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Friday, November 06, 2009

Buffalo Soldier


BOULDER — It snowed the night Brian Cabral fell in love with the University of Colorado.

It was the first time the native Hawaiian had seen the stuff. But over the next 30 years, he’d see plenty more storms in Boulder, of both the figurative and literal sense — yet he is one of the few constants the football program has enjoyed over that span.

“He was born to coach,” former CU football coach Bill McCartney said simply.

Cabral, the longtime Colorado linebackers coach known for his gentle-giant demeanor and Hawaiian flair, began coaching with the Buffs in 1989, following a decorated career as a Buffalo and NFL player. Over that 21-year span, Cabral has survived three coaching changes, a recruiting scandal and a 2-10 season. He’s also been a part of a national championship and four conference titles.

On Saturday, the 53-year-old will take part in his 300th game as a Buffalo — as a player and coach — when Texas A&M comes to Folsom Field.

It’s a number that even Cabral himself can’t fathom.

Influence and impact

Cabral is the first to admit that when he enrolled at Colorado in 1975, he wasn’t completely right, as a football player or as a man. But it took just a few meetings with freshman coach Dan Stavely for the turnaround to begin.

“A lot of it had to do with the Christian faith,” Cabral said. “He showed love and showed compassion, and he showed care and discipline.

“He showed me a lot of things that I evidently needed, that I was missing.”

It set the foundation for Cabral’s approach to coaching. He believes there’s no line between coach and mentor; the two are one and the same.

“To me, coaching is mentoring, and that’s what Dan Stavely did for me when I was a player,” Cabral said. “He was a mentor to me. That’s why I coach: to hopefully influence and impact a young man the way I was by my coach.”

Perhaps it’s why McCartney gushed when the subject of Cabral came up. The University of Colorado icon began spouting off descriptors typically reserved for clergymen.

“He’s humble. He’s gracious. He’s kind. He’s thoughtful. He listens. He has passion. He’s warm. He always smiles. He cares.”

McCartney went on and on.

“When you think about it, when you step away, all the things you like to have as a coach, you’d describe him,” McCartney added. “He’s the whole package.”

Current CU linebacker Marcus Burton is proof of that. Burton said Cabral was instrumental in helping him through a tough time in his life, pointing specifically to the 2007 season, when Burton was academically ineligible and facing his wife’s first pregnancy.

“He reached out to me, and I’ll appreciate that for the rest of my life,” Burton said. “He’d invite me over to his house, and he and his wife would mentor me.

“I owe a lot to him.”

Changes

During the first two coaching changes — when McCartney retired in 1994, and Rick Neuheisel’s departure in 1998 — Cabral never got too worried about where he stood at Colorado.

After all, he had previous relationships with Neuheisel and his successor, Gary Barnett, both of whom had coached with Cabral under McCartney. But when Barnett was fired amid raging controversy, Cabral began to doubt his future.

He’d never met Dan Hawkins and got only “30 seconds out the door” with the new head coach to plead his case for staying with the program.

“I just kind of assumed I was done here,” Cabral said. “To my surprise — in fact, it was Christmas — he called me and asked me to stay. I owe a lot to coach Hawkins, for keeping me without even knowing me and allowing me to coach the position that I know and I love.”

Hawkins said he knew plenty about Cabral and keeping him was an obvious choice. And it certainly helped that Cabral is one of the most respected linebacker coaches in the country, having coached three All-Americans and 10 NFL draft picks during his tenure.

“If you’re a linebacker and you’re looking for schools to go to, you’ve got to think about Colorado,” Burton said. “Penn State is another one, but coach Cabral is one of those cornerstone figures at this position in college. It’s his ability to take each guy — no matter where they’re from, no matter the demographic — and get them to come out of their shells and get them to play up to their potential.

“If you don’t know about him in high school, you’re missing something.”

Always a bridesmaid

On a few occasions over the past 20 years, Cabral’s name has surfaced for head coaching jobs around the country. He even took over as interim head coach at Colorado during Barnett’s suspension.

But while those opportunities have been few and far between, Cabral has seen colleagues come and go: Barnett and Neuheisel. Bob Simmons and Gerry DiNardo. Tom Cable and Karl Dorrell. The list of former CU assistants turned head coaches is long, yet Cabral remains a Buffalo.

Admittedly, he has been entrenched in Colorado. Cabral has had opportunities to leave, but he wanted to stay until his kids were all grown up, and the fact that he’s never been a coordinator at the college level remains the biggest strike against him.

But 300 might not be far from the end of Cabral’s run at CU. His youngest is about to graduate, and Cabral is not shy about his craving for a shot at a head coaching job.

“I do desire to be a head coach — at the right place and the right time,” Cabral said. “I just feel that I have the leadership capabilities, but it’s all about the right place and right time.

“I would cherish the opportunity to be a head coach somewhere, and I realize I’m going to have to leave here to accomplish that. But I believe I have a lot to offer.”

300

Underneath his trademark visor and mustache, a gigantic smile stretches across Cabral’s face when he reflects on his first recruiting trip to Boulder in the mid-1970s.

He’s won a Super Bowl (with the 1985 Chicago Bears) and a national championship (with the 1990 Buffaloes) and coached a Butkus Award winner (Matt Russell in 1996) — but all of that pales in comparison to that moment.

“I am a Buffalo,” he says. “I’ll never forget the first time I came here. It snowed the night I got in — I had never seen snow — and there were clear blue skies the next day and snow on the ground. I was walking around campus in a sweatshirt and literally fell in love with Colorado.

“My life was transformed here as a player, by the coaches and the university.”

Cabral has yet to comprehend the magnitude of 300 games (he didn’t know the milestone was approaching until someone informed him Monday). Perhaps those in attendance Saturday — the thousands of fans, coaches, his wife and children, all of whom he credits for his run — will help him realize it.

Then again, there’s a reason why “humble” was the first word that came to McCartney’s mind.

“More important, to me, is that we win that game,” Cabral said. “That’s far more important than 300 games.”

Justin Williams can be reached at jwilliams@times-call.com.

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