Sonny Lubick knows this as well as anyone. When he took the head coaching job at Colorado State a decade ago, the expectations were low. So low in fact, that a winning season was just fine thank you. Take the Rams to a Bowl game in the early 1990's, and they might throw a parade in your honor.
Times have changed in Ft. Collins, of course. Lubick and his coaching staff are responsible. "The bar has risen, and we have raised it," he admitted. That's both good and bad.
As they opened practice for the upcoming season - a season in which expectations for the Rams are higher than they've ever been - Lubick has warned his troops that "we can not get caught in the trap of the media, and all the expectations."
Lubick knows that his team, ranked 25th in the ESPN/USA Today Pre-Season Coached Poll, has a lot to live up to. The Rams are now perceived as a national player - maybe not a national championship contender, but most certainly a team at the next best level. A BCS Bowl game this season is not out of the question.
Like every team that can not rely purely on overwhelming talent, the Rams must play with a bit of an attitude if they're to reach these sky high expectations. In the past, that's not been a problem. Perceived in their own state a the ‘little brother' to CU, the Rams have always taken the Rodney Dangerfield, "we don't get no respect" card and played it to the hilt. Lubick just hopes they can still do that with everyone on the outside telling them how great they are before they even play a game.
"We've got to go out and play football," Lubick told the gathered media at CSU Media Day. "Last year (when they won their third Mountain West Conference title) is forgotten about."
Lubick tries to keep hold of the underdog, "us against the world" mantra by telling his players to "Remember who we are." Remember where the program was ten years ago, and remember all the hard work, dedication...and attitude that helped them collectively lift it to this point. The coach was very quick to remind his players about the start of the 1998 season, when the Rams (also given a good deal of pre-season accolades) traveled east to take on highly touted Michigan State in front of 65,000 hostile fans. CSU pulled a 23-16 upset win. A week later, the Rams, now feeling pretty good about themselves, were favored (as they will be this season) to beat CU in their annual match-up.
CU won 42-14.
Over the past four seasons, the Rams have done a much better job of grasping on to their coach's ideal. They've beaten CU three times, in addition to Virginia, Louisville, Southern Miss and BYU (twice). They've been a regular in the national rankings. In short, they've all but totally relinquished their underdog status.
"That's the way we like it," Lubick acknowledged. "We are not an average football team anymore. The players know that. We talk about what it takes to win a championship. It takes talent, but it takes more than that. It takes character. We've been fortunate enough to have that in our players and in our coaches."
Still, you get the sense that Lubick wishes he could return - just a bit - to the days where the outside expectations were more, well, down to earth.
"I was looking at this chart on the wall (with season-by-season records and results), and I had this sense of pride come over me," Lubick smiled. "Nine years of all winning seasons. We're there talking about some bad years where we were 8-4 or 7-5, and I'm sitting back thinking that heck, that's pretty darn good."
Not anymore, Coach.