FORT COLLINS – Out here, beyond the stadium gates of Sonny Lubick Field, he’s a hero. A solider returned home. He can’t walk 10 feet without being mobbed by people wanting to shake his hand for 10 minutes.
“This is yours.”
Their message is always the same, and so is his response.
“You’re welcome. And thank you.”
With literally hundreds of fans at tailgate parties along Meridian Avenue, the scene repeats. Everyone wants the ear of the man responsible for bringing Colorado State a new football stadium before the venue’s grand opening. He’s polite, shakes every hand, but all he really wants to do is head up to his seat and watch some football. Because despite this project being his brainchild six years ago, Jack Graham, the former Rams athletic director who changed the landscape of CSU athletics with million-dollar coaching contracts and upgraded facilities, has never been inside his stadium.
He retains no formal association with CSU — he was fired in 2014 because his vision for the athletic department was no longer in line with that of university president Tony Frank – a year before the stadium broke ground. Now he’s a fan – not even a booster. A season-ticket holder and though season-ticket holders were offered behind-the-scenes tours of the stadium over the summer, he declined.
“To be honest, I think me going on a tour would have been a little awkward,” he said. “For everyone involved.”
After two hours of working his way through the crowd, he finally reached the west entrance of the stadium, opted not to take the elevator, and walked the six flights of stairs with his wife, Ginger, and daughter, Kaylee, up to their loge box high above the 30-yard line.
As he looked out across the $220 million beauty he conceived, his wife Ginger, with hair fitting of her name, latched onto his left arm and he smiled, speechless.
This stadium was Jack Graham’s baby, and he saw her for the first time Saturday morning.
How the stadium came about
There’s a common misconception regarding how Graham became the Rams’ athletic director. Legend has it that he sat at Hughes Stadium with Frank at the white-out game against Boise State in 2011 and first presented his vision for an on-campus football venue. Not true, Graham said.
Frank wasn’t the first person of authority Graham pitched. He originally met with then-athletic director Paul Kowalczyk in the fall of 2011, and it was Kowalczyk who decided afterward to set up a private meeting between Frank and Graham in the president’s office for the two to discuss the project in more detail, unaware of the repercussions.
Frank was a fan of the idea, to the extent that he wanted someone with the vision to see it through to lead his athletic department, and swiftly replaced Kowalczyk with Graham, a CSU booster who had no background in athletic administration or the public sector though he did play quarterback for the Rams in 1973 and ’74. (Frank and Kowlaczyk elected not to comment on this matter.)
“Around 2009, I started going to a bunch of football games and, frankly, was really disgusted by the level of performance I saw on the field. And I’m being specific to football right now,” Graham said. “Every sport matters, but the engine that drives the process is football.
“You have to get three things right at a university: Football, football, football. We were awful. Embarrassing, as a matter of fact. I thought the football program was diluted to hurting the reputation of the university.”
Graham lived up to his promise of fixing football at CSU. He hired Jim McElwain, a hot-shot offensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama, to coach the Rams less than a month after starting the job, and Mac led the Rams to a 22-16 record and two bowl berths in his three seasons. More importantly, Graham delivered a stadium. It was Frank and Joe Parker – who succeeded Graham as athletic director – who saw the project through, but had it not been for Graham’s vision, charisma and determination to breathe life into the program, he wouldn’t be standing here in awe of a sellout crowd.
Cool reception by CSU
Outside the gates, he’s a hero. Behind them, he’s still the fired athletic director; there’s a reason Graham didn’t put his name on the plaque that labels his box seats. During a four-hour football game, one in which the Rams beat Oregon State 58-27, former players and fans continued to thank him and ask for selfies, but only two CSU employees stopped by. And other than Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson, no outward-facing figure shook Graham’s hand.
It’s OK, Graham said. He didn’t expect official public recognition — following his termination, it wasn’t until August 2016 that Frank first openly acknowledged Graham’s efforts in the project. The relentless validation from his peers is enough.
“This is a special day. Seeing everyone who was involved in this project, seeing all of the fans and being able to thank them after finally seeing this thing come to life after six years, I’ll tell you what, it’s really special,” Graham said. “It really doesn’t bother me at all how many people have come up and interrupted me, so to speak, from watching the game, because their appreciation of this vision I had means so much to me.”
“OK, maybe it bothers me a little,” he added with a wink, noting he hadn’t been to a home game in more than two seasons. “I am a pretty big football fan and I want to watch us win.”
With every interception, he screamed. Every touchdown, he bellowed “boom!” At at almost no point Saturday was he not smiling as his skin changed from white to red in the afternoon sun. He was just another one of 37,583 fans at Sonny Lubick Field on Saturday with no special access or power.
Graham was a man in the stands watching football with his family at a stadium he just happened to be responsible for. And he’s loving this new life on this side of the field.