Bzdelik signs 5-year deal with Buffaloes

Updated: April 4, 2007, 7:42 PM ET
Associated Press

BOULDER, Colo. -- A fading, mostly empty arena. The likes of Bob Knight and Bill Self to compete against on the hardwood and along the recruiting trail. A program with no real history of success or much support.

Bring it all on, declared Jeff Bzdelik.

He left Air Force to take over as basketball coach at the University of Colorado on Wednesday, the latest in a series of career challenges he's undertaken up and down the Rocky Mountain front range.

Closer Look: Jeff Bzdelik's Record
Jeff Bzdelik

Jeff Bzdelik has enjoyed great success at Air Force, taking the academy to new heights. Before coaching in Division I college basketball, he was 73-119 in 2½ seasons with the NBA's Denver Nuggets.

School Years Overall NCAAs
UMBC 1987-88 25-31 None
Air Force 2006-07 50-16 0-1

"I get excited by great, great challenges," said Bzdelik, who was 50-16 at Air Force after a 2-year stint as coach of the Denver Nuggets, whom he led to the playoffs for the first time in a decade in 2004.

"When somebody said to me, 'You're never going to win there,' I'm kind of a sicko with that," Bzdelik said. "It's kind of like with the Nuggets: 'You're never going to make the playoffs.' Hey, we did it in one year."

Similarly, he was admonished not to schedule heavyweights at Air Force, warnings that only drove him to do exactly that, and the Falcons flourished.

Now, his biggest challenge yet.

"Maybe we can't" turn it around, Bzdelik said. "Maybe I don't [succeed]. Maybe I fail. But I want to try."

The 54-year-old Bzdelik replaces Ricardo Patton, who went 7-20 in his 11th and final season in Boulder.

In his first season at Air Force, Bzdelik led the Falcons to the best record (24-7) in the program's 50-year history and an NCAA tournament bid. This year, they won a school-record 26 games and reached the NIT semifinals.

"And now here's an opportunity in my own backyard, and it's the ultimate opportunity," Bzdelik said. "The Big 12 is intimidating and the inconsistency of the tradition here, well, it is what it is. Now, with renewed commitment to facilities and excitement and dynamic leadership, can we now move it up the ladder? That excites me."

Bzdelik signed a five-year deal worth $750,000 annually plus incentives. Athletic director Mike Bohn also promised him that the school would seek funding to build a new practice facility next to the basketball arena.

Bzdelik said he agonized over leaving the academy, where he met with the players late Tuesday and told them he was waffling about his future. He later called his captains to tell them he was leaving.

"I struggled with this, I did," Bzdelik said.

Air Force athletic director Hans Meuh said the players were angry about Bzdelik's departure, but junior Tim Anderson said the players might be disappointed but understood why he left.

"I don't think any of us were angry," Anderson said. "I'm not angry with him. I believe him when he said it was a hard decision and he couldn't really decide either way. ... He said it was the toughest decision he's ever made, and so I believe him."

Ultimately, Bzdelik said he figured he took the academy as far as he could and that Colorado presented an unparalleled opportunity to right a foundering program.

"I love the Air Force Academy. I love Colorado," Bzdelik said. "I am very blessed I had two great, great opportunities here in a state that I love. My family loves the state. I had other schools call me. I just told them flat-out no as soon as I took the phone call."

Mueh said the academy did everything it could to keep Bzdelik, who earned $315,000 last year, but Air Force simply couldn't compete financially with the bigger state school.

So, Air Force is left looking for its third basketball coach in four years. Meuh, who said he hoped to make a hire within two weeks, said, "The field is wide open. I'm looking for anybody that can sustain this program."

How important will loyalty be?

"That's a great question. Loyalty will be very important," Meuh said. "But, I'm also smart enough to know -- and I'm getting smarter every day -- that in this business, it is what it is. I'm afraid that the only way these days that an institution can protect itself from having other schools lure away their coaches is to put in a $1 million buyout clause, and I think I'm going to do that in the next few contracts."

Actually, those buyouts are part of the contract negotiations and such a high payout could crimp the field of candidates.

Colorado paid Air Force a $270,000 buyout to hire away Bzdelik, whose buyout at CU ranges from $750,000 in the first two years of his deal to $500,000 in the final three years, figures that would be waived if CU fails to break ground on the promised practice facility by 2010.

Buffaloes players were eager for their first workout on Friday under Bzdelik and his Princeton-style offense, which sophomore Xavier Silas thought would be a good fit at Colorado.

"Seeing what he's done at Air Force, I think that it's a great style of play for us, a lot of backdoor cuts, movement, a lot of screens and very unselfish basketball," concurred sophomore Sean Kowal.

With coaching jobs at Air Force and in the NBA, Bzdelik has little experience recruiting, but he said that won't be a hindrance because his NBA experience will be a selling point for recruits hoping to one day go pro.

"I can do something that other coaches can't when I go into a home. I can tell them what it takes to play in the NBA," Bzdelik said.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press