There has rarely been a more dramatic turn around in modern college football history than the fortunes of the Colorado Buffaloes from 1984-1989. In five years the Buffaloes rose from the bottom of the collegiate football ranks (1984, 1-10) to the top (1989, 11-1).
The Buffaloes’ 1984 season was so bad that their single victory over Iowa State would have been lost if a Cyclone field goal kicker converted a 26-yard field goal at the end of the game. The kick went wide and Colorado salvaged what would be their only victory of the season. Additionally, the Buffaloes got kicked around in Steve Harvey’s whimsical newspaper column The Bottom Ten, where at one time during the 1984 season the Buffaloes rested at the top of the bottom.
That season was also clouded by a serious on-field injury to tight end Ed Reinhardt. In the season’s opening game against Michigan State, Reinhardt had set a school record for receptions in a single game when he caught 10 passes. The next week, after making a catch in the Oregon game in Eugene, Reinhardt was tackled and suffered a head injury that put him in a coma. Brain surgery was required to save his life.
After Reinhardt’s injury the team continued to struggle through the season. Big losses to Notre Dame (55-14), UCLA (33-16), Missouri (52-7) and even Kansas State were the final blows to a humiliating season that had very few highlights. For many universities this kind of season would have ended with the firing of the head coach, but athletic director Bill Marolt continued to have faith in coach Bill McCartney.
Marolt’s decision to stick with McCartney paid off five years later when the Buffaloes finished the regular season 11-0 and number one in AP-UPI polls.
This is how it happened.
This would be McCartney’s fourth season and time was running out to turn things around, so there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that drastic changes would have to be made. The most dramatic change was the installation of the wishbone offense. This run-oriented, ball-control strategy had propelled teams like Texas and Oklahoma into national power houses in the sixties and seventies, but it was a risky offense that required talented athletes with shifty moves and blazing speed. McCartney felt he had that talent with sophomores Mark Hatcher (QB), Anthony Weatherspoon (FB) and senior speedster Ron Brown (TB).
The season began with two victories over CSU and Oregon, then a loss to Ohio State. A big victory over Arizona (14-13 in Tucson) showed that the Buffs had definitely changed their ways. Then easy victories over Missouri and Iowa State gave then a 5-1 record. In Lincoln, Nebraska the Buffs took a 7-0 lead before losing 17-7, but for the first time in many years the Buffs were proving that they could play with giants like Nebraska without being humiliated.
At the end of the season the Buffs posted a 7-4 season and got an invitation to the Freedom Bowl where they took the Washington Huskies the distance before losing 20-17.
McCartney was awarded the Big 8 Coach of the Year award.
Season summary: The wishbone turned everything around for the offense. The 1984 season was a dismal 1-10, but this season saw the Buffs play Nebraska tough (17-7 loss in Lincoln), and return to a bowl for the first time since 1977. The Oregon and Arizona victories seemed to set the tone for the season. The final 7-5 record set up optimism for the upcoming season.
The team and their supporters sensed another excellent season, but the season got off to a rocky start when the first four games were lost. The losses came to Colorado State, Oregon (two points) and Ohio State and Arizona (by field goals).
The season’s highlight came with the defeat of Nebraska. This was the first time they had defeated the Cornhuskers since 1967. Coming into the game Nebraska (6-0) was rated number 3 in the nation and heavily favored to handle the Buffaloes’ young wishbone, but the Cornhuskers were soundly outplayed by the 2-4 Colorado team. When Colorado’s own Jeff Campbell, a walk-on freshman from Vail, scored the first six points of the game on a reverse, the upset was on. Fifth-year senior, and Boulder native, Barry Remington sealed the victory with an interception late in the game. It was a special moment for Remington who had been the victim of a freak accident earlier in the season when he accidentally had ammonia sprayed into one of his eyes. Though the accident affected his vision through the season, Remington, like the Buffaloes that day, was full of miraculous efforts.
The 20-10 victory inspired students to bring down both goal posts, and it kept the Buffaloes in the hunt for the Big 8 championship until they met the Sooners of Oklahoma. The Sooners easily won the match in Boulder, but by the end of the season the Buffaloes had impressed bowl scouts with their Big 8 play and secured a berth in the Bluebonnet Bowl against Baylor.
Season summary: After losing the first four games of the season the Buffs bounced back and became contenders for the league championship when they defeated Nebraska in Folsom for the first time since 1961.
Sixteen starters returned to make this team look strong on paper. Like the 1984 and 1986 opening games, the Oregon Ducks surprised the Buffs with an upset victory (10-7). The Ducks were led by Brent Musgrave of Grand Junction Colorado. Musgrave’s accurate passing style tore up the Buffs as well as several other teams that year.
CU struggled in the next three games but defeated Stanford, Washington State and CSU. Quarterback Hatcher’s ankle injury allowed sophomore Sal Aunese to take the controls in the Washington State game. From the beginning he ran with power and agility and threw the ball with better accuracy than Hatcher.
Oklahoma State veered the Buffs off their winning course as the Cowboys put on an impressive offensive display in Stillwater with speedsters Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders. Mike Gundy’s pin-point throwing made the margin 42-17.
An easy win against Kansas (35-10) set up an ESPN game in Norman against Oklahoma. The Buffs threatened early in the game but came away with only a pair of field goals. Nevertheless, with a 10-6 lead at halftime the Sooners were forced to play an excellent second half to win. The Sooners dominated the second half and once again the Buffs fell short of upsetting one of their Big Red foes.
But this was still a solid team as witnessed by easy wins over the next three Big 8 teams: ISU (42-10), Missouri (27-10) and KSU (41-10). The final game of the year was against Nebraska. With a 7-3 record the Buffs were not invited to any bowl so McCartney hyped this game as their bowl game. The game was televised by ESPN and was the first game at Folsom to be played under lights. The Buffs could only muster up a single touchdown as Nebraska dominated the entire game.
The season ended on a down note and was complicated by rumors that McCartney would take the head coach position at SMU. For a while it appeared that McCartney would accept the position to lead the SMU Mustangs who had been banned from football by the NCAA for two years due to serious infractions. But somehow CU President Gordon Gee and Athletic Director Bill Marolt persuaded McCartney to stay home.
Season summary: A 7-4 season did not yield a bowl but saw a positive trend to play tough teams like Nebraska and Oklahoma more competitively.
The Buffs looked forward to the 1988 season for more than one reason: Eric Bieniemy, J.J. Flannigan, Sal Aunese, Alfred Williams, Kanavis McGhee – and all would be eligible to return for 1989 season. Freshman Darian Hagan would challenge Marc Walters for the backup QB position.
The Opener pitted Fresno State against the Buffs. After a sluggish first half the Buffs coasted to an easy victory (45-3) and saw Hagan (runs of 11, 63, and 10 yards) take the team over seventy yards in the three plays for a final score. The Buffs traveled to Iowa City to take on the highly-touted Iowa Hawkeyes (picked in one national publication as number 1). The Buffs got off to a good start but got tied up at half time (14-14). By the fourth period the Hawkeyes had a 21-17 lead at the CU 7. A blindside hit by Dave McCloughan forced a fumble that was recovered by Alfred Williams at the Buff 15. Aunese led the Buffs to pay dirt with runs by Bieniemy and passes to Campbell.
Victories over Oregon State and CSU made the record a perfect 4-0 going into league play.
Oklahoma State came into Folsom undefeated. They went out undefeated due to the talent of QB Mike Gundy, Barry Sanders (who would win the Heisman) and tight end Hart Lee Dykes.
A Buff victory over KU set the stage for the 5-1 Buffs to meet the 8th ranked Sooners in an ESPN night game. The atmosphere was electrifying in Folsom on a balmy October night. The Sooners got off to an early lead but the Buffs played them evenly through the first three quarters. A 62-yard field goal at the end of the game went wide and the Sooners held on to a 17-14 win. But the Buffs wouldn’t lose another home game in 1989 or 1990.
Easy victories over Iowa State (24-14) and Missouri (45-8) set up a big showdown with Nebraska. Bieniemy ran one play the whole game and was hurt while fumbling the ball. A reverse to Campbell went awry to set the Buffs out of field goal range in the first half. J.J. Flannigan fumbled the ball when he was home-free for a touchdown. Though the offense sputtered the defense kept the Buffs in the game until the end when they loss 7-0.
The season was wrapped up with a 56-14 victory over Kansas State. The 8-3 Buffs were rumored to be a selection for the Gator Bowl to meet Georgia, but a deal had already been made to meet BYU in the Freedom Bowl. Though the Buffs were favored and held a lead in the third quarter they dropped the game to the Cougars 20-17. Aunese was pulled from the game in favor of Hagan. Hagan threw an interception that sealed the game for the Cougars. Aunese would never play for the Buffaloes again.
Season summary: An 8-4 season was ended on a disappointing note but the Buffs had been put through fire and had responded with a great game against Iowa and close losses to Nebraska and Oklahoma. The stage was set for the sensational 1989 season.
It did not take long to see that the 1989 season would be different from others. During the spring Sal Aunese was diagnosed as having inoperable stomach cancer. The team rallied around their fallen teammate. The opening game was against Texas in Folsom. Darian Hagan eliminated all doubts that he was an effective option quarterback on the second play from scrimmage as he scampered 72 yards to the Longhorn 3 yard line. The Buffs went on to win 27-6.
The CSU Rams took an early lead but fell 45-20. Illinois, a top ten rated team, came to Folsom and were pounded 38-7. The Buffs had an awesome offensive assault with Bieniemy, Flannigan and Hagan running and passing to Campbell and M.J. Nelson.
The death of Sal Aunese a week later set up an emotional game with Big Ten powerhouse Washington in Seattle. The game was well in hand by the mid-third quarter as the Buffs flexed their muscle both offensively and defensively. A 45-26 victory set up a perfect record for the upcoming Big 8 season.
Missouri, Iowa State and Kansas State all fell in succession, the Buffs racking up impressive scores (49-3, 52-17, 49-17). With a 7-0 record the Buffs would be tested by Oklahoma in Norman. The defense, led by Williams, McGhee and Jones, had an outstanding game by limiting the Sooners to three points. The victory was sealed when the Buffs recovered a Sooner fumble deep in Sooner territory. Hagan scored on a third and goal at the eight to ice the victory 20-3 and set up the big showdown against Nebraska in Folsom the next week.
The Huskers came into Folsom rated number 3 in the country. They were undefeated and had weapons on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Gdowski had impressed opponents with his passing and running ability. The Buffs were rated number 2 and wondered if their miracle season could last at least one more game. The game started rocky for the Buffs as a Hagan interception set up a Husker touchdown in the first quarter. The Buffs responded with a sensational Hagan pitch to J.J. Flannigan that sent J.J. down the sideline for a score to tie the game. At halftime the Buffs held a three-point lead. In the second half both defenses dug in and made it difficult to score. With a little over a minute in the game Tom Rouen punted the ball the Husker twelve. The Huskers, with no time outs, started their last drive that fell short. The Buffs won 27-21.
The Buffs then wrapped up a perfect season with victories over Oklahoma State (41-17) and Kansas State (59-11).
The Orange Bowl pitted number one ranked Colorado against number four-ranked Notre Dame. Colorado squandered several scoring opportunities in the first half. At halftime it was 0-0. The second half saw only one Colorado touchdown as Notre Dame pulled away to dash Colorado’s hopes of a national championship. The final score was 21-6.
Season summary: The perfect regular season was Colorado’s first in modern times. The Big 8 championship was their first since 1976 when they shared the crown with Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. Darian Hagan was fifth in the Heisman voting and Joe Garten and Tom Rouen were AP All-America selections. As Bill McCartney declared after the season: “As you know, this is only the beginning.”
In 1990, the Buffaloes would post an 11-1-1 record after defeating Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl 10-9. They were voted the number one team in the country by AP and a CNN-USA poll.