Whether or not they say it’s time for the Sonny Lubick era to end, the consensus among CSU boosters is that it won’t be easy to see the legendary coach go.
“My immediate reaction is sadness,” said Joel Cantalamessa, secretary of the board of directors for Ram Club, an organization of CSU alumni, fans and donors. “Sonny’s been the coach almost as long as I’ve been a fan.”
Lubick’s mark on the university and its football program is unmistakable. Before his arrival, CSU was a little-known, little-seen team with nothing much to brag about.
Since Lubick’s arrival in 1993, Ram football has a .685 winning percentage – a far cry from the 102 previous years, when the team’s winning percentage was below .500.
But disappointment has cast a shadow on Lubick’s impressive career over the last four years, with the team finishing .500 just once (6-6 in 2005) and qualifying for only one bowl game (the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl).
The juxtaposition has made for a difficult debate among boosters regarding the future of Lubick, who as of Monday will no longer be head coach but has been offered a position in the CSU athletics department.
“It’s a tough situation, the program has slid a little bit over the last four years,” Cantalamessa said. “But it also thrived for so long with so little support and funding and facilities. The miracles Sonny worked under these conditions . if he wanted to stay another year you’d kind of like to see him granted that.”
But the team’s poor record as well as declining game attendance over the past few seasons has caused frustration among some boosters, Cantalamessa said.
Eight of the 10 largest single-game crowds for CSU football have come during Lubick’s tenure as head coach, but average attendance decreased from 29,347 in 2005 to 21,794 this season.
Cantalamessa said boosters were “probably split right down the middle” on whether Lubick should have remained as head coach or not.
He also said he believes there were some donors who were ready to stop donating to the program if there wasn’t a coaching change, though he admitted there may be some who would withhold funds if they feel Lubick is being “forced out.”
“There’s old-school guys who have seen how Sonny turned it around and then there are younger guys who came in when things were going well and that’s all they’ve seen,” Cantalamessa said. “They may not realize how much Sonny improved things.”
The program not only improved on the football field under Lubick’s leadership, but also benefited financially, most notably from a $15.2 million renovation of Hughes Stadium in 2006 and a $200,000 donation from former Ram linebacker Joey Porter in 2005.
Porter, who currently plays in the NFL for the Miami Dolphins, was quoted in Monday’s Denver Post as an adamant supporter of Lubick, saying: “The whole thing that’s happening is a bum deal. It’s not fair. He’s one of the big reasons I was in favor of donating to the locker room, and a year later he’s not even there.”
Dave Hare, another Ram Club member who attended CSU from 1982-1984, said there was a “big difference” between the program before and after Lubick’s arrival.
Hare watched Lubick’s predecessor, Earl Bruce, get fired following the 1992 season – a debacle he said was handled with a contrast like “night-and-day” to the current Lubick situation – and said Lubick was just the right person to rally a program in need of a spark.
“Sonny came in and got everybody behind CSU football,” Hare said. “I remember the Wyoming game that first year and thinking: ‘This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.’ He set a new bar, a new standard.”
But Hare said he knew the 70-year-old Lubick couldn’t be coach forever.
“If Sonny thinks it’s time for a change, then it’s time for a change,” he said. “Change can be a good thing. There’s a lot out there right now but I think in time everyone will have nothing but positives to say about what Sonny did here.”
How upset some boosters will be over the removal of Lubick remains to be seen, but it is certain that the historical run under CSU’s most beloved coach has come to a close.
“It’s a sad deal,” Cantalamesa said. “But any way you look at it, it was probably time for a change.”
Football Beat Reporter Jeff Dillon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.