In 1981, Colorado State became the first division one school in history to post a winless football season, a “perfect” 0-12.
Twenty-seven years later, the Rams are still making waves in the sea of sorrow.
Through ten conference games this season, the men’s and women’s basketball teams have combined for exactly zero wins. No school in the Mountain West has ever had both their men’s and women’s teams fail to win a conference game in the same year.
In fact, there has only been one winless MWC men’s basketball season (San Diego State, 1999) and four blanked women’s teams (Air Force three times, SDSU once) in the league’s history.
The bottom-barrel basketball seasons are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
This past fall, the football team extended their two-season losing streak to 13 games before snapping it. They finished the season with three wins.
The swimming and diving team closed their conference season last week with their fourth straight loss (2-4 MWC overall record).
Thus far this season, the water polo team has struggled their way to a 2-8 record. One of the shining lights of the department, the volleyball team, was swept out of the NCAA tournament in the second round last December.
Suffice to say, it has been a long year for Ram fans, boosters, players, coaches, and second-year athletic director Paul Kowalczyk.
From his third floor office in the McGraw center — named for the legendary Thurman “Fum” McGraw, who embodied some of the most successful athletic seasons in the school’s history — Kowalczyk works everyday with his staff to reverse the apathetic culture surrounding CSU athletics.
“I’m not a happy person right now,” Kowalczyk said. “Most people in our department want us to be better than we are. I know our fans do, I know our students do. But, anytime you are trying to rebuild a program and really trying to create a culture, it is a long term process.
“It is an investment in the future.”
The culture that Kowalczyk talked about has been changing, however subtly, over the course of the past two years. Football fans may have experienced “Ram Town” this past season — a collection of inflatable attractions set up outside Hughes Stadium on game days. The department also worked to put up more CSU signs around Fort Collins, draping downtown in green and gold banners.
Possibly the biggest development was the announcement of the new indoor practice facility, weight room and athlete study center. The center, which will be built on the fields southeast of Moby Arena, is set to break ground this summer.
More than $1.75 million have been raised to fund the project, with more boosters lined up who are “committed to helping us with the facilities,” Kowalczyk said. The director called the fundraising a “five year process,” but one that has been “moving along.”
Searching for “stretch goals”
The pieces of a sparkling new culture of athletics are on their way, but the bottom line for an athletic department always falls in the win/loss column, a fact that Kowalczyk knows very well.
The Colorado State Board of Governors laid out a list of “stretch goals” for the department two years ago, which include perennially contending for conference championships, runs in the NCAA tournament for basketball and volleyball, and BCS bowl games for the football team.
“I take those (goals) to heart and I know that our staff and coaches do,” Kowalczyk said. “We’re trying to get that pendulum swinging the other way. Right now I think that we’re right close to the middle and it’s going to start swinging up.”
Part of that upswing this year was the women’s cross country team, which won the conference championship and finished 15th in the national tournament. Kowalczyk said that their breakout season is the first brick in a new foundation of success at CSU.
“We want success across the board,” Kowalczyk said. “We want all of our programs to be constantly in the hunt for conference championships,”
Gary Ozzello, the senior associate director of external operations, has been with the CSU Athletic Department for 30 years. Ozzello, who has been through some of the worst seasons in the school’s history, said that the way Kowalczyk has run the program so far gives everyone involved a profound sense of hope for the future.
“There’s always hope. I know Tim (Miles) and his staff and Steve (Fairchild) and his staff are doing everything that they can to be successful,” Ozzello said. “All of our coaches are. (Having a losing year) is a challenge but I think that we are all optimistic and excited about where we are going and that really overshadows anything else.”
Ozzello also said that people in the community have recognized the efforts that the department has made, and share in the optimism that Kowalczyk and his staff have tried to perpetuate.
“I think that as we communicate with alumni and donors and our fans, they realize that it’s a process. This is the first step in that process,” Ozzello said. “In my dealings with our constituents, they are extremely excited about what the future holds.”
Men’s basketball — a case study in hope
Nobody is arguing that men’s basketball head coach Tim Miles’ first season has been a wine and roses waltz through the Mountain West.
With a roster that features 13 freshmen or transfers and slew of injuries to key players, the team has been on the wrong end of close games all season. The problems have translated into a 6-18 overall record, 0-10 in conference.
“This is new territory for all of us,” Miles said.
Freshman guard Josh Simmons said that coming back mentally game after game hasn’t been as hard as one might think this season, due to the quality leadership provided by coach Miles and some of the older players on the team.
“It’s not that tough when you have good teammates around you, and we’re all supportive of each other and the coaches are supportive. They’re not light on losing, but we understand the kind of season we have,” Simmons said. “We just try to keep our heads up and prepare for the next game.”
The losing has understandably taken its toll on the team psychologically, but Miles said that he feels like the players are still responding to him — hustling, listening, and playing hard every step of the way.
“I think our guys have their hearts and minds in the right place,” Miles said. “It’s going to pay off.”
With six conference games left (three at home, three on the road), coach Miles said that the team is looking to continue to build on the fundamental skills they have been developing in order to make a run in the conference tournament.
Kowalczyk said that while the team is struggling, there have been signs that things are headed in the right direction.
“We do know that coach Miles is an outstanding coach and he’s going to get it done,” Kowalczyk said. “I’m not a patient person but I have to be in these instances.”
As far as what the future holds, Kowalczyk said that he is fully confident in all of his coaches to turn things around.
“I want to see improvement next year,” Kowalczyk said. “Certainly men’s basketball needs to get better, and women’s basketball needs to win more games. We have to do that. Football, it’s a transition year for coach Fairchild so we’ll see how he handles that and see how the kids on our squad currently step up and react to the new leadership.
“Five years from now, I fully expect us to be competing for conference championships in all of those sports.”
Sports writer Nick Hubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.