football team, which is traditionally a Division 1 Big 12 Conference powerhouse. Under the terms of his five-year contract, he reportedly receives $900,000 a year in salary plus $1.5 million in incentives. Under his leadership, however, the team racked up losing records in each of the last four seasons, going 2-10, 6-7, 5-7 and, so far this year, 3-8. Tomorrow, the team plays its final game of the season against Big Red, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. They may win, too. But if I was a betting man, I’d say they won’t be able to pull it off, partly the Cornhuskers are difficult to defeat under the best of circumstances, but mostly because Hawkins has consistently demonstrated he doesn’t have the skills or vision needed to build a winning team at this level of competition.
To be fair, many people believe Hawkins was thrust into a difficult job without enough top-level coaching experience. Although he compiled a 39-12-1 record in five seasons between 1993 and 1997 with the Willamette Bearcats, it’s a Division 3 school, and his performance there hardly counts. His record was more impressive at Division 1-A contender Boise State, where he led the team to a 53-11 record in the five years spanning 2001 to 2005.
But coaching 1-A football doesn’t compare to coaching in the Big 12, either. The gap between the two divisions is much wider than it might look from the outside—similar to the chasm between coaching college football and coaching in the NFL, or coaching a pee wee team and a high school team in youth sports. Hawkins was promoted too quickly. It’s usually better for a coach to gain experience by working with a mentor and working his way up through the ranks, first as an assistant coach on a top team, later as a head coach.
To make matters worse, Hawkins took over a program with image problems that negatively affected his ability to recruit top talent and build a championship team. The previous coach, Gary Barnett, was ousted after spending his time at CU mired in controversy, including a scandal that allegedly involved luring recruits to the team with prostitutes and alcohol. There’s nothing like womanizing and boozing to bury an athletic program in a hurry; most sporting parents, for all their flaws, including a mad desire to see their sons succeed at sports, still tend to value morality over winning, and will flee from any hint of taint in an athletic program.
But Hawkins’ biggest mistake revolved around his decision to build the Buffaloes’ football program around his son, Cody Hawkins. When Hawkins was the head coach at Boise State, he offered Cody a scholarship to play from him there. Not surprisingly, his son accepted. And when Hawkins took the head coaching job at CU, he once again took care of his offspring, offering him another scholarship to play under him at Colorado.
Cody, a junior, started at quarterback in Colorado’s first five games this season before being benched in favor of sophomore Tyler Hansen in the third quarter of the Buffaloes’ disastrous and embarrassing 38-14 loss at Texas on Oct. 10. By that time, he’d led his team to five consecutive losses, throwing for 1,277 yards, 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also incited a firestorm of controversy that threatens to bury the family’s career at CU.
Whether he likes it or not, Hawkins made a classic coaching mistake by bringing Cody to the team to play quarterback. Although Cody is a fine athlete and good student, he’s widely considered too small and unskilled to be a Big 12 quarterback. Even if he wasn’t, however, it’s the mere appearance of favoritism that bothers people; by building the team around Cody over the last few years, Hawkins appears to be more interested in promoting his own son than he does in giving the Buffaloes its best chance to win. He admitted as much in a recent press conference, telling reporters that he regrets his decision to recruit Cody to the team, and saying “it was probably selfish on my part.”
Again, to be fair to Hawkins, he’s not the only coach in history to make the mistake of building a team around his own son. Studies show that about 72 percent of kids drop out of organized sports by the time they’re 13 years old. One of the biggest reasons they cite for quitting is what they perceive as insurmountable favoritism—coaches who unfairly favor their sons and sons’ friends over equally talented players. So coaches fall prey to this problem all the time, but it’s usually in youth sports, not high-level sports, such as college or professional sports.
And that’s why I think Hawkins is a chump, and why I believe CU ought to fire him after Friday’s game against the Huskers, regardless of the outcome. CU Athletic Director Mike Bohn is said to be reviewing Hawkins’ performance, and like many fans, I believe he should replace the coach. But don’t get me wrong: It’s not personal, and it’s not about winning or losing. It’s about playing fair, considering the larger issues at stake and doing the right thing for the sake of the team, its fans and the sport.