From Bruin to Buffalo: Karl Dorrell’s return to the Pac-12

It’s been quite a journey for Colorado head football coach Karl Dorrell. As a coach, Dorrell, 56, has experienced the highs as well as the lows that often comes with his line of work. Being a coach is no small task. Coaching collegiate ball is next level stuff.

One moment you’re being celebrated by all those associated with your football program. In an instant (in this case a bad season or two) you can become a pariah and the most hated person in town. Being shown the door with your walking papers comes with the territory. Dorrell has been there and done that. 

He has served as the receivers coach for the University of Central Florida, offensive coordinator for Northern Arizona University, and passing game coordinator with Arizona State. But the California native is best known for his strong ties to the UCLA Bruins, his alma mater.  UCLA is the place where Dorrell got his first coaching gig.

Dorrell was recruited out of San Diego’s Helix High School to suit up and play for the Bruins between 1983-86, where he became one of the school’s top wide receivers and helped the Bruins to come up victorious in the Rose Bowl Game in 1982, 1983 and 1985. After a short NFL career, he entered the world of coaching. 

Dorrell’s coaching pathway began at UCLA as a graduate assistant coach before he eventually wound up taking the reins at his alma mater, being elected to become the team’s head coach at the end of the 2002 season.

Nov 14, 2020; Stanford, California, USA; Colorado Buffaloes head coach Karl Dorrell , center, watches his team take on the Stanford Cardinal during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

The Bruins made five bowl appearances during Dorrell’s stint as head coach between 2003-07. Dorrell also led the Bruins to a  Sun Bowl victory in 2005. Dorrell amassed a 43-27 overall record while at the helm of the UCLA football program. In his third season with the Bruins, UCLA went 10-2 and recorded a victory over Northwestern in the Sun Bowl and finished the year ranked No. 13 in the USA Today Coaches poll (No. 16 by the Associated Press). 

For the team’s performance that year, Dorrell was named the Pac-10 Conference co-Coach of the Year. In December 2007, Unfortunately for Dorrell, his cumulative success was not good enough. Dorrell was booted out of Westwood as UCLA decided to go into another direction for head coach of its football program. 

After being fired by the Bruins, Dorrell latched on with the NFL where he coached with the Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans, and New York Jets for the next decade. 

Now, Dorrell is making a comeback to the Pac-12 Conference. This time around, Dorrell is working as the head coach for the University of Colorado. Like his tenure at UCLA, Dorrell briefly spent time on the University of Colorado football coaching staff, serving as the wide receivers coach in 1992 and the offensive coordinator in 1995. 

“I want our players to aspire, to do great things,” Dorrell said at his introductory press conference. “And it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in the football arena. It can be in life. It can be in a number of different things that they have an interest in. That’s why it’s so important to know the people that you’re dealing with. Our culture is important. I was visiting with our support staff, our coaching staff, and the people in around our program…we have some work to do. We have to understand that with me at the position that I’m in, it’s important that we really get a chance to know our players, know them on an intimate level, that we understand how they tick, what needs to be done to prod them to be successful, both on the field and in the classroom.”

New CU football coach, Karl Dorrell, is introduced at a press conference in Boulder on February 24, 2020. (Cliff Grassmick/CU Athletics)

“I am excited that Karl Dorrell has agreed to become our head football coach,” Colorado athletic director Rick George said. “Karl has had great success as a college coach, both as a head coach and as an assistant, and he knows the Pac-12 Conference and West Coast well. It was important that our next coach have CU ties, and Karl has those ties having worked at CU twice previously. He will be a tremendous mentor and role model for our student-athletes, and he will provide great leadership for our program going forward.”

It was a hire that made sense for the Buffaloes. During the 1995 season, Dorrell’s offense ranked in the NCAA top 10 in scoring (36.9 points per game), total offense (486.6 yards per game, second-most in school history) and passing offense (297.2 yards per game). His ties to the university and passion for the Buffaloes meant the hiring was a match made in heaven. 

Shortly after it was announced that he was the new head football coach, Dorrell went out of his to selectively introduce himself to his players. At the time of his hire in February, Dorrell was working for the Dolphins as an assistant coach. During a Pac-12 Conference coaches Zoom webinar in May, Dorrell talked about the ice-breaking strategy he utilized to get more familiar with his players.

“You have to still build those relationships along the way,” Dorrell said. “I do select a group of players to try to reach out to every week on the team to have some specific information. Hello. What’s going on? How is school going? We just finished finals. We’re trying to get grades back from that. So, it was a lot of encouragement that I was telling most of the guys that I’ve been connecting with. The 10-minute meeting was just an icebreaker…just to kind of like, ‘I’m the new coach. We’re in this thing together.’ That sort of thing. Since the Zoom meetings, our coaches have done a great job with their meetings, but I’ve tried to pick off a few guys, here and there, just to create a connection so to speak.”

The coronavirus pandemic canceling athletics in the spring meant Dorrell would not get a proper chance to acquaint himself with the team, let alone properly evaluate their fitness and performance. But like other programs finding ways around the pandemic, Colorado accomplished their meetings and film study virtually. And Dorrell felt like the adaptation helped shape the program. 

“I know that we haven’t had a lot of time together and we haven’t had a lot of practices together,” Dorrell said during the Pac-12 Conference media day prior to the season opener. “But we’ve done enough work off the field to process the information being taught. Now we have to put it together to create a great product.”

The product that Dorrell and the program had been working on came out strongly on Nov. 7 in a big game against UCLA and upset the Bruins 48-42 in the season opener where the Bruins were favorites by one touchdown. Colorado put up 531 total yards of offense against the Bruins and caused six turnovers on defense. 

Karl Dorrell and the Colorado Buffaloes are averaging 482 yards of offense through their first two games this season. Photo by CU Athletics.

“We hung on,” Dorrell said after his team’s victory against UCLA. “Our guys found a way to win. Our guys found a way to score more points in the second when things got close; they got within seven. We found a way to just hang in there. It says a lot about this team. They didn’t give up. They kept fighting. They hung on for a victory, and I’m very proud of them.”

The irony of that matchup is that Dorrell’s very first game as the Bruins head coach back in 2003 was against Colorado.

“It was interesting. It’s almost like deja vu,” Dorrell said in his opening statements during the Pac-12 Conference media day Zoom call. “It’s the same similar process, but I’m on the other sidelines. It’s an interesting dynamic. I’m excited. It’s been quite a bit of time since that first time in 2003.”

Dorrell and the Buffaloes followed up the UCLA upset win with another huge victory over Stanford, defeating the Cardinals 35-32 on the road while putting up 433 yards of total offense. The team has opened up this season 2-0 in conference play, needing just one more win to tie last season’s win total and now find themselves facing the USC Trojans (3-0) in their upcoming game on Sunday. It will be a battle of undefeated teams that could have implications on the Pac-12 Conference South Division title. 

Last season, Colorado finished in fifth place with a 3-6 conference record, but this season is different. Dorrell has instilled a winning culture once again in the locker room of Colorado to go with a high flying offense, much like his days as an offensive coordinator. Colorado has never beaten USC in their history, owning an 0-14 record against the Trojans.

But Dorrell knows he can’t change history and is focusing on the game against the No. 18 ranked Trojans. 

“I look forward to the opportunity that is in front of us,” Dorrell said. “We get a chance to continue to make strides of getting a win this weekend and keeping our hopes alive about being part of the conference talk. I think that’s really what our mindset is, not necessarily the historical significance. It is really what’s in front of us right now and the opportunity we have.”

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