Karl Dorrell is going into this season as if it could be his last as the head coach at Colorado.
Granted, that’s been his mindset for over a decade now, since he was fired at UCLA and spent all but one of the next 12 years in the NFL.
When he first got started coaching, Dorrell thought it would be all smooth sailing and that he’d never get fired. But now, more than 30 years after he started coaching and has been fired multiple times, he doesn’t fear that pressure — he welcomes it.
“I think everybody in this profession, because of the competitiveness and we’re in the business of winning, we always anticipate [that] you can get fired,” Dorrell said at Wednesday’s Front Range media huddle in Denver. “I treat every coaching year since my UCLA years as going in with the mindset that I could be fired after this year. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a five-year contract, or four or two. They fire you regardless.”
That mindset helped Dorrell immensely when he was a position coach in the NFL. Even if the team wasn’t playing well — and he was a part of his fair share of bad teams — he knew he had to make sure at least the position he was coaching was performing well. But even now that he’s a head coach again, nothing’s changed.
It’s now been 2½ years since Dorrell was hired and the outside perception of the program hasn’t changed much. The Buffaloes are picked to finish last in the Pac-12 this season and CU has lost multiple young starters to the transfer portal in the past 12 months.
But Dorrell doesn’t see any of that as he heads into another season that feels like his first. After the pandemic made the 2020 season feel like a wash, Dorrell treated the 2021 season like it was his first real year with the Buffs. But heading into 2022, there’s almost an entirely new offensive coaching staff on board, and it feels a little bit like the third different era of Dorrell’s tenure.
And even if this is Dorrell’s last year, he’s not selling himself short with what he’s accomplished.
“At the end of the day, if I were not here and I were not the leader of this program, this program is in such better shape than when I got here,” Dorrell said. “It’s ready to be built on. I’m hoping I’m here [for] a long time. To build it right like we’ve done and the type of players that are in the program now that are more committed and inspired and competitive, those things were missing from the bulk of this team when I first got here.”
For Dorrell, it starts with the quarterback position.
“I always judge the greatness of a team by that room,” he said. “We finally have depth in that room and we have good prospects in that room. That helps when that room is solid. That brings other people here. Recruiting is going to continue to get better and better and eventually we'll be where I envision us will be.”
The Buffs still haven’t announced whether returning starter Brendon Lewis or former Tennessee transfer J.T. Shrout will be the starting quarterback when TCU comes to Boulder next week. Those two have been in a battle throughout camp, and it’s gotten to the point where Dorrell and his staff have already had preliminary discussions about playing both of them.
The other worry for Dorrell and his staff once the decision is made is trying to keep the player happy who missed out on the starting job.
It’s no secret that there’s more player movement than ever right now in college football, and intense battles between quarterbacks with multiple years of eligibility almost always result in a transfer. But Dorrell is hoping that the culture shift that took place over the offseason can prevent that in his program.
“If you think about it, if I had a team of players that didn’t get what they want and they all wanted to leave, that’s a sh---y program,” Dorrell said. “How do they win? When adversity strikes in the game, how do you overcome that? Our players, we’re trying to teach them how to deal with adversity and continue to compete. That’s life.”
That message has led to a team that Dorrell feels can win some games this fall.
“I think the makeup of this team is much better than last year’s team,” Dorrell said. “To be quite honest, I would be more concerned if everybody was back from last year. We wouldn't be where we are right now. A lot of things happened for the right reasons.”
Watch: 'Buffs ready to buck expectations in Dorrell's third year', from Denver Gazette news partner KUSA