With all of the attention locked on CSU athletic department’s anticipated announcement of a new head football coach and the unrest among some community members that followed the removal of 15-year coach Sonny Lubick, something has been lost.
Though the record books and community message boards may not reflect it, there have been several positive steps taken off the field by the CSU athletic program this year. Most visible to the average fan have been the athletic department’s new school spirit and community outreach initiatives, spearheaded by athletic director Paul Kowalczyk.
Kowalczyk, whose search for a new football coach had no reported update Sunday night, has spent the last year and a half attacking the problematic lack of support for CSU athletics with a series of innovations and programs in the Fort Collins community.
The second year-director is hoping that with increased outreach into the community, more people will want to come to games, and ultimately, want to donate much needed money.
This year’s attendance at home football games dropped nearly 10 percent (24,183 to 21,794), which was something Kowalczyk has said attributed to Lubick’s firing Nov. 18.
“We’ve gone from the top of the Mountain West to the bottom because we’ve been in neutral while everyone else has been growing, and that’s changing,” Kowalczyk told the Collegian back in October.
Certainly one of the biggest changes will be whoever replaces Lubick.
Since his firing, boosters have pulled funds, former players are speaking out in support of their former coach and community members have been voicing their concerns in local newspapers and community message boards.
For Kowalczyk, the hope is that the unrest is temporary, and that the steps he has been taking to build community relationships are more permanent than any coach or loss on a scoreboard.
And not all reaction to the end of the Lubick era has been negative. Jim Hunter, president of Ram Club-a organization of boosters and alum- said although “no one wanted to see Lubick go. Right or wrong, something had to be done.”
Hunter said that there seems to be three types of fans divided on the issue: those who wanted to see Lubick fired, those who didn’t want to see Lubick fired and those who wanted Lubick fired only under specific conditions.
“Whether they agree with the decision or disagree, I think that the main thing is that they need to support CSU,” he said.
But long before a meeting last month with the 70-year-old Lubick to discuss the coach’s retirement plans, Kowalczyk was determined to create change within several areas of the athletic department.
From his third floor office in the McGraw Athletic Center two months ago, Kowalczyk described driving around Fort Collins in his first few months as director and the disheartening feelings he had in seeing the lack of green and gold around town before last year’s homecoming football game.
Rolling through north Fort Collins’ Old Town district, window after window shone with nothing but signs for local sales and specials. No Ram signs, no Ram advertisements, no indication that Fort Collins was even a college town.
“There was absolutely no indication whatsoever that there was a football game about to be played or that it was really even homecoming,” he said. “I just didn’t see a lot of color. I didn’t feel any kind of buzz or any kind of anticipation of what was happening, which was disappointing because this place has so much to offer as a town and as a community.”
Almost immediately, Kowalczyk began to take action.
He met with city officials and together they lifted a ban restricting businesses of “excessive advertisement,” which helped increase the appearance of Ram pride around town.
A plan to put banners around town accomplished, smaller marketing ideas were bounced around to get the word out to the Fort Collins community about CSU athletics. Some of these included hosting pep rallies with the marching band before home football games, adding Ram Town’s inflatable playgrounds at Hughes Stadium on game days and finding new ways to deliver ticket information to citizens.
“We have been able to accomplish a number of things.” Kowalczyk said. “Anything from sticking our season ticket information into utility bills, to getting the banners up, which in many ways, to me, was sort of the gist of the whole issue. Let’s bring some color to town; I wanted to see businesses have Ram stuff up in their windows.”
City Manager Dan Atteberry was more than willing to help Kowalczyk in increasing the athletic department’s role in the community and said several people came together to make Kowalczyk’s vision a reality.
“For me this is about leveraging our resources,” Atteberry said. “CSU, the City of Fort Collins, the Chamber of Commerce, the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau – this is a great community with a great university. I think our community expects we do these types of things together. I’m proud of the fact that Paul asked us to participate.”
However, with a new head football coach next year for the first time in a decade and a half, Kowalczyk’s initiatives to increase community involvement may be an afterthought.
Sports Writers Nick Hubel, Sean Star and Chad Taylor can be reached at email@example.com.