Colorado, Pac-10 ride into the sunset

BOULDER, Colo. -- It's 9 a.m. and the Pac-10's chariot has arrived.

It's a white bus, much like a city bus, with a gold stripe and a Colorado logo. It's not the typical ride an institution would provide for its new conference, but it's Colorado's way of cutting through the tension that has overrun college athletics recently.

"It's been a very structured process and a lot of business and a lot of serious discussion, so it was an opportunity to really show what makes college sports so great," Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn said. "It's the mascots, coaches, student-athletes. That's what it's about. So we wanted to blend all that together and let them know that we take our business very, very seriously, but there are also some fun things about the University of Colorado that we're very proud of."

The hydraulics are released and the bus sinks slowly to the ground. Bohn stands at the door, ushering in chancellor Philip P. DiStefano and his wife, senior associate athletic director Tom McGrath, senior women's administrator Ceal Barry, a few other members of the athletic department, some media members, photographers and two-time national champion Colorado mascot, Chip.

Bohn hops on last and smiles: "This is going to be fun."

The bus heads 13 miles down US-36 to the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport where Colorado president Bruce Benson and former football coach Bill McCartney are waiting. The members of the bus unload and file into the terminal, where they anxiously await the arrival of the Pac-10 plane.

"This is the greatest single thing to happen to Colorado in many, many years, " McCartney remarked.

McGrath compares tail numbers of parked planes to a folded piece of paper with an "N" and an "11" on it. No matches. The waiting continues.

"I think they're here," someone finally says, as all eyes shift to a plane rolling across the tarmac.

The group leaves the terminal and files onto the CU bus, which drives out to the tarmac to greet the plane. Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott shields his eyes for a second to adjust to the sun on a perfect Colorado day. Consultant and former Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg smiles at some familiar faces, and the rest of the Pac-10 contingent mill around, shaking hands and exchanging greetings with their new conference brethren.

Almost immediately after the Pac-10 arrives, Alfred Williams, a College Football Hall of Famer, came walking across the tarmac wearing a bright gold suit and a smile, and he promptly shook Scott's hand and thanked him for Colorado's invitation into the Pac-10.

But the moment Scott couldn't stop mentioning came a few minutes later when a dark SUV rolled up and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter stepped out to shake Scott's hand, too.

"That was an amazing reception and it blew us away," Scott said. "To see the support that was there and then to see the governor change his schedule at the last minute to greet us really was overwhelming. Just to see the level of importance that decisions like this have. We tend to focus on athletics and I know there's a lot of media focus on the commercial side of this, but being here, talking to the governor, makes you realize the implications of these types of affiliations. They go way beyond the athletics and certainly the commercial side. It's what this means academically, what it means to economic development, what it means for the long-term prospects of the state and the image of the state. It's fascinating. It really gives me a great feeling of what we're doing."

After more handshakes, the group got on the bus and headed to Boulder to formalize a partnership that many believe was nearly two decades in the making.

Approaching the hill that leads into Boulder, Bohn invited Scott to stand at the front of the bus and see the university set against a backdrop of The Flatirons, Boulder's signature mountains, and a sky that looked as though it was taken from a postcard. It was the perfect setting for a new beginning for both Colorado and the Pac-10.

"I think it's a great opportunity to reinvent ourselves," said Barry, who was CU's women's basketball coach when the school was in the Big Eight and Big 12. "We've had some good and some bad in the last 13 years, and I think it's a great opportunity to set our standards a little bit higher; a standard of excellence, and to have that expectation from the top down. From the governor to the [university] president to the chancellor to the athletic director, our standards are high, that's where we expect to go and this gives us an opportunity and just a fresh start."

As the bus pulled up to Folsom Field on the Colorado campus, people stared. On the club level of the stadium suites, Scott was overwhelmed by the handshakes, pats on the back and thank yous. The CU Board of Regents unanimously voted Colorado's entrance into the Pac-10, tentatively scheduled for 2012, and then the entire room -- some 300 people -- sang the fight song as they snapped pictures with Scott and the signed resolution.

All Scott could do was laugh. He didn't know the words.

It was a historic moment that was sealed by Libby Wright, the chairman of the Rose Bowl Committee, who passed out roses to Bohn, DiStefano, Benson and CU Regent Steve Bosley to officially welcome them to the Conference of Champions.

"I think it's a great step for Colorado because they took their fate in their own hands," said Joel Klatt, a former Colorado quarterback who played for the Buffaloes from 2002-05. "Now, instead of the status quo, instead of saying that middle-of-the-road Big 12 play is what we're going to aspire to, now they have a chance to repaint that vision with the leadership of the athletic department. So, my hope is that that's what happens and that this gives them the opportunity and the momentum to make the changes both philosophically and infrastructure-wise that they have to make to be competitive.

"The school can be successful and it's been proven out in the past, it's just not successful right now. So, I believe that this gives them the kind of shot in the arm that it takes to go and really get something going."

"I think after 13 years of living in the Big 12 world and experiencing the competition, there were great things about the Big 12, but I think the timing for us now is possibly better," Barry said. "I think it will be a better match for us now."

Graham Watson covers college football for ESPN.com.