The glory years began with a vision, new uniforms, and an innovative offense built on variety, misdirection, a dual-threat quarterback and a punishing running game.
When the new coach was hired, he told reporters that more than anything he wanted his players to graduate and be student athletes. At his introductory press conference he said, “You achieve what you emphasize. Until you set specific goals, you’re liable to miss opportunities that come up along the way.”
He didn’t forecast an immediate turnaround. “I can only predict how [we] will play, with enthusiasm, togetherness and tenacity. Every single squad I coach here will be team-oriented.”
Black and gold glory days: Darian Hagan starts the attack in a 1989 game for the Colorado Buffaloes, the start of a run of Top Ten teams in Boulder.
He took over 94 days before the start of the season. The team had lost to its chief rival 14 years in a row, and had been 7-26 under the previous coach. They tried to hire Lavell Edwards, but he wasn’t leaving BYU.
It didn’t go smoothly at first. In Bill McCartney’s first three years at Colorado, the team struggled. Standout tight end Ed Reinhardt was paralyzed and in a coma after a loss to Oregon in 1984, a 1-10 season.
McCartney wanted to change the image and identity of the team, and it started with a change of colors. “A lot of alums had told me they hated the powder blue,” he explained. “They wanted the black jerseys back. We timed it up so that we could get the maximum impact from it. So it really came from guys who had played there who had worn the black and gold. We had warmed up in blue, and then came out in black, and the players were ecstatic. It jacked them up.”
They played Nebraska and Oklahoma close that season, but after three years, the coach was still 7-25-1.
Then in spring ball he installed a trendy new offense, a wishbone attack featuring quarterback Mark Hatcher and some shifty tailbacks. The team improved to 7-5 that year and made it to a bowl, 4-3 in league. McCartney was Big 8 Conference Coach of the Year.
The wide-open attack attracted better players. In 1986 they reeled to an 0-4 start but fought back to a 20-10 win over #3 Nebraska. Linebacker Barry Remington sealed it with an interception with six seconds to play. Fans rushed the field. School officials left the scoreboard on until Monday afternoon. At CU they called the game “The Turning Point.”
The defense held vaunted Nebraska to 123 yards on the ground. “The wishbone toughened up our defense,” McCartney explained. “Guys were pounding off the line of scrimmage because it’s an attack offense that creates a new line of scrimmage. The achievement was not how prolific on offense we were, but how we controlled the game on defense.”
They made a bowl that season, got shut out the next year year despite a 7-4 record. They were 8-4 in 1988 with a 20-17 loss to BYU in the Freedom Bowl.
In March of 1989, quarterback and inspiration leader Sal Aunese was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Speedy dual threat Darian Hagan was the next man up. In the season opener he beat Texas, breaking loose with a 75-yard run down to the two on the first play of the game.
Aunese watched from the pressbox as his friend and protege Hagan led a 38-7 victory over #10 Illinois in game three. A week later, Aunese died. He’d written his teammates a letter, closing with the phrase, “Bring Home the Orange Bowl.”
They beat Washington in game four, smacked Missouri 49-3, Iowa State 52-17, Kansas 49-17. Hagen was a revelation, on his way to becoming the 6th quarterback in NCAA history to rush for 1000 yards and pass for a 1000 (Nebraska’s Scott Frost would later become the 10th, in 1997). The potent offense was rolling, the Buffaloes a pounding blur of power and speed. McCartney had tweaked it a little, lining up his tailback deep behind the fullback and quarterback in something he called the “I-Bone,” but the foundation was the same as Oregon uses now: attack the defense, and make them defend fast, athletic players in space, creating confusion about where the ball was going to go. They had the beef to grind it out between tackles, and the speed to attack the edges. Hagan was always a threat to keep, or burn them deep if the back seven crowded the box.
The Buffs ran their 1989 record to 7-0 when they faced a road game in Norman against Oklahoma. On the plane, McCartney gave his team tee shirts that read, “Things have changed.”
Indeed they had. Colorado topped the Schooners for the first time in 13 years, 20-3.
“That was a milestone victory,” McCartney remembered to cubuffs.com. “That was a big thing to do to go to Norman and win. That was within a 2-year window when we won at Iowa, at Oklahoma, at Washington, at Texas, at Nebraska.”
“Those established us as a national power, because those were hard things to do. From there, we were able to sustain things for a while. Oklahoma wasn’t able to beat CU for 11 years; they had put 82 points on the board when Fairbanks was here. So for them not to beat us between 1989 and 1998 was a phenomenal achievement by this program.”
It’s similar to Oregon’s 9-year dominance of the Washington Huskies, and instructive about the way college football programs rise and fall.
A week after the landmark win over OU the Buffs faced an even bigger challenge. Nebraska. With both teams 8-0, #2 versus #3 in Boulder.
The Cornhuskers broke out to a 7-0 lead withen Gerry Gdowski hit Bryan Carpenter with a 51-yard td pass just 90 seconds into the game.
Hagan tied it with a brilliant option run. He sprinted down the left side for 30 yards, and when the defenders closed in he pitched to to J.J. Flannigan who ran another 40 for the score.
Hagan’s cool-handed run inspired the team and the crowd, and the Buffs led 27-21 with time for one more play. Gdowski back to throw the ball. He fires toward the end zone, and the pass is batted down by defensive back Dave McCloughan as the gun sounds. The fans rush the field at the end of another milestone win, and for the second time the athletic department and administration left the scoreboard on until Monday.
Atop the scoreboard the message read, “Things Have Changed.”
The Buffaloes ran their record to 11-0 with wins over Oklahoma State (41-17) and 59-11 over Kansas State. Against the Jayhawks they piled up 518 yards rushing.
But in the Orange Bowl with an undefeated season and a national championship at stake, they lost 21-6 to Raghib Ishmael and Notre Dame, squandering several chances to score in the first half.
The next year, though, they finished 11-1-1 after a rocky 1-1-1 start, winning their first-ever national championship with a 10-9 Orange Bowl victory over the Irish. Hagan tore his ACL late in the first, and reserve quarterback Charles Johnson came in to fuel the win. 5-7, 207-lb tailback Eric Bieniemy was the offense’s most dangerous weapon. He rushed for 1627 yards and 17 touchdowns during the year. Jay Leeuwenburg was a unanimous All-American at center.
1994 was McCartney’s last year before retiring at 54. That team featured one of the most potent offenses in NCAA history, with quarterback Kordell Stewart, Heisman Trophy winner Rahsaan Salaam at tailback, and 1000-yard receiver Michael Westbrook. They beat Michigan in The Big House on a 75-yard last second Hail Mary from Stewart to Westbrook, a play they call “The Miracle in Michigan.” Michigan rushed three and hung back deep. Stewart bought time, waited for his receivers to reach the goal line, heaved the ball 72 yards in the air. Assistant coach Rick Neuheisel called the play, McCartney said.
The next week they beat Texas 34-31 with a 24-yard field goal with six seconds to play. They smashed Oklahoma 45-7, dumped improving Kansas State 35-21. Nebraska came next, again match up of #2 versus #3. The Buffs didn’t complete a pass over 15 yards in the game as the Cornhuskers, the ’94 National Champs, won 24-7. McCartney’s squad rebounded with wins over Oklahoma State, Kansas and Iowa State, Salaam going over 2000 yards for the season in the game against the Hawkeyes. In the locker room McCartney announced he was retiring after the bowl.
Salaam won the Heisman, the Doak Walker and the Maxwell Awards. In all the team would have seven draft picks taken in the first two rounds, and ten selected overall. At the Fiesta Bowl the Buffs clubbed Notre Dame 41-24 to finish 3rd in the country The next day Neuheisel took over as coach after being hired in late November in a competition among four of McCartney’s assistants. He was a great interview, the athletic director said.
McCartney had planned his departure that way, to help recruiting. In his last 8 years as head coach the team had gone 78-15-4, the 4th-best record in the country
Neuheisel won a Cotton Bowl over Oregon in 1996, faking a punt with 1:11 left in the fourth quarter up 31-6. He bested Mike Bellotti again in the 1998 Aloha Bowl, 51-43. Colorado led 44-14 in the third quarter before the Ducks climbed back in it with late touchdowns, causing Bellotti to lament, “We didn’t lose. We just ran out of time.” Neuheisel famously retorted, “Scoreboard, baby.” A few weeks later he’d be named the new head coach at Washington. Athletic Director Barbara Hedges hired him for a salary of a million dollars, a fortune in the 1999 football economy.
Gary Barnett took over and had some initial success. The team met the Ducks again in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl, another match up of #2 versus #3, and the Ducks rode an 80-yard touchdown pass from Joey Harrington to Samie Parker and a spectacular touchdown run by Maurice Morris to a 38-16 victory.
Under Barnett the Buffs won four Big 12 North Division titles in five years, but got clubbed 70-3 by Vince Young and eventual champion Texas in the Conference Championship Game. The year before in 2004, Oklahoma delivered a 42-3 beatdown, outgaining them 498-46.
They’d lost two title games by a score of 100-6. In addition, the team had been rocked by a scandal involving rape allegations and the hiring of strippers and escort services during recruiting trips. Barnett stepped down five days after the loss to Texas.
Athletic director Mike Bohn hired Dan Hawkins from Boise State ten days later. He was 19-39 in Boulder, let go after three games in 2010. December of that year, the Buffs hired one of their own, former all-league tight end Jon Embree, an NFL player and coach, a former assistant under McCarthy. He went 4-21 in two years, fired after a 1-11 campaign in 2012, the worst season in school history.
At the height of their glory years in 1991, Colorado opened the Dal Ward Athletic Center, named for a former coach. It was a state of the art facility, 14.3 million dollars, 92,000 square feet. It featured academic and computer centers, sports medicine and weight training centers, a full-service kitchen and dining area, an auditorium, men’s and women’s lockerrooms, and a player’s lounge. In Barnett’s first year in 1999, they revamped Folsom Field, ripping out the AstroTurf and installing natural grass, a project that included bio-thermal heating, drainage, and a sub-air system, at a cost of $1.2 million.
The facilities arms race passed Colorado by. They made a couple of unfortunate coaching hires and had the school’s image tarnished by deplorable behavior and judgment. Over time the team lost its recruiting luster and the dynamic offense. The Buffs haven’t had a winning season since 2005, haven’t won a post season game since the Houston Bowl in 2004, haven’t been ranked since finishing 20th in 2002.
Programs rise and fall. There’s an old Basuto Proverb, quoted in a novel by Robert Ruark that says,”If a man does away with his traditional way of living and throws away his good customs, he had better first make certain that he has something of value to replace them.”
At Colorado leadership eroded, facilities decayed, and a spirit of excellence and innovation gave way to hasty decisions and making do. Today there aren’t enough players. They’ve lost the last two meetings with Oregon 45-2 and 70-14. Saturday’s game is likely to show the road back is long and difficult, a gap that is not measured merely in square footage and 40 times, but in the soul and direction of an entire organization and the community that supports it.
For the Ducks, the accumulation of talent, small decisions and patient action has led to a run of unparalleled achievement. They have money, style and success. At one time, Colorado did too.