Despite leaving football, Sonny Lubick has not stopped winning

Eric Wolf

Late in the semester in Fort Collins, a professor and a group of 20 Colorado State students gather to discuss the essence of leadership. Among them sits the man after which the course is named.

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Former CSU coach Sonny Lubick on the sideline at Hughes Stadium.

Sonny Lubick spent his life working with young people and serving as a leader. But today, Lubick is more student than teacher.

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His presence carries the room, but he is there to listen. Students, one after the other, discuss what they learned from the semester-long seminar. The former CSU football coach listens attentively, taking notes periodically, still learning from those around him. At 78 years old, Lubick is still evolving and still thriving in the CSU community.

A New Life

When coach Lubick was relieved of his position as Rams football coach following the 2007 season, he left the program in a much different place than when he arrived. Once a laughingstock, the Rams became a conference and regional power under Lubick. In his 15 seasons, the Rams went 108-74, won or split six conference championships and played in nine bowl games.

It was not really his decision to leave the program. Lubick was forced out by then-athletic director Paul Kowalczyk, and the handling of the situation came under scrutiny from fans and boosters.

Lubick had to learn to move on. In the process, he figured out that life moves on, too.

Lubick hasn’t left the town or the school to which he dedicated so much of his life. He’s sitting behind a desk in Rockwell Hall, the business school at Colorado State, serving primarily in a public relations role. If someone from the University asks him to talk to a student or meet with a class, he does it.

And he enjoys it.

He has another office in town at the Public Service Credit Union where he serves in a similar role. No time clock, no schedule. He simply goes where he’s needed.

Lubick describes his work as mostly, and simply, meeting people.

“Just happy to help where I can,” Lubick said.

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And there’s the leadership class — more specifically, the Sonny Lubick Leadership Seminar. Professor Bill Schuster and Lubick meet four times a semester with aspiring leaders and business students.

On this day, the fourth meeting of the semester, Schuster wraps up the course. Going around to each student, everyone discusses what they gained from the course and what they challenged themselves to employ in the future.

A common theme the students recite is to simply be present and engaged in every moment.

“You aren’t looking ahead to what’s next or what happened before you got here,” Schuster said. “You’re just here.”

Lubick may be the most engaged.

Listening attentively to every student, he likes what he hears, smiling and nodding in agreement. When the group centers on him, he asks Schuster with a laugh, “Do you want me to go?”

For a man so accustomed to being the one in charge, he is humbled by those around him. It’s an honor for him to hold the course. He said he gets asked a lot about what he is doing nowadays, and though he has different roles, he tells the room that this is the most important part of his after-football life.

“We would win every game, so to speak,” he tells the class, “if everyone could be as engaged as this group.”

His parting advice to the class: There’s no shame in showing your vulnerabilities. Lubick knows. He’s had to do so plenty of times.

“Just be yourself. Pretty damn simple, huh?” he said with a laugh.

Lubick brushes the credit onto Schuster, saying he does most of the work and that Lubick is really only there to offer expertise on the side. But you can tell Lubick gets a kick out of the role.

Though he is happy with it now, the transition into his new life wasn’t easy.

“When you do something all your life, teaching and coaching for 48 years, and that’s all you ever know and all you have ever done, it’s hard to get used to not being there and doing those things,” he said. “You have to ask yourself, what else am I going to do?”

He has figured it out.

“After a while, you realize time moves on,” Lubick said. “It’s time for somebody else to do it, time to do something else and, for me, it all worked out perfectly.”

Lubick doesn’t live and die with every play on the football field like he used to. He has time and freedom to do what he could not before. That means traveling to Denver to watch the Broncos on Sundays, where his son Marc served as an assistant wide receivers’ coach until last year. It means getting the chance to travel to Eugene, Oregon to watch his other son Matt coordinate the Oregon Ducks’ high-powered offense.

Always active in the Fort Collins community, Lubick has even more time to give back. One of those opportunities is working closely with his daughter, Michelle Lubick-Boyle, who runs the family-founded organization RamStrength.

The organization began in 2010 to help Fort Collins cancer patients meet basic needs as they endure treatment, whether assisting on a mortgage or buying groceries. RamStrength also provides scholarships for CSU students who overcome cancer.

“(Lubick) always put others above himself, and he continues to do that in the community as well,” Michelle said.

Lubick has picked up on a lot since he left coaching.

For instance, he discovered that 15-hour days and frenzied practices cause a person to miss simple things, such as the beauty of leaves. Remember, this is a man who never had free time in the fall for 48 years.

“One thing I never realized, and my first year, I just kind of marveled everyday at the fall of the year,” he recalled. “I never realized how beautiful fall is.”

He has a new activity, though. For an hour a day, four to five times a week, he gets up and uses the treadmill or elliptical.

Physically, he said he feels great.

But any sort of return to the coaching ranks is not on his agenda.

“After a while, you need to be realistic,” he said. “When you’re through, it’s time for someone else to do it.”

Lubick said coaching would be too demanding at this stage in his life, and that is okay, because he’s happy where he is at. However, that part of his personality that patrolled the sidelines on fall Saturdays isn’t gone either.

Football remains a giant part of Lubick’s existence.

As a coach, Lubick rarely spent holidays at home. He continues to travel even after leaving coaching. With two sons in the coaching ranks, football still takes the stage on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Lubick is there when other coaches call for advice. He is there for his community to assist anyone who wants his help, and he’s still doing it in the same humble manner.

“Just because my name was in the paper, people might think something, but I’m no different than anyone else,” Lubick said. “Just being out there to do what I can, to be a good husband, father, grandfather.”

Winning from Within

When Lubick took the job in Fort Collins, the Rams were not so relevant in the college football landscape. With only seven winning seasons in the 33 years before his arrival, little attention was paid to the team.

When he took over the team in 1993, he witnessed the lack of interest within the program firsthand. This was not like Miami, where he had just helped the Hurricanes win two national championships in four seasons as defensive coordinator. This was Colorado State, where the school was fine with just having a football program, so long as the team was not grabbing headlines for the wrong reasons.

“It wasn’t really important,” Lubick said. “Let’s put it that way.”

With minimal attention, the team would have to win from within. To Lubick that meant doing things his way — the right way.

Reflecting on his philosophy and why it perpetuated the Rams’ winning ways despite steep odds against it, Lubick thinks for a while.

Things aren’t always so obvious.

“It was always there. I kind of finally figured it out after all these years, you kind of evolve, and I thought that winning is a byproduct of doing things the right way,” Lubick said. “Treating people the right way, coaching, working hard — there’s no secrets, no gimmicks, no tricks. It’s that hard work, and it’s doing it the right way. And if you can do that, you win more than you lose.”

In a football climate that previously produced much more losing than winning, Lubick found value away from the scoreboard.

Getting his players to play for him meant showing how much he cared and earning their respect. The coach gets paid to win, but the essence of coaching is rooted in player welfare, Lubick said.

“Sonny had that ability to make everyone around him feel comfortable,” said Larry Kerr, who served as defensive coordinator under Lubick for 10 seasons.

Lubick’s open-door policy for players was real and constant. But it was not just special treatment for the players.

“He was in the grind with everybody,” Kerr said. “He treated everybody as equals. I mean, he knew the janitors. He knew everyone in the building. That’s just his personality.”

Players bought in, and CSU went from laughingstock to perennial conference contender.

“When you think about it, that was a heckuva deal,” Lubick said.

It was a heckuva deal.

Lubick recalled his first few seasons at CSU: the Rams’ spartan-like facilities, being more disadvantaged than a vast majority of teams they competed against and routinely commandeering the league’s least valuable athletics budget.

Lubick sold players on being happy with what they had. Besides, if players cared most about facilities or who had the most money, he didn’t want them anyway.

While Kerr admits the Rams may not have had comparable facilities and resources to other schools at the time, he is quick to add, “The one thing we did have was the people — the people outweighed the facilities.”

By banding together and putting people over everything else, they won more than they lost. Under Lubick, the Rams reeled off 10 consecutive winning seasons.

“The first 10 or 11 years, we probably won more games then we could have or should have,” Lubick said said.

Extended Family

The ball has faded some, but the markings remain clear. The football commemorates the 2008 National Championship Florida Gators. The ink scrawled on the ball reads, “There is no one in this world I respect more than you. Thanks – Urban Meyer.”

Arms outstretched behind his head, Lubick thinks about Meyer, once a young assistant coach in his employ who went on to win the national championship as the Gators’ head coach. Lubick said he is proud of Meyer, now the head man at Ohio State and proprietor of a third national championship, but the football’s keeper said he’s much more proud of the man Meyer has become.

Whenever he talks about football, Lubick always gravitates toward people. He gleams with pride that during his tenure he never fired a coach.

Lubick appreciates the success he had throughout his CSU career, but the relationships he built with the hundreds of coaches and thousands of players trump everything.

Meyer spent five seasons at CSU as the wide receivers’ coach, three under Lubick. To this day, Lubick and Meyer remain in contact.

Before the Gators faced the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2006, Meyer invited Lubick, his wife Carol Jo, and his youngest son Marc to Glendale, Arizona to watch the National Championship game.

Upon Meyer’s request, Lubick addressed the Gators the night before the game, which Florida won 41-14.

“I’m glad they won, because if they didn’t, they would have blamed that one on me,” Lubick joked.

While talking about his coaches, something catches his eye — it’s the Rams media guide from the 1994 season, his second at CSU. That season Lubick led the Rams to their first 10-win season, a berth in the Holiday Bowl and he garnered National Coach of the Year honors from Sports Illustrated.

But Lubick doesn’t want to talk about any of that — he wants to talk about his coaches.

“You didn’t ask for this, but look here’s our coaching staff,” he said, inviting a look at the guide.

His eyes light up as he reads the coaches’ profiles. With each page, each profile sparks a memory and a connection within the ol’ ball coach.

It may take a little time, but Lubick can name all of them, and usually can trace exactly where they are in life.

Former Rams star Erik Olson said he believes that the staff under Lubick was not only what helped drive the Rams to success, but also fostered Lubick’s relationships with his players.

“He was one of the few coaches who could really treat players well, and he did that because he had good assistant coaches under him working the same way,” Olson said.

Lubick surrounded himself with men who shared his values. They held one another accountable and maintained a unified vision. Coaches say that Lubick’s staff was an uncommonly cohesive unit, and it all started at the top.

“To be as successful as we were, I think everybody kind of had to understand his vision and how he wanted to operate,” Kerr said. “Sonny is one of the most humble leaders you will ever be around, just the way he set the tone for everything was easy to buy into, and that was a huge part of our success.”

That vision resonated with all of the coaches, and out of that came a staff working as one.

“Again, the fact that you had 10 different strong personalities in a room and they all get together and enjoy each other and work with each other, that’s uncommon,” Kerr said. “His leadership molded it into a team thing.”

They supported each other in all walks of life, including their families. All of the staff’s children grew up together, the wives often got together and after every game, the group gathered at a local restaurant or a coach’s house.

The coaches were all different ages and from different walks of life, but they were all members of the same community — Sonny’s community.

“It’s very rare, the chemistry of the staff that we had and the ability for everyone to get along and did what we did on that staff,” Kerr said. “I think that’s why everybody looks back on that job as — me included — it was the best of times.”

Lubick recounts plenty of instances where he heard the same from other assistants.

“At CSU, it was good — and I say this humbly — we had a good time,” Lubick said. “And I can’t tell you how many coaches around the world now, but they call back and say the best time they have had coaching was at CSU.”

An Uncommon Bond

Lubick can’t talk about all of his wins, all of those hours spent on football games, without talking about people first. His love for his players and his coaches transcended his love of winning games.

Lubick is bigger than football not because he won a lot of games that he probably shouldn’t have, but because he transformed the lives of thousands of young men in the process.

Michelle grew up surrounded by her father’s coaching influence. She was there with him through every coaching job and saw firsthand the effect he had on players. He wasn’t just a man invested in winning football games, but one who invested in developing people.

“He went way beyond just being a coach, but he cared about his players deeply as people,” she said.

Players living all over the world still contact Sonny for advice on any number of decisions. Michelle recalls scores of requests from players to speak at everything from weddings to childrens’ christenings, and in tragic instances, at memorials.

His influence on his players never ceases, reflected by former Ram and Pittsburgh Steelers great Joey Porter donating $200,000 to renovate the team’s locker room in 2005.

“There was only one person who could have called and asked me, and I would have said yes, no problem,” Porter said. “(Sonny) gave me the opportunity I have today, that’s why I can give back to him.”

For Porter, Lubick was a father figure and CSU was his home away from home. Porter said Lubick’s heart and his relationship with his players can’t be found readily in the world of coaching.

“The relationship definitely was unique between players and the coach,” Porter said. “You play your heart out for a guy like him because he was such a genuine person.”

Players played like they did for Lubick because he was genuine.

“The one thing I do know,” Lubick said, “is that people can see right through you.”

He knows he’s not perfect — he’s made mistakes to be sure. But as a coach surrounded by his players for several hours a day, he had to bank on trust.

While talking about his players, he leans forward and raps his ringed knuckle on the table.

“Thank the dear Lord for my memory,” he said.

He begins talking about a game in 2005 against New Mexico when the Rams had a “pretty damn good” comeback in the second half to knock off the Lobos to earn his 100th victory at CSU. The Rams won that game 35-25 after trailing 25-12 at the half.

“I’ll never forget coming in that locker room,” Lubick recalls. “The whole team was standing right there, and I opened the door and they were all cheering for me.”

He’s pretty fond of that game, but not because of the milestone victory.

“It was a special moment, not my 100th victory, but that they were all so happy for me,” he said with a proud smile. “I can still see all those kids in that locker room. They were all so damn happy and excited about that.”

Olson doesn’t believe there was another program in the country where the players had the same relationships with a coach. After a short stint in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Olson returned to Fort Collins, citing Lubick as a major reason.

“He’s a father figure, a mentor and a role model,” Olson said. “I came back to CSU to be around Sonny Lubick. He’s one of the few guys you truly are excited to see whenever you can see him.”

Return To Hughes

On Saturdays this past fall in Fort Collins, Lubick used his second home, Hughes Stadium at — you guessed it — Sonny Lubick Field, to watch the new breed of Rams.

Former CSU coach Sonny Lubick (left) with CSU president Dr. Tony Frank (middle) and AD Joe Parker (right). (Emmett McCarthy/Collegian)
Former CSU coach Sonny Lubick (left) with CSU President Dr. Tony Frank (middle) and AD Joe Parker (right). (Emmett McCarthy/Collegian.)

It had been eight years since he last coached a game — eight years since the last time he was publicly recognized at Hughes Stadium. That changed in 2015 under a new coach.

In Mike Bobo’s first season at the helm of the Rams, Bobo opened the door to Lubick, reaching out to him to let him know the opportunity was there to come around whenever he wished. During the offseason, Bobo also said Lubick would serve as an honorary captain for a game this season, and when Air Force came to town, Lubick got the call.

When Bobo made his request, answering the call still proved challenging for Lubick. But it all went smoothly. He spoke to the team before the Air Force game, a resounding 38-23 win over the eventual division champion, and was on the field for the coin toss.

“They had me come out for the coin toss, and I don’t need all that stuff,” Lubick said. “I’ve been out there for a thousand coin tosses.”

It wasn’t about the recognition on the field or flipping a coin — instead, Lubick said he appreciated the chance to give back to the team and the experience.

“I really liked that. You can tell when they really want you to do it, and I enjoyed that,” Lubick said.

For Bobo, Lubick was the perfect choice to speak to his team.

“He loves this University,” Bobo said. “You want people to talk to your team who have poured their lives into a place — Sonny Lubick is that. He bleeds green and gold, and I wanted him to share that with the team.”

Lubick said he sees a lot of himself in Bobo — more than a coach, but a genuine person who cares about his players and staff.

Bobo’s message to his team that day was that there are no perfections in life, no perfect team, no perfect play call, no perfect family. Yet, families always fight for each other and keep doing so.

In His Corner

It’s not every day that a coach sticks around after losing his job. Most times, when a coach gets sacked, the moving trucks are not far behind. Lubick wanted to face everything head-on instead of packing up his bags. He may no longer be the Rams’ head coach, but there’s no shame in that.

“It’s humiliating deep down, to be honest with you,” he said. “But I felt deep down that we did a pretty good job. I could sense that there were some in the community who wanted to get me fired, but there were a lot more who still had good feelings, and you can sense those things.”

Like everyone, Lubick harbors a few regrets, but stepping back, he remains proud of what he and his staff accomplished.

“All of us have to look for the positives. It’s easy to get caught up on the negatives,” Lubick said. “We all have successes and failures in our life, and if you just let one failure define you and kill you and knock you down, hell, you’d quit every time.

“You pick up, and you go.”

He did pick up, but he did not go.

And he has no regrets for remaining in Fort Collins. After all, he invested so much in the community (and continues to invest) that he did not want to break free of it.

That’s why he’s sitting in a leadership class at CSU, winding to a close with students offering the last bits of their observations of this semester.

One of the students speaks up:

“I’ve learned that it’s not about the money — it’s the people you are affecting and the giving. The money will take care of itself.”

Lubick really liked that one.

His coaching never ends, and he’s still winning.

Collegian Sports Reporter Eric Wolf can be reached at sports@collegian.com.