BOULDER, Colo. —Colorado basketball is labeled by what it's not. The Buffaloes don't own a lot of tradition or passionate fans. Somehow, a program at a major school with a beautiful campus and great academics lacks an identity.
That is how others see Colorado. CU may have found the perfect coach to change its reputation. Tad Boyle sees Colorado in a different light.
"I've been at places where you're on a six-hour bus trip and your pregame (meal) is at Golden Corral," he said. "I have an appreciation for what it's like. We are playing in a BCS conference. We have a lot of amenities here, everything we need to be successful. I don't look at what we don't have."
Many coaches will say that, and not all will mean it. Boyle is from Colorado, starred at Greeley Central High, played at Kansas and coached at Wichita State — you know all that. What's not as obvious about his background is that he can appreciate Colorado's assets in a way not all coaches can.
His office is decorated with a mural reading "Colorado basketball — climbing the mountain." On one wall is a list of academic all-conference Buffaloes. Jeff Bzdelik, his predecessor, didn't bother to personalize the space in his three seasons before leaving for Wake Forest. Boyle is already entrenched.
"He said this is his dream job, and this is where he wants to be," senior guard Levi Knutson said.
Boyle got his start at plush places such as Oregon and Tennessee. Then he took on major makeovers as Mark Turgeon's assistant at Jacksonville (Ala.) State and WSU. In 2006, Northern Colorado hired him as head coach to lead its program from NCAA Division II to Division I.
Boyle is used to building — he raised money for new locker rooms at Northern Colorado to bring them up to Division I standards — in less-than-ideal situations. He helped turn Wichita State into a good job; when he arrived with Turgeon, the program lived near the bottom of the Missouri Valley Conference.
"Colorado is in a much better place than those aforementioned places," said B.J. Hill, Boyle's assistant at Northern Colorado. "It's going to happen. It's a matter of when."
Colorado's roster includes two Wooden Award candidates in guards Alec Burks and Cory Higgins. A practice facility is under construction next to the Coors Events Center. The move to the Pacific-10 Conference for the 2011-12 season gives the basketball program a fresh start. People at Colorado believe their school is a better fit academically in the Pac-10 than the Big 12.
Boyle believes he can recruit California effectively — other than Colorado, that state is home to the biggest number of alums. Nobody minds trading road trips to Ames, Iowa and Manhattan for Seattle or Tempe, Ariz.
"If you put a good product on the floor, win consistently, people are going to support you," Boyle said. "All you can ask for in life is an opportunity to build something. We have that here in Colorado. There's a lot of things moving in the right direction."
Boyle, of course, doesn't want to wait long. With Burks and Higgins, he is off to a good start. In a morning practice in late October, Boyle is pushing his players to move more quickly through drills and work harder. He wants to hear more of their voices contributing to practice.
He wants them in better shape. Boyle wants to run and use Boulder's altitude (5,430 feet above sea level) to tire opponents.
"You can't get adjusted to it in a day, so when people come in here you've got to try to run them out of the gym," Burks said. "That's why we work hard."
Boyle already won a crucial victory. Burks, who averaged 17.1 points as a freshman, considered transferring when Bzdelik departed. Boyle asked Burks to give him a chance. He visited Burks' mother. His low-key, straight-forward approach won over the family.
"If you work hard, you're good with him," Burks said. "He's going to tell you the truth. You might not like it sometimes, but you would rather have that than be lied to."
Boyle is confident that approach can bring in more talent. He hired Mike Rohn and Jean Prioleau, both former WSU assistants, to join him in Boulder. They were at WSU when Turgeon began reviving the program. They know what Boyle wants and they know how to work together. Boyle's reputation will help in-state recruiting.
"You've just got to know what you believe in and follow your instincts," Boyle said. "It all starts with recruiting, and getting players in your program who believe in what you believe in."