(Editor’s Note: This column appeared on Nov. 23, 2010 – the final week of Brian Cabral’s three-game stint as CU’s interim head coach. It also preceded the Buffs’ final trip to Lincoln to play Nebraska with both schools as members of the Big 12 Conference.)
BOULDER - Brian Cabral is uncertain what Christmas 2010 will bring for him and his family. But that's a month away and right now his full focus is elsewhere.
One thing you don't do in Cabral's company is fast-forward past this particular week. It is Thanksgiving Week in America, Big Red Week in Boulder. To celebrate both, Cabral is doing some of the things he does best - giving thanks and doing so humbly, sometimes tearfully.
If Bronze Stars were awarded for humility, Cabral's uniform would drip with them. If his wife's grocery list was printed in Black and Gold ink, he might tear up reading it. He wears his emotions on both sleeves.
Finality, or the prospect of it, is plentiful in this Thanksgiving season. Blessings also are in abundance for Cabral. But it is the final week of Colorado-Nebraska football for the foreseeable future, and he has a difficult time believing all that surrounds it can be recreated in a new conference.
For the early portion of Cabral's 26 years at CU - four as a player, 22 as an assistant coach - Nebraska wasn't close to what it would become. In his day, "Colorado was easily discouraged and defeated when we played Nebraska; it ain't the same anymore." As a result, this week has come to mean as much to Cabral as any seven-day period on the calendar.
Year 22 on the CU staff began with him in a familiar role - coaching the linebackers. It will end with him taking the Buffaloes - his Buffaloes - into Lincoln, Neb., on Thanksgiving Day to play the Cornhuskers the following afternoon. Where it all goes from Lincoln is anyone's guess. The Buffs are a win away from bowl eligibility, a loss away from uncertainty for Cabral and his staff.
He is in his third week as CU's interim head coach and he has made it known that removing the interim tag would suit him just fine. He has not campaigned for the head coaching job, preferring to focus on guiding his players through a three-week season that already has produced back-to-back Big 12 North Division wins. Two wins speak loudly, three would be a shout-out to the school. He is doing it in the only way he knows, force-feeding the Buffs much of the tradition established under his mentor, former CU coach Bill McCartney.
And for two weekends at least the Buffs have digested it well. If offensive players or assistant coaches didn't know all that much about the long-time defensive coach and what centers him, they do now.
He's as Colorado as the Flatirons.
A couple of days ago, a reporter asked offensive line coach Denver Johnson if the Buffs had been playing for Colorado or Cabral in their wins against Iowa State and Kansas State. Johnson laughed and answered, "No difference . . . they're one and the same."
Cabral's dream as a high school player in Hawai'i (Kailua) was to sign with Notre Dame, where his father was the first football player of their heritage. The Fighting Irish made early contact, but eventually cooled on him and left him "heartbroken . . . but God had a better plan for me and the Buffaloes."
CU stayed in the chase and signed him, although he couldn't differentiate Boulder from Fort Collins until he consulted a map on the long airplane trip from the islands. On the morning after his arrival, he awoke to the previous night's snow, grandly complemented by sunshine and blue skies.
"I fell in love," he recalled.
Nothing has changed; he cares as much about the school and its football tradition now as he did then. Maybe more. When players assembled at noon Monday for a brief but electric team meeting that outlined the week's overall goals, a poignant slogan - familiar to only a few - had been restored in the Dal Ward Athletic Center's auditorium.
"The Pride And Tradition Of The Colorado Buffaloes Will Never Be Entrusted To The Timid Or The Weak."
Before last weekend's win against Kansas State, Cabral went to work to get the bold "Mac-ism" reprinted high above the stage in the auditorium. It is back - and in a spot so prominent the Buffs can't help but notice as they prepare for their final trip to Nebraska before heading next season into the Pac-12 Conference.
Cabral has made trips to Lincoln for almost three decades, but his successful returns can be counted on three fingers, all as an assistant coach: 1990 (27-12), 2002 (28-13), 2004 (26-20). The post-game singing has made the most indelible memories. "Any time you sing that fight song in Lincoln - those are lasting and memorable moments," he said. "I've experienced a Super Bowl (1985 with the Chicago Bears). I've experienced a national championship (CU, 1990), and winning in Lincoln is just about as good as that."
If the Buffs succeed despite what the odds-makers are calling highly improbable and finish well (and in full voice) Friday, it might qualify as one of the grandest CU wins at Memorial Stadium. There have been only eight in 33 visits. It definitely would qualify as the high point in Cabral's interim coaching career, one that might lead to something bigger and more permanent.
But since he's been in the interim role, Cabral has not allowed himself to peek past Friday - not publicly, anyway. He will tell you, though, if asked, what the past three one have done for him.
"In the quiet moments, I think about the honor, the privilege I've had the last couple of weeks and this week," he said. "I represent every Buff that wore that helmet, every guy that put on black and gold . . . I'm living a dream right now.
"To be in this position and lead a team like this into a week like Nebraska and into a place like Lincoln, I'm so privileged, so blessed to have this opportunity. Where it goes from there, who knows? We'll see. That's out of my control. My goal, my purpose is this team, this game, this time. But I count it as a great joy to be where I am right now."
Following last Saturday's win over K-State, Cabral went to the coaching staff's usual post-game eatery - Pasta Jay's - and encountered what he called "a Who's Who in Colorado football . . . it was like a Colorado Hall of Fame celebration."
Former players such as Alfred Williams, Deion Figures, Chad Brown, Leonard Renfro, Charles Johnson and Darian Hagan were on hand to help him celebrate and wish him well this week. The reaction of former players has touched Cabral - "just to see them getting excited about the program again," he said. "They're all into it; they're very proud of this team, these players and what we've accomplished in the last two weeks."
The Buffs have accomplished what they have because of an uncanny, maybe even unimaginable buy-in that occurred nearly two months into the season. It was late for a rebirth, but Cabral managed it. He is quick to credit the players and assistant coaches, but the players and assistant coaches just as quickly turn it back toward Cabral, who explains it this way: "We've done exactly what we're capable of doing . . . we've been very capable all season."
One big difference over the past two weeks has been a stronger commitment to the running game, not abandoning it after a series or two when it appeared unproductive. Cabral cited CU history - winning the national championship in 1990, winning the Big 12 in 2001 - as examples of playing "common sense football . . . and that's what we need, that's what we've needed.
"We're talented enough to win games. We just have not made smart decisions coaching in that area. All we're doing (now) is giving ourselves a chance to win. You do that when you control the clock, and if you can run the ball, you've got something. If you're forced to be one-dimensional, it's a whole different game."
Another major difference over the past two weeks is even simpler - letting his coaches coach. "To me, that's leadership," Cabral said. "(It's) allowing guys around you to do what they're supposed to do . . . to do what they do best. I don't proclaim to have all the answers. I don't proclaim to be able to do it all. But I've got some guys around me who can; they've got answers. There's a lot they can do . . . and I trust these guys. I know our coaches and I believe in them."
With Nebraska's 9-6 loss last weekend at Texas A&M, Friday's game takes on major significance for the Cornhuskers. A win against the Buffs would make them North Division champions and send them to the Big 12 title game in their final Big 12 season. They, too, are leaving the conference, bound for the Big Ten in 2011. CU's goal is merely to get a sixth win, albeit a huge one, and become bowl eligible.
"I'm not concerned about the Big 12 race, a bowl or anything but this team playing Nebraska," Cabral said. "But I'm excited about seeing this team for another week, to see what we indeed can accomplish with another week. I'm so pleased and so happy for our team, our players, coaches, to where they've gotten us to. Yeah, big game . . . Lincoln, big game. But I'm excited to see how we progress, what step we take."
The steps Cabral has taken are evident to himself and those closest to him. Some assistant coaches might have questioned his immediate impact on the team, but no more. Just as former CU players have rallied around him, the current ones have played for him, reinforcing his sense of accomplishment.
If the past two weeks have taught him anything about himself as a head coach, he said it is, "That I can lead, I can inspire, I can make a difference. I've always known that about myself and that's why I say I'm in a position . . . if this goes nowhere, I can have the satisfaction of knowing that I've experienced everything I thought I was capable of doing and capable of being.
"To experience that and know that, if it doesn't go any farther, I've had a wonderful, wonderful experience."
In short, he's at peace. In fact, he was there long before any of this came up.