In the 1990s, coach Sonny Lubick built the Colorado State Rams into a perennial conference contender based on his values.
The Rams were often the underdog, but they were not going to play like it.
It was a blue collar type of football — the one Lubick built his foundation on — that saw spirited competitors and a spirited program make a living winning games they were not supposed to win and putting themselves in positions they weren’t supposed to be.
The early 2000’s marked an extension of that 90s era that Lubick built in Fort Collins.
“I think what really settled in is the early 2000s was a continuation of the 90s in my eyes,” Former Ram quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt said. “It is still a prime time of the Sonny Lubick era and I think we still had that general attitude where we were the underdog team and we were gritty. We had a very ragtag group of guys from all different walks of life, but we gelled together and we really were led by Sonny.”
Van Pelt, who quarterbacked the Rams as a starter from 2001-2003, earning Mountain West Conference offensive player of the year awards in ‘02 and ‘03, epitomized Ram football in the 2000s.
At 6-feet 2-inches and 220 pounds, Van Pelt was a big, physical quarterback who thrived running the football, and running it behind his pads. Until quarterback Garrett Grayson’s record setting career from 2011 to 2014, Van Pelt stood as the all-time total offensive leader in CSU history, and he’s ranked fifth in team history in rushing touchdowns.
By the time Van Pelt got to CSU as a Michigan State transfer in 2000, Lubick had the Rams rolling for six seasons, and under Van Pelt’s guidance in 2002, the Rams finished 10-4 and claimed their third Mountain West title in four seasons.
Though the Rams still didn’t have the nice facilities or the flash that went with a winning program, and they often played second fiddle to the University of Colorado in many minds, in the 2000s, they kept winning in spite of it all.
The underdog status was something Lubick worked to sell to his players and it helped gel them as a team.
“What really sticks out when we are talking about my era, I really appreciated the style of football that coach Lubick and his staff brought,” Van pelt said. “I mean sometimes it was unorthodox, but he really knew how to take a bunch of different characters in the room and bring them together and I think that’s something that really stuck with me.”
For Van Pelt, that made all the difference in the world.
“Coach Lubick really made it be known that the coaches were pulling for the players and the players pulled for one another, and when everyone pulled for each other, you really have a lot of buy in,” Van Pelt said.
With that buy in and style of football came the wins, and with the wins came the legend of quarterbacks like Anthoney Hill (1991-94), Moses Moreno (1994-97) and Matt Newton (1998-2000), all three of whom rank in the top-six in touchdown passes in CSU history.
As a Ram quarterback, Van Pelt understood the kind of play that came before him under Lubick, and with that came a personal standard.
“I also believed that it’s my responsibility to continue a tradition that was started long before me,” Van Pelt said. “(The) Sonny Lubick era in my book, he brought amazing talent and amazing wins to CSU. People before me, the Matt Newton’s of the world, the Moses Moreno’s, Anthoney Hill. I felt it was a duty and a responsibility of mine to continue the culture of winning.”
Along with continuing a winning tradition, Van Pelt was also fully embroiled in the underdog mindset. CSU was a team that often found itself in that role, but that’s not how they were going to approach a given game.
Of that mindset, Van Pelt worked as its most visible ambassador in the early 2000s.
“I believe my role at the end, and of course through my sophomore, junior and senior season, was to really set a tone for the way CSU wanted to be seen,” Van Pelt said.
Van Pelt said that the players were nervous, hell, anyone is nervous when they step on the field with a team ranked higher than them, or one that comes with some more prestige.
But, “You kind of have to have that attitude where you look them straight in the eye and you’re not scared of them. As a matter of fact, you are going to try and intimidate them,” Van Pelt said.
For Van Pelt, that started before the game, when he went out for an early pregame jog to let the opponent know he was there. He’d cover all parts of the field, including running right by the opponent’s sideline. He was one of the most visible players on the field, and he took that and ran with it.
“The eyes were on me, therefore I took it upon myself to be a little more flamboyant because I wanted people, really, to fear us,” Van Pelt said. “I wanted people to think ‘wow, the CSU Rams, holy crap we better show up’. I think it did very well. It really garnished a lot of attention, but it also set a tone for the team.”
“I kind of let people know that if you are playing the CSU Rams you are going to be in for a four-quarter dogfight,” he continued. “I wanted everyone to kind of know that, hey, I’m setting the tone, I’m the quarterback setting the tone.”
The most publicized episode of that “tone-setting” was the 2002 Rocky Mountain Showdown — the famous helmet-spike game. Every CSU Rams fan knows what took place when Van Pelt spiked the football off of CU cornerback Rod Sneed while backpedaling into the end zone for the final points in a game the Rams would go on to win 19-14 over then No.7 ranked CU.
But Van Pelt was about intimidation, not celebration. Every other time he scored a touchdown he flipped the ball to the ref and ran to his teammates. Van Pelt said after having enough time to think about it, he didn’t know what got into him.
“Maybe it was just a lot of factors coming in,” Van Pelt said. “It wasn’t planned, it wasn’t me showboating, it was just I think a continuation of the underdog mentality that we are going to stick it to anyone, even CU.”
It was an isolated incident, but the play as a whole symbolized the mentality the Rams kept during Van Pelt’s and Lubick’s tenure. They weren’t dirty, they weren’t flashy, but they had a chip on their shoulders. They were going to let people know, especially the University of Colorado, that they were not afraid.
And as far as what Van Pelt thinks about that play after all these years. “I don’t mind that people remember that play because I think that play embodies a lot of the ambitions of CSU, that they want to rise above,” Van Pelt said. “I don’t think it’s bad that people remember me by it, but I don’t think that play should be my legacy.”
If that’s not the legacy he really wants, what does he want it to be?
“I think the legacy that I wish to have, and it’s of course not up to me, but a legacy of a commitment to my teammates, a commitment to the fans, a commitment to the University to play the best football I could,” Van Pelt said. “To bring pride to the University and also to bring pride to Fort Collins. Really, if I could be remembered by that community, to others, to fans, my teammates, and coaches and my community, it would really mean a lot to me.”
There are not too many questions about that.
Collegian sports reporter Eric Wolf can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Eric_Wolf5