Sanford, Colo. closes the year on the cusp of a coaching change

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) – Interim coach Mike Sanford found a way to keep the Colorado Buffaloes goal-oriented this week in practice: a soccer-style penalty shootout.

This had the team yelling and screaming with every goal and save. Anything to keep the mood light and upbeat in what has been a difficult season.

For about 21 Buffaloes players, this Saturday against No. 14 Utah will mark their last opportunity to run at Folsom Field behind their live buffalo mascot Ralphie.

This could also be Sanford’s last test in Colorado.

Whatever happens, Sanford hopes that in the short time since he moved from offensive coordinator to replace fired head coach Karl Dorrell in October, he’s left a bit of a mark. He has gone 1-5 amid a coaching search that may soon bring a new coach to town.

“We did everything we could to push this program in the right direction,” said Sanford, who has been with numerous programs across the country, including a stint as the head coach at Western Kentucky. “But the most important thing is that we cared about these players.

“That’s the legacy I hope to leave.”

With rumors swirling about which coach could arrive in Boulder next — Deion Sanders and Bronco Mendenhall’s names have come up quite a bit — Sanford has tried to keep the Buffaloes (1-10, 1-7 Pac-12) focused on finishing with a top five of five losing streak to the Utes (8-3, 6-2, No. 14 CFP).

And have some fun along the way.

Anything to avoid “pure homework,” a term that stuck with Sanford years ago after hearing a colleague use it at a convention.

“That really hit me because I’ve been a part of programs where we’re winning a ton of games, and it was a great job in the building,” Sanford explained. “It was horrible, for everybody, coaches, players. Everybody’s sitting here like, ‘Well, that would be nice, if the real nightmare was 11-1.’ It’s good, because people keep their jobs. The players get NIL bids (name, image, likeness).

“But those programs eventually break. Those cultures break. For me, it’s been, ‘What can we do to make this a nice week with each other, for each other?'”

So the penalty kick competition, a nod to the World Cup taking place in Qatar. The goal also created a joyful atmosphere.

“Sure, you can sit here and say, ‘Hey, this team is 1-10.’ Why the hell should it be fun? They should be doing wind sprints,” Sanford said. “Listen, running wind sprints isn’t going to help us win games. I have experienced this. I’ve seen it all. What we want to do is make these last days together the most fun we can to give each other the most joy we can on Saturday.”

An upset of Utah could send them into the offseason on a positive note. According to FanDuel Sportsbook, the Buffaloes are a 29 1/2-point underdog.

Through it all, including six losses by 30 points or more, they’ve held together.

“This is a testimony of how close we are as a team, of the adversities we have fought. That’s one thing I’ve always said is that nothing brings you closer than being miserable together,” senior tight end and captain Brady Russell said. “We’ve become such a tight-knit, tight-knit group. … I will miss all my people.”

Sanford was brought in last December to try to revamp a sputtering offense. It hasn’t gone according to plan, with the Buffaloes’ offense going 25 straight games without gaining 400 or more total yards, according to Pac-12 research. They have been outscored by a margin of 158-34 in their last three games.

With Utah, Colorado will play its fourth straight contest against a ranked team.

“It’s been a tough stretch,” Sanford said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure we have the best we can.”

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