Despite a program that faced constant turnover and struggles on the field, Gus Handler developed and flourished in his time in Boulder. Handler was able to put together a senior season he could be proud of even if the team’s record did not reflect his own level of play.
Gus and I tackle a bevy of topics about his own career at Colorado, the struggles of the program and how he adjusted to all of the twists and turns. He also gives an inside look at the instate rivalry in Colorado from someone who was an outsider before playing in it. We also touch on topics including the flooding in Boulder and its impact on the community, his opinion on the battle being waged in his backyard and how much work goes into a college football player’s week.
Peter Smith: You played 830 out of 832 possible snaps this year.
Gus Handler: Yes.
PS: Do you remember the two snaps you missed?
GH: Yea, they were actually up at Washington. We were down late in the 4th quarter and we took a knee on both of them. It wasn’t up to me. It was up to my offensive line coach. It was the one time where I got pulled all year.
PS: From what I gather, you have family just about everywhere.
GH: Yea, Connecticut, New York, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Cleveland, pretty much the Midwest, East Coast.
PS: And on top of that, your family is not afraid to go just about anywhere for college. From you at Colorado to family at UCLA, St. Bonaventure, etc.
GH: My dad and family, they lived in Olean, New York where St. Bonaventure is. His dad got to coach Bob Lanier when he was at Bonaventure, but see my dad went to Valparaiso and played baseball and football and he was always told me and my brother, the farther away you go from home, the more you can grow up because you’re on your own and you really have to make a lot of decisions for yourself, so I think that helped out a lot.
PS: So how do you ultimately end up at Colorado?
GH: I had some nice schools, some nice offers from other schools, but ultimately when the Colorado coaches came to my school and came in to my house, and when I went to my official visit there, I felt the most at home. One thing my high school coach and my dad always told me was if football got taken away from you, the day you set foot on campus, would you be happy with the college you chose? And four and a half years later, I would say definitely, I would have loved going to Colorado as just a student.
PS: Who was the coach that recruited you?
GH: Brian Cabral. Brian Cabral was like my recruiting coach, he spent probably the most time with me and then the offensive line coach that was there when I originally committed was Jeff Grimes, who I know was the offensive line coach for Virginia Tech this past year.
PS: You’ve had three different head coaches in your time at Colorado. How has that affected your evolution as a player?
GH: Yea, three head coaches and four offensive line coaches. It’s been challenging just because every time you have a new coach comes in, you kinda have to go through almost a recruiting process again, but it’s been somewhat beneficial because I’ve had, like I said, four different line coaches, three different head coaches, three different strength coaches, it’s nice to take a little piece from each coach and apply it to your game. And if you look at the NFL now, very rarely do you see coaches and position coaches stay in one spot for a long time, so where as some guys go their whole four or five years in college with one coach, it helps you transition well to where you might any number of position coaches at the next level.
PS: How much has it changed in terms of going from gap to zone to combinations of both in terms of scheme?
GH: Yea, I mean it’s tough, because you get stretched around like a Stretch Armstrong. One person tells you, you gotta be this, another coach tells you, you’ve gotta be this, weigh this, weigh that, do a certain technique or a block like this, so it has its challenges, but there’s a little carryover too from each coach, but you just have to learn the different nuances that each coach expected.
PS: How difficult has it been with the depths of how low Colorado has gotten in recent years?
GH: It was tough, I mean because especially when I signed on, the ’08 class signed on, there was so much momentum going into the University of Colorado and obviously it didn’t pan out how everyone would have liked it, but I feel based on my circumstances, I made the most out of my time there, set myself up nicely to be successful in football and beyond. I graduated and I started three years, so regardless of the circumstances, I feel like I did a pretty good job of handling the commotion that went on around there.
PS: In spite of the fact, it does not look pretty from an outsider’s standpoint going 4-8 (1-8 in conference), do you feel like you guys got better this year? That you’re leaving the program in a better place than you found it?
GH: It’s tough to say because, like for example, when Coach (Jon) Embree got there, we went 3-9 and the next year showed so much promise. I think the thing people overlooked is that we graduated 25 or 26 seniors and the next year, we won one game. So, I know when you’re building, you just gotta take it year by year.
Last year, we won four games, our first game was against CSU (Colorado State) and they were having some struggles in the beginning of the season, we beat Central Arkansas and Charleston Southern who were 1-AA teams (FCS) and we beat Cal at home, so we had four wins, but I think next year and the year after will be the real years to prove if we’re really showing some promise and improvement.
PS: How big was the win against Colorado State in retrospect since they ultimately went to and won a Bowl game?
GH: In college, especially with 18, 19, 20, 21 year old kids, college football is such a game of emotion and a game of highs and lows and I think we caught them when they were kind of down and we were coming in, new coach, a lot of excitement and a lot of buildup and I think that showed. I mean that was a great win.
The year before, we went down to Denver and we lost that game. We were all pretty upset, especially for me being my senior year. It was a big game, because I went 3-2 against Colorado State in my career there, it was a big statement game and hats off to them for the year they had, especially beating Washington State in their bowl game.
PS: How big is that rivalry for the guys who get to play in it?
GH: I really didn’t understand it until I played in it and sort of got the culture of the game. Coming from Illinois, I was in Big Ten country, so kind of understanding those rivalries. In that state, you went to Colorado or you went to Colorado State. And the more I got out and, you know, sometimes I went to Rockies’ games in Denver and went sightseeing in Denver, I really understood that’s how that state is; either you’re a Ram or a Buffalo. There’s a lot of pride in between those two schools. There’s a lot of, I wouldn’t say hate, but there’s a lot of tension between being a Ram and a Buffalo. It’s a much bigger rivalry game than most people expect.
PS: How would you describe yourself as a center? How do you feel like you play the game?
GH: Like Is aid, I had to learn three different offenses, so I feel like I’m a very smart player. I feel like I’m good at getting people in the right spot. The more that I played and the more games I played in, I realized that centers are such a big piece of an offense because they literally set not only just the line, but the tight ends, running backs, and they tell the quarterback where he is getting his protection from.
I’d say I’m a very smart player and just an athletic player. I feel like as a center sometimes, because you’re stuck in between those two big guards and tackles, the athleticism kind of goes unnoticed. But I feel if you watch tape, getting out on screens and pulling, I’m a very athletic player.
And then third, pretty much like a mean streak. You always see offensive line coaches saying they want to see someone that plays with a mean streak. I feel like if you watch tape, I like to feel like I finish to the whistle, I finish guys, I give a little more at the end, I think that separates me from the rest of the guys.
PS: I imagine you get a lot of grief about being short and undersized. What did you ultimately weigh at your Pro Day?
GS: It was 295. It was kind of weird because I was out in California the whole time and the whole two months I was out there, I was consistently at 305. And then I don’t know what it was; maybe traveling, I don’t know exactly what it was, but I weighed 295 the day of my Pro Day. It was kind of weird. Right now, I’m back above 300, but my goal is to go into camp around 305lbs.
PS: Are you a pure zone center or do you feel like you can play in any scheme a team throws at you?
GH: Yea, I feel like I’m a very versatile player. Although I didn’t play guard in any games, but I played guard in practice; got a lot of reps there. I started 21 games at center, I feel like I could definitely make the switch to guard with very little hesitation.