1989 – Things Have Changed
For every college football team, spring is a time for optimism. No team has sustained a defeat; the opportunity for a successful fall campaign is there for the taking. Hard work, team unity, and a little luck is seemingly all that is required for success. Of course, optimism takes different forms depending on the results of previous season.
For those teams which competed for the national championship in 1988, the spring of 1989 was a time to find that missing piece of the puzzle; an opportunity to hone skills for the championship drive. For teams at the opposite end of the spectrum, such as the eighteen teams with new head coaches for 1989, the spring represented a fresh start. This was no truer anywhere than at Southern Methodist University, where the Mustangs were starting over after receiving the death penalty from the NCAA, forcing the cancellation of the program for 1987 and 1988. In Dallas, optimism was simply having a team to cheer for, hoping for a win or two from a team which could boast only three players who had ever played a down of college football. [SMU did manage two wins in 1989 - over Connecticut and North Texas].
Other teams, such as the one fielded by the University of Colorado, optimism was the catch word of the day. No fewer than 18 starters returned from the 1988 squad which had posted an 8-4 record, the school’s best since 1976. “We have the makings of a very good team,” said head coach Bill McCartney. “There is good competition at several positions, and better balance all around. This squad also promises to have good senior representation and leadership, yet is still a relatively young team.”
There were dents in the armor. There were questions of depth in several areas. Then there was the distraction of a scathing Sports Illustrated article about the program, condemning the arrests of several CU players and a perceived lack of discipline amongst Colorado athletes, leaving a black cloud looming over Boulder. Finally, there was a difficult non-conference schedule to address, featuring two likely top-20 teams, Illinois and Washington.
And then the roof fell in.
On March 29, 1989, Bill McCartney received a call from team trainer and director of sports medicine, Dave Burton. The call confirmed the worst.
Sal Aunese, the Buffs’ starting quarterback, had cancer.
Sal Aunese had been diagnosed with a radical form of stomach cancer. Burton informed McCartney that the cancer was inoperable, and was almost always fatal. The oncologist in Denver feared that Aunese might not survive the week. Chemotherapy began almost immediately, and Aunese’s condition improved slightly.
A week later spring practice began. At its conclusion, on April 29th, the spring game was conducted. A crowd of 13,642, the most ever for a Colorado spring game until 2008, attended. So too did Aunese, weak from chemotherapy, but still able to stand upright on the field. One of most poignant moments in CU football history took place after the game as the football team huddled around their weakened quarterback.
Aunese continued his struggle throughout the spring and summer, never conceding anything to his disease, even attempting to return to classes. The cancer spread, however, and began affecting Aunese’s lungs. The question was no longer one of whether Aunese would succumb to the cancer, it was now only a matter of when.
Losing a healthy young leader was difficult enough. The media, though, would not make matters any easier. In April, less than a month after Aunese’s diagnosis, and while spring practice was ongoing, Bill McCartney’s daughter, Kristy, gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Timothy Christopher. T.C., as he was called, was the son of Kristy McCartney and Sal Aunese. On August 30th, the week before the season opener against Texas, a Denver tabloid, Westword, came out with the story. The headline gives the slant of the report:
“That Sinning Season: CU Coach Bill McCartney keeps the faith – and gets a grandson fathered by his star quarterback”
All this as Colorado was about to embark on one its most successful season in the school’s 100-year history.
Spring optimism, the residue of a successful 1988 season, was long forgotten.
It was hard to be optimistic.
Here is a YouTube video about Sal:
Darian Hagan remembers Sal …
Preseason – 1989
All off-field distractions aside, the 1989 edition of the Colorado Buffaloes seemed to be one of the strongest in years. Darian Hagan would step in at quarterback for Aunese, with the task of keeping the Buffs’ high-powered offense purring. Returning were tailbacks Eric Bieniemy, J.J. Flannigan, and O.C. Oliver. Bieniemy was the nation’s sixth-leading rusher in ‘88, and even more was expected in ‘89.
The defense was led by bookends at outside linebackers, Alfred Williams and Kanavis McGhee. “They are two veteran, talented kids who have wonderful potential,” gushed McCartney of his All-American candidates. “There’s no telling how good they’re going to be because they keep getting better.” Special teams were also a strength. Colorado led the nation in net punting from 1985-88, with Barry Helton twice receiving All-American recognition, followed by Keith English in ‘88. Now it was up to transfer Tom Rouen to continue the tradition. Ken Culbertson, who had connected on 6-11 field goals and 19-20 extra points in 1988, returned as the Buffs’ kicker.
With games against Texas, in-state rival Colorado State, Illinois, and Washington filling the non-conference plate before Big Eight play was to begin, the Buffs’ knew that a fast start against tough competition would be essential if national attention was to be expected. After spending all of one week in the Associated Press poll in 1988, there was reason to believe that the ‘89 Buffs would begin the season ranked, which hadn’t occurred since 1977. The preseason magazines were split. Some, such as Football Digest and Football Action, did not rank Colorado in their preseason top 20. Others, though, had a different view. The Sporting News, while giving its nod to Nebraska as the top team in the nation, ranked the Buffs 8th.
The final say went to the writers who contributed to the AP poll. In their opinion, the Colorado Buffs were the 14th-best team in the nation. Michigan received the nod as the preseason #1, followed closely by defending national champion Notre Dame. “I don’t care about all that”, said Michigan’s head coach Bo Schembechler. “Of course, we may or may not be that good.” Michigan would have its chance to find out, facing #2 Notre Dame on September 16th.
In all, six teams received first place votes in the pre-season AP poll. Michigan had 23, followed by Notre Dame with 20. The top two were followed by third-ranked Nebraska (10 first place votes); Miami (4); USC (1); and Florida State (2). Oklahoma was the only other Big Eight team other than Nebraska and Colorado to find a spot in the poll, coming in just behind the Buffs at #15. Illinois, the Buffs’ third opponent, received a preseason rank of #22 in the AP rankings, expanded for the first time in 1989 to include the top 25 teams.
The news was even better in the USA Today/CNN coaches poll, where the Buffs were ranked #12 (Notre Dame out-polled Michigan in this poll as the #1 preseason favorite). The preseason ranking was heady stuff for the Buffs, but there was no time to enjoy the lofty status. Up first was a team with a great tradition, Texas, which was looking to make an early impression of its own.