The Colorado Buffaloes will be just fine. While disappointing to be sure, the departure of defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt is nothing head coach Mike MacIntyre and the rest of his staff can't handle.
Some things to consider:— As a long-time and very successful NFL head coach once explained to me, there are two kinds of assistant coaches: those who are candidates for other jobs and those who aren't.
If your staff is full of the former, it's an indication of success. As MacIntyre told me Thursday morning, "Success breeds opportunity" — and rest assured, Leavitt isn't the only Buffs assistant who has attracted some attention over the last few weeks. A 10-3 season, top-10 ranking and a Pac-12 South title have a way of turning other programs' heads.
Need some historical perspective? Consider these names: Ron Dickerson, Gerry DiNardo, Lou Tepper, Gary Barnett, Jim Caldwell, Les Miles, Ron Vanderlinden, Steve Bernstein, Steve Logan and Mike Barry (shoot, you can throw Rick George on this list also). The common thread: all worked for Bill McCartney when he was CU's head coach. All left for other jobs during McCartney's tenure — and not all of them for head coaching jobs. But somehow, McCartney managed to keep the ball rolling even when his top assistants continued to leave.
Why expect this scenario to be any different?
— Leavitt didn't bring the 3-4 defense to Boulder; rather, MacIntyre identified the defense he wanted to play after the 2014 season, then went out and found the guy to coach it. Don't forget, CU safeties coach Joe Tumpkin arrived at the same time as Leavitt, and he has also played a significant role in the defensive game plans. Guaranteed, there are other coaches out there who are very adept at coaching a 3-4 alignment.
— Colorado's defensive success and improvement the last two years was not the result of one man. No doubt, Leavitt had a significant impact, but it was a collective effort that made the difference.
The CU secondary that was one of the best in the nation this year and the heart of CU's defense? That was the work of Tumpkin and Charles Clark, a pair of defensive backs coaches who turned Chidobe Awuzie, Tedric Thompson and Ahkello Witherspoon into NFL-caliber players — and who are currently tutoring the next wave of outstanding Buffs defensive backs.
The best scheme in the world doesn't work unless it has the players to execute. The Buffs had the players to execute that scheme, especially in the secondary — and Leavitt's arrival coincided with the maturing of those players. The coaches who worked with those players every day are still on staff, and the next wave of standout CU defensive backs is ready to take its place in the lineup next fall.
— Fears that Leavitt's departure will affect what is shaping up as a top-20 recruiting class are unfounded. Evidence? Javier Edwards, a highly sought junior college defensive lineman, chose to sign with the Buffs on Tuesday — after news of Leavitt's departure had already been made public.
Why? Edwards knew his position coach, Jim Jeffcoat, wasn't going anywhere. He also has complete faith that MacIntyre will find an able replacement for Leavitt. He knows the program is on an upward trajectory, and he knows the departure of one assistant coach won't derail that trajectory.
Meanwhile, to be brutally honest, Leavitt's recruiting influence was not a major one. The vast majority of players in CU's current recruiting class are the responsibility of other assistants. There's no reason to think those coaches and MacIntyre won't close the deal with them — and no reason to think CU's recruiting success won't continue on the same path.
To be clear, nobody can blame Leavitt for leaving. As he made clear in a Tweet on Tuesday, he's doing what he believes is best for his family.
But neither would it have been fiscally responsible for CU to completely dismantle its salary structure throughout the athletic department for one assistant coach. Breaking the bank to pay one assistant does not guarantee success. If you need evidence, give UCLA, Missouri, Texas and Ole Miss a call. Those four programs were among the top 20 highest paid group of assistants in the nation this year (Oregon was No. 21). All finished with a losing record.
As Colorado's success on the field continues to grow, so will its ability to be even more competitive in the salary world. But just as with success on the field, such growth is a process, one that requires time, planning and patience. Just as you can't fix a decade of difficult times on the field overnight, neither can you fix a decade of financial instability in an instant.
It takes time.
But, what we do know today is this: since his arrival in Boulder, Mike MacIntyre has continually shaped and improved his coaching staff. Two years ago, he brought Leavitt and Tumpkin on board to address some defensive deficiencies. Last year, it was Drew Wilson, Darrin Chiaverini and Darian Hagan. Chiaverini and Hagan not only helped improve the offense, but also helped to greatly improve CU's recruiting profile. Wilson took CU's strength and conditioning to a new level — an often overlooked offseason improvement that played a huge role in CU's on-field success this fall.
Now, MacIntyre must turn his attention back to defense — and if you use the last two years as evidence, there's no reason to think he won't find someone quite capable of keeping the Buffs' trajectory on the right path.