This Season in UNC History: Broncos Summer Training Camp
Recent UNC grads and diehard football fans may be aware of the fact that our university was the longtime host of the Denver Broncos’ summer training camp. What may surprise even the most well-informed Bear, however, is just how much history these two institutions share. The relationship between UNC and the Broncos began casually in 1982. The team moved their training camp venue here from CSU due to the quality of our facilities and the extra weeks of practice time permitted by the later start of our academic year. Initial agreements were tentative and contracts were negotiated in five year increments with the option for either party to withdraw if they felt that things weren’t working out. Evidently, both UNC and the Broncos were satisfied with the relationship that developed from this arrangement because the team spent their next 20 summers here practicing at Butler-Hancock, living in Lawrenson Hall, and dining at McCowen.
In 1983, one year after moving their training camp to UNC, the Broncos acquired a young quarterback named John Elway. You can see him utilizing our campus’s athletic facilities in this iconic Sports Illustrated photograph. Elway’s career with the Broncos, which ultimately yielded two consecutive Super Bowl victories, roughly corresponds to the period when the team was spending its summers at UNC. Coincidence? A secret blend of super-nutrients in the dining hall food? Whatever the cause, this was certainly a period of mutual prosperity for both institutions. In 1996, UNC Hall of Famer Tom Beck helped lead our Bears to a National Championship victory. The next summer, Beck returned to Greeley to take practice snaps next to some of his child heroes, having signed a contract with the Broncos alongside a slew of other promising recruits. The following season, John Elway finally got his long-coveted diamond ring.
While we’re hesitant to assign UNC too much credit for the Broncos’ Super Bowl successes (it was seriously all us, though) one thing we can state with certainty is that our 20 years together yielded a wide range of benefits to the community. Fans from around the region were able to come out to our campus in support of their favorite team and local merchants reported an uptick in sales as a result. Even the members of the sports press, typically an urban-based bunch, were grateful for the relative peace and quiet afforded by Greeley since it gave them time to get to know the new players and work out an angle for next season’s coverage. Larry Zimmer, who did KOA radio’s Broncos commentary for 26 years, explained, “It’s a bunch of new guys without numbers, and you always have to ask, ‘What will the story be?’”
Although many people at the time presumed that UNC’s motives for hosting the Broncos were primarily financial, the net profit was actually not that large after figuring in the costs for food, maintenance, and security. However, the prestige that came with being able to accommodate the needs of a major NFL franchise and the increased media attention that was drawn to the university were deemed to be well worth the investment. In 1985, commenting on the fact that both the Oilers and the Saints would be joining the Broncos in Greeley for pre-season scrimmages, Athletics Director Bob Oliver said, “(it) shows that not only are the Broncos satisfied with what they have here, they are satisfied enough to bring other teams here to benefit from the facilities. In all, UNC is the overall winner.” Nearly a decade later, in 1993, Wade Phillips had taken over as head coach and it was uncertain as to whether he would continue to hold the team’s training camp at our university. Nevertheless, Sue Jacobson, then the Interim Athletic Director, echoed her predecessor’s sentiment that our continued relationship would be a huge boon to UNC: “What they do is they bring a lot of good publicity to UNC as an institution and to Greeley as a town that really couldn’t be bought. You could put out all kinds of beautiful brochures, and it wouldn’t do nearly as much as the fact that Greeley is the home of the Broncos training camp.”
In 2003, a full two decades after they first came to Greeley, the Broncos moved their summer training camp to the Paul D. Bowlen Memorial Centre in Englewood, CO where it continues to be held to this day. Though their presence is undoubtedly missed by many local fans and summer session students, UNC and the Broncos will always be an important part of each other’s history.
Do you have any favorite memories or interesting photographs from the Broncos’ time at our institution? Tell us about them in the comments section or send us your images at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Photos from top to bottom, left to right: John Elway in his first season with the Broncos getting some advice from coach Dan Reeves during the team’s summer training camp at UNC, Broncos trainer and UNC alum Steve Antonopulos attends to player Randy Gradishar, the team chows down at McCowen Hall, UNC professor and administrator Alvin E. Barnhart speaks with an enthusiastic Broncos fan.)