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No. 4 Notre Dame – Orange Bowl – “Opportunity Lost”

// Jan 1 - 1990

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Prelude to the 1990 Orange Bowl … Travel Plans

When I was an undergrad at Colorado, a number of my friends and I made a pact:

If Colorado ever made it to the Orange Bowl as Big Eight Champions, we would go to the game.

No matter when, no matter our circumstances, we would find a way to get there.  At the time, with the Buffs posting a series of records like 1-10, 2-8-1, and 3-8, there seemed to be little substance to the pledge.

A few short years later, though, the Buffs were going.  I envisioned a class reunion of sorts in Miami, catching up with friends not seen for several years.  Not only were the Buffs Big Eight champs, they were playing for the national championship.  Surely all of my football buddies of the early 1980’s, who had endured the carnage of the early years, would not miss the Orange Bowl.

Reality check.

Many of my friends from the early 80’s had, much to my chagrin, gotten a life.  I was still single, while many of my classmates had settled down with wives and children.  An excursion to Miami for them was just not in the cards.

Pact or no pact, few were planning on the trip.

Fortunately, Brad was also still single and also still singularly devoted to the Buffs’ cause.  The trip to the Washington game in Seattle, though, took up much of his discretionary funds, and so Brad made plans to drive with his brother to Miami from Colorado.  That’s right … drive.  Thousands of miles, virtually non-stop, Brad and his brother Lance headed south after Christmas.  Destination: Miami.

While my funds were not in any better shape than Brad’s, I had no choice but to fly.

After my experience, though, the drive did not seem like such a bad option.

High Flyer

One of those pact-breakers proved to be one of my old roommates, Charlie.  Charlie was working as a television reporter in Pocatello, Idaho.  Several hundred miles away, we made plane reservations for us to fly out of Idaho Falls, Idaho.  It was some 150 miles from Bozeman, but at least if we flew out of the same airport, we could fly to Miami together.  The weather was bad, and the roads to Idaho were all two-lane through canyons surrounding Yellowstone National Park were treacherous, but I made it.

Then Charlie backed out.

Flying to Miami alone on New Year’s Eve day, I had to travel first to Salt Lake City.  From there I flew to Cincinnati, then on to Atlanta.  I noticed early on that my connecting flight from Atlanta to Miami was a close one, and when we were delayed in Cincinnati, I started to panic.  New Year’s Eve in the Atlanta airport did not appeal to me in the least.

Arriving in Atlanta thirty minutes late, I rushed out of the plane (as much as one standing  behind dozens of other passengers, all of whom had packages in the overhead bins, could “rush”).  I hurried to the television screens to check on the status of my plane to Miami.

To find out that I no longer had to rush.

My plane to Miami was coming to Atlanta from New York, and, due to bad weather on the east coast, had not yet even left New York.  I would be stranded in Atlanta for at least the next three hours.  Visions of landing in Miami in the early evening, with plenty of time for New Year’s Eve revelry, were now gone.

By the time we left Atlanta, it was late.  There were only a handful of passengers who had tolerated the wait, so at least the service we received from the crew was excellent.  Brad, bless his heart, met the plane.  There we were, in the baggage claim of the Miami International Airport, at midnight.

Brad and I, Buff fans to the last, ushered in the decade of the 90’s waiting for luggage.

The new decade was not off to a great start for two of the Colorado faithful.  Hopefully, the first day of 1990 would be more hospitable for the Buffs.

Lou Holtz, “St. Sal”, and the media blitz

Colorado was relatively new to the scrutiny of the national media.  Not so Notre Dame, which had its own television network, NBC, to carry its games.  It came as a surprise, then, when Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz was caught on tape making disparaging remarks about his New Year’s Day opponent.  KCNC, a Denver television station, caught Holtz telling his team:

“Let me tell you what, they’re living a lie.  They’ve been living a lie all year …  They ain’t playing no Kansas State.”

Holtz quickly apologized, and both sides downplayed the comments.  Still, it was just another in a long series of criticisms faced by the Buffs all year.  Perhaps the worst came in an editorial in the November 7th edition of the Omaha World-Herald.  Written the week after Colorado defeated Nebraska to earn the right to play for the national championship, the editorial took the Buffs to task for its treatment of the death of Sal Aunese.  In calling Colorado’s dedication of its season, including keeping a plane seat empty for the trip to Oklahoma and sealing Aunese’s locker as a memorial, “an unseemly effort to hype his death.”  The editorial went on:

“What claims to secular canonization – St. Sal, as it were – could be made for Aunese? …  The Buffaloes might be good enough to have earned an Orange Bowl bid without their coaches’ exploiting the Aunese tragedy.  The way coach McCartney has played out this season, however, it will be hard for anyone to really know.”

Nothing had come easy for the 1989 Colorado Buffaloes.  Yet, as the nation looked on, the Buffs took the Orange Bowl field New Year’s night to complete the journey their fallen quarterback had asked them to take.

One more win for a perfect season and a national championship.

Orange Bowl – January 1, 1990       No. 4 Notre Dame 20, No. 1 Colorado 6

It was not meant to be.

After Colorado squandered several excellent scoring opportunities in the scoreless first half, Notre Dame took advantage of its chances in the second half.  The Fighting Irish posted two touchdowns in the third quarter before utilizing a time-draining fourth quarter scoring drive to seal a 21-6 win over the Buffs.  The Colorado offense, which had averaged over 40 points per contest during the regular season, could only muster one touchdown, a 39-yard run by Darian Hagan in the third quarter.

The Buffs had only themselves to blame after a first half which had given Colorado the chance to take an early lead:

– In the first quarter, Eric Bieniemy fumbled at the Notre Dame 15-yard line as he appeared to be on his way to a touchdown.

– In the second quarter, Colorado had a first-and-goal at the Notre Dame one-yard line but failed to score.  On first down, Bieniemy appeared to have dived in for a score, but the officials marked him just short.  On fourth down, Colorado attempted a fake field goal, but holder Jeff Campbell could not find his receiver, freshman linebacker Chad Brown, and the Buffs came up empty.  A missed chip shot field goal only 23 yards out (after Ken Culbertson had set a school-record eight straight field goals during the regular season) added to the Buffs’ frustration.

“I blew it, plan and simple”, said a distraught Bieniemy after the game.  “I blew two scoring opportunities I should’ve converted.  Basically, I blew the game.”

Notre Dame scored on each of its first two possessions of the third quarter, putting the Buffs down 14-0.  A spectacular 39-yard scamper by Darian Hagan pulled the Buffs to within 14-6 (the PAT was missed) to start the fourth (again, after a school-record streak – Culbertson had connected 66 consecutive times before the miss).

With Colorado threatening to take the momentum, Notre Dame demonstrated why it had won 23 of its previous 24 games, putting together a 17-play, 82-yard drive which took up almost nine minutes of the fourth quarter clock.  Fullback Anthony Johnson scored on a seven yard run to cap the drive, and the Buffs were down, 21-6, with only 1:32 left to play.  The game, and the dreams of a national title, were gone.

“It was a case of opportunities we didn’t capitalize on,” said Bill McCartney. “Any time you play a team as deep and talented as Notre Dame, you’re only going to get so many chances.  You’ve got to capitalize, and we didn’t.”

Notre Dame’s hopes of repeating as national champs, though, were being squashed 500 miles away in New Orleans.  While the Buffs and Irish played, Miami was defeating Alabama, 32-25, in the Sugar Bowl to give the Hurricanes the national title.  Notre Dame finished second, followed by Florida State. The Seminoles, which had begun 1989 0-2, finished the season with ten straight wins.  The Buffs fell to fourth place, Colorado’s highest final ranking since finishing 1971 ranked third.

Here is a YouTube video of the game, courtesy of CU at the Gamer Paul:

Opportunity Lost

In the stands, we were celebrating.  In the second tier of the Orange Bowl, we watched as Eric Bieniemy jumped over the pile for a Colorado score.  7-0, Colorado over Notre Dame.

The celebration was short-lived.

The officials didn’t see what Brad, an Orange Bowl crowd of over 81,000, a national television audience, and I all saw.  The officials declared that Bieniemy had not scored.  A botched fake field goal attempt a few plays later left the game in a scoreless tie.  Throw in Bieniemy’s first quarter fumble and a missed 23-yard field goal attempt by the normally reliable Ken Culbertson, and the lengthy halftime show (a staple for Orange Bowl contests) was not a celebratory as the Colorado faithful had envisioned.  When the second half began with two Notre Dame scores, the national championship slipped through the Buffs’ fingers.

It didn’t help that the crowd was fervently in favor of the Irish.  Notre Dame has a strong national following, to be sure, but the Miami residents, who hated the Irish more than any Buff fan, were now cheering every Notre Dame success.  As the game wore on, the game took on a surreal feel, as there would be loud cheers throughout the stadium, even with nothing happening down on the field.  Miami fans had brought radios and portable televisions to the Orange Bowl, but instead of watching the game before them, the Hurricane partisans were listening to and watching the Miami/Alabama Sugar Bowl.  Whenever Miami scored, cheers echoed through the old horseshoe.  For the teams on the field, who may have been in a huddle when the stadium went nuts, the interruptions had to be a distraction.  For the few thousand Buff fans in the stands, the noise only added to the disappointment of what we were witnessing.

After the game, there was little to console the Buff fans.  Colorado was 11-1, had been ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history, and were destined to finish in the top five nationally for only the second time in 100 years of football.  There was much to be proud of, but it was hard to look at the big picture.

The Colorado football program had caught lighting in a bottle in 1989.  How long would Colorado and its fans have to wait for another golden opportunity?  Another 100 years?

Try 365 days.

Final 1989 AP poll – January 2, 1990

1. Miami (39)

2. Notre Dame (19)

3. Florida State (2)

4. Colorado

5. Tennessee

6. Auburn

7. Michigan

8. USC

9. Alabama

10. Illinois

11. Nebraska

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