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Monday, December 27, 2004
It's been a long road for the Buffs

Associated Press

BOULDER, Colo. -- For a team that sets its sights on Big 12 and national championships, finishing just above .500 and earning a trip to midlevel bowl shouldn't be something to get excited about.

But consider what the Buffaloes have been through this year -- sex and recruiting scandals, coach Gary Barnett's suspension, a wild ride through the schedule -- and it's easy to understand their satisfaction from a 7-5 season and a spot in the Houston Bowl against Texas-El Paso on Wednesday.

"It has been a rough year for this team and for this program," offensive lineman Sam Wilder said. "Things did not always go the way we wanted them to this year, but this team has kept fighting."

The long offseason threatened to overshadow anything the team might accomplish on the field.

A grand jury investigated claims by nine women who said they were sexually assaulted by players or recruits since 1997. No charges were filed, but three of those women sued the university and two of the suits are still pending.

A separate investigation concluded sex, alcohol and drugs were used as football recruiting tools by player-hosts, though there was no evidence university officials knowingly sanctioned the activity.

Barnett was suspended for three months after making insensitive remarks about two of the women, including former player Katie Hnida shortly after she said she was raped by a teammate in 2000.

The school overhauled its recruiting procedures, but the headlines didn't stop once the season started.

Embattled athletic director Dick Tharp resigned in November and chancellor Richard Byyny followed suit earlier this month, though both said it had nothing to do with the scandal. A fraud investigator hired by state prosecutors is also looking into the school's fund-raising practices, including two football camps run by Barnett.

Somehow, the players were able to fight off the distractions and win football games.

"Everybody has gone through a lot, and the smoke has cleared and we're still standing," Barnett said. "The university, athletic department and administration have had a very successful year -- and the football team."

It's hard to argue.

Colorado started off the season superbly, winning three straight games for the first time since 1998. That was followed by four losses in five games, seemingly ending Colorado's chances of earning a bowl bid.

But Buffaloes weren't ready to give up that easy, not after what they've been through.

Colorado reeled off three straight wins to end the regular season, beating rival Nebraska 26-20 on the road to earn a spot in the Big 12 championship.

Winning the Big 12 North may have said more about the weakness of the division than Colorado's skill -- the Buffaloes were crushed 42-3 by Oklahoma in the title game -- but it was quite an accomplishment for a team not given much of a chance to succeed.

"I've never had a young team that has achieved as much as this team has," Barnett said. "If these kids can take this kind of approach when they're older, then they've really got a lot ahead of them."

As for Barnett, his year had nearly as many ups and downs as his team.

Barnett survived his suspension with his job intact after a university investigation, but the pressure didn't let up.

After being praised for holding his team together early in the season, Barnett heard the calls for his job during the midseason slide. It didn't help when Tharp, one of Barnett's biggest supporters, stepped down.

But just when things seemed the worst, Barnett turned his team around and got them into the Big 12 title game and a bowl, earning conference coach of the year honors in the process.

"I really haven't thought about me very much," Barnett said. "In the throes of the battle, you don't start feeling sorry for yourself. You worry about the people you're responsible for and getting them out of the mess they're in."