A divided locker room. A bad reputation. A coaching change. A program mired in mediocrity and dysfunction.
Those are just a few of the things that Colorado State’s 2015 senior class entered into when the Rams came on campus between 2010 and 2012. Some, like sixth-year player Kivon Cartwright, came in during the middle of CSU’s darkest hours under Steve Fairchild, when the Rams were mired in the middle of three straight 3-9 seasons.
Others, like Jasen Oden Jr., joined the Rams under former head coach Jim McElwain, who took over in 2012 looking to reboot a program that had become one of the worst in the entire country.
Their journeys were all different, with some jumping on the bandwagon out of junior college, like defensive linemen Terry Jackson and Martavius Foster. Each with a separate story, but one common goal: to turn things back around at Colorado State.
A once-proud program that had fallen into disarray slowly climbed out of the cellar of the Mountain West, posting a 4-8 record in 2012 before returning the Rams to postseason play for the first time since 2008. All they did in the 2013 New Mexico Bowl was erase a late-game deficit, force two fumbles in the final minutes and win on a Jared Roberts field goal to cap one of the most miraculous comebacks in CSU history.
SteveO Michel, a player with a heart bigger than his 230-pound frame, was the player who forced the final fumble on kick coverage duty, tearing a shoulder muscle in the process. It didn’t matter to him, though, because he “did it for his brothers.”
The locker room that once had a Rocky Mountain-sized chasm in it finally began to heal. Gone were the likes of Nordly Capi, Brian Orakpo and and Colton Paulhus, who were kicked off the team for assaulting students in the spring of 2012. Whether he meant to or not, Jim McElwain had built a family inside the doors of the Joey Porter Locker Room.
A year later, CSU entered the top-25 for the first time in more than a decade, while rolling up nine consecutive wins after a Week 2 loss to Boise State. A season that looked like it might find the Rams in New Year’s Day bowl game flamed out in its final stanza, with the Rams falling to in-state rival Air Force before being blown out 45-10 by Utah in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.
But the Sin City meltdown stoked a burning fire inside CSU’s then-junior class, but after McElwain departed for the head coaching job at Florida and CSU hired Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo to take over the program, questions began to rise.
The most prominent: Could CSU keep its momentum going after losing its hot-shot head coach?
Bobo spoke to that Tuesday night after the Rams’ heartbreaking 28-23 loss to Nevada in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl.
“It’s never easy when there’s change,” Bobo said. “Especially when there’s change when things are going well. Like I told them all year, there’s going to be change; it’s inevitable. There’s going to be things that happen, and you don’t know why, but when you are part of a family, you’ve got to be all in and go to work with one another, you’ve got to love one another through the good and the bad, and I really appreciate those guys. When we were down, they could have easily said, ‘This shouldn’t have happened to us, or why us,’ but they stuck together. I just told them that I appreciate them and everything they did for this program before I got here and the year I was here. Colorado State has been playing football for a long time, but there haven’t been a lot of years of consistency. And right now there’s some consistent play because of three straight winning seasons and three straight bowl games.”
Coming into this season, expectations were sky-high for this CSU team with the return of All-American wide receiver Rashard Higgins, tight ends Kivon Cartwright and Steven Walker and a defense that started 10 seniors. The Rams couldn’t get out of their way at times though, leaving Bobo, his staff and his team scratching their heads at what could have been. After an embarrassing home loss to San Diego State on Oct. 31, CSU sat at 3-5 and in danger of missing the postseason altogether.
Led by its senior class, CSU showed a resilience that would have been completely foreign when they came to Fort Collins five years ago. They won their final four regular season games, setting them up for another postseason appearance and marking the first time since 2001-2003 that CSU played in three consecutive bowl games.
That success, coupled along with the realization that they would never don the green and gold again, made Tuesday night’s loss that much more bittersweet.
“It didn’t really hit me until I was taking my shoulder pads off, and I realized that I would never put them back on with this same jersey,” Oden Jr. said. “I’m just thankful. I’m thankful to be here, I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to come here, I’m thankful to Coach Mac and that staff for believing me and I tip my hat to Bobo and his staff for believing me and putting the ball in my hands this year. I can’t say enough about those guys on the field, this team and Ram Nation.”
Regardless of Tuesday’s outcome, anyone who has spent time around the CSU program during the last half-decade can realize what a culture change the 26 players who will never suit up again brought to Colorado State and Fort Collins.
“There’s a lot to be proud of,” senior defensive end Joe Kawulok said. “Being able to change a program and get it headed into the right direction is just amazing. There’s so much young talent on this team still, and they’re going to have a bright future.”
Safety Kevin Pierre-Louis, who embodied everything that CSU’s senior class stood for, walked out of the locker room with a smile stretching from ear-to-ear, knowing that while it was all over, there was quite the legacy to look back at.
“It’s hard, but we can’t put our head down as seniors,” safety Kevin Pierre-Louis said. “We came here and went to three bowls. How many people can say they did that? It’s hard to leave the last game without winning it, but looking back at your career, you’ve got to be happy about it. You’ve got to cherish the moments we had here, the miracles we had here, and we almost had another one (tonight). We’re sad for today, but when we look back, we had a pretty good career.”
Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.