BOULDER, Colo. -- A fading, mostly empty arena. The likes of
Bob Knight and Bill Self to compete against on the hardwood and
along the recruiting trail. A program with no real history of
success or much support.
Bring it all on, declared Jeff Bzdelik.
He left Air Force to take over as basketball coach at the
University of Colorado on Wednesday, the latest in a series of
career challenges he's undertaken up and down the Rocky Mountain
"I get excited by great, great challenges," said Bzdelik, who
was 50-16 at Air Force after a 2½-year stint as coach of the Denver
Nuggets, whom he led to the playoffs for the first time in a decade
"When somebody said to me, 'You're never going to win there,'
I'm kind of a sicko with that," Bzdelik said. "It's kind of like
with the Nuggets: 'You're never going to make the playoffs.' Hey,
we did it in one year."
Similarly, he was admonished not to schedule heavyweights at Air
Force, warnings that only drove him to do exactly that, and the
Now, his biggest challenge yet.
"Maybe we can't" turn it around, Bzdelik said. "Maybe I don't
[succeed]. Maybe I fail. But I want to try."
The 54-year-old Bzdelik replaces Ricardo Patton, who went 7-20
in his 11th and final season in Boulder.
In his first season at Air Force, Bzdelik led the Falcons to the
best record (24-7) in the program's 50-year history and an NCAA
tournament bid. This year, they won a school-record 26 games and
reached the NIT semifinals.
"And now here's an opportunity in my own backyard, and it's the
ultimate opportunity," Bzdelik said. "The Big 12 is intimidating
and the inconsistency of the tradition here, well, it is what it
is. Now, with renewed commitment to facilities and excitement and
dynamic leadership, can we now move it up the ladder? That excites
Bzdelik signed a five-year deal worth $750,000 annually plus
incentives. Athletic director Mike Bohn also promised him that the
school would seek funding to build a new practice facility next to
the basketball arena.
Bzdelik said he agonized over leaving the academy, where he met
with the players late Tuesday and told them he was waffling about
his future. He later called his captains to tell them he was
"I struggled with this, I did," Bzdelik said.
Air Force athletic director Hans Meuh said the players were
angry about Bzdelik's departure, but junior Tim Anderson said the
players might be disappointed but understood why he left.
"I don't think any of us were angry," Anderson said. "I'm not
angry with him. I believe him when he said it was a hard decision
and he couldn't really decide either way. ... He said it was the
toughest decision he's ever made, and so I believe him."
Ultimately, Bzdelik said he figured he took the academy as far
as he could and that Colorado presented an unparalleled opportunity
to right a foundering program.
"I love the Air Force Academy. I love Colorado," Bzdelik said.
"I am very blessed I had two great, great opportunities here in a
state that I love. My family loves the state. I had other schools
call me. I just told them flat-out no as soon as I took the phone
Mueh said the academy did everything it could to keep Bzdelik,
who earned $315,000 last year, but Air Force simply couldn't
compete financially with the bigger state school.
So, Air Force is left looking for its third basketball coach in
four years. Meuh, who said he hoped to make a hire within two
weeks, said, "The field is wide open. I'm looking for anybody that
can sustain this program."
How important will loyalty be?
"That's a great question. Loyalty will be very important,"
Meuh said. "But, I'm also smart enough to know -- and I'm getting
smarter every day -- that in this business, it is what it is. I'm
afraid that the only way these days that an institution can protect
itself from having other schools lure away their coaches is to put
in a $1 million buyout clause, and I think I'm going to do that in
the next few contracts."
Actually, those buyouts are part of the contract negotiations
and such a high payout could crimp the field of candidates.
Colorado paid Air Force a $270,000 buyout to hire away Bzdelik,
whose buyout at CU ranges from $750,000 in the first two years of
his deal to $500,000 in the final three years, figures that would
be waived if CU fails to break ground on the promised practice
facility by 2010.
Buffaloes players were eager for their first workout on Friday
under Bzdelik and his Princeton-style offense, which sophomore
Xavier Silas thought would be a good fit at Colorado.
"Seeing what he's done at Air Force, I think that it's a great
style of play for us, a lot of backdoor cuts, movement, a lot of
screens and very unselfish basketball," concurred sophomore Sean
With coaching jobs at Air Force and in the NBA, Bzdelik has
little experience recruiting, but he said that won't be a hindrance
because his NBA experience will be a selling point for recruits
hoping to one day go pro.
"I can do something that other coaches can't when I go into a
home. I can tell them what it takes to play in the NBA," Bzdelik