1990 – A Preview
How things looked in August
In 1989, Colorado broke the hold the “Big Two” had maintained over the rest of the Big Eight since 1976. In 1990, there would be plenty of competition for the Big Eight Champions from Boulder, both for conference and national honors. Back in the hunt for the national championship were many of the teams which had vied for the title in 1989. Defending national titleist Miami was the preseason pick by many to finish #1, while 1988 champ Notre Dame was the favorite of many others. There was also support for Michigan, Colorado, Florida State, and Auburn.
When the 1990 preseason Associated Press poll was released, Miami carried over its #1 ranking from the end of the previous season, but was far from a consensus choice. Miami received 24 first place votes, edging out No. 2 Notre Dame, which garnered the support of 22 voters. Others receiving support as the nation’s top team were preseason #3 Auburn (three first place votes), #4 Florida State (six votes), and #5 Colorado (four votes). The most curious vote for #1 went to Michigan State. The Spartans had finished 8-4 in 1989, and were placed in the top ten by only one other voter in the preseason tally. As a result, Michigan State began the 1990 campaign ranked 23rd (the Spartans would go to finish 8-3-1, ranked 16th in the final poll).
Colorado’s opponents for 1990 were sprinkled throughout the preseason poll. Colorado would open against No. 8 Tennessee in the Pigskin Classic. Up later were contests against 11th-ranked Illinois and 20th-rated Washington. The Big Eight would feature only two games against ranked opponents, 22nd-ranked Oklahoma at home and #7 Nebraska on the road. As the curtain was raised on the 1990 season, it appeared as if the Buffs could make it through the 1990 non-conference slate unscathed, that a run for the national title was again in the offing.
But that was a pretty large “if”.
There was nothing to do now but take on 1990 – and the pieces were in place to do just that.
Colorado returned 44 letterman from the 1989 squad, including 13 starters. In all, 21 players earned some form of post-season recognition at the end of the 1989 season, and 11 of those returned. Darian Hagan, the Buff quarterback who had become only the fifth player in NCAA history to pass and rush for over 1,000 yards in the same season, returned for his junior year. Eric Bieniemy, if he could stay healthy, was well on his way to breaking the school rushing record. The offensive line looked to be dominant, with consensus All-American guard Joe Garten joined by All-Big Eight tackle Mark Vander Poel. A concern as to the passing game was addressed when wingback Mike Pritchard moved out to the split end position. In short, there appeared there would be no drop off from an offense which had averaged 472.8 yards per game in 1989 (and, in doing so, smashed the school record by over 50 yards per game).
The defense also looked to be solid. The Houston bookends, outside linebackers Alfred Williams and Kanavis McGhee, returned. Williams had joined Garten and punter Tom Rouen as consensus All-Americans in 1989, and was already the school record holder for quarterback sacks. Junior Joel Steed was considered the best nose tackle in the Big Eight. The secondary was also a strength with three senior starters, as cornerbacks Dave McCloughan and David Gibbs returned to play alongside safety Tim James.
Head coach Bill McCartney could not help but be impressed with the talent he had assembled. “The strength of this team will be our senior class”, said McCartney as the 1990 season opened, noting the seniors “maturity, leadership, and talent.” A team which many prognosticators had predicted as being “a year away” before the 1989 season was now ready to take on the nation.
And the nation was out there, laying in wait.
“The schedule is particularly tough, no question about that,” understated McCartney. “We’re going to have to look at 1990 as two different seasons, the non-conference and the conference. We’ll have to regroup and take inventory after the non-conference schedule to see how we’ve come through it and re-identify our goals.”
There was also the question of motivation. 1989 had been a year dedicated to the memory of Sal Aunese, and McCartney and his players readily acknowledged that the loss of Aunese had been a motivational tool. The fire had only been fueled that much more when outsiders questioned whether the memorials, including the conversion of Aunese’s locker into something of a plexiglass shrine, were excessive. Before the battle with Nebraska, a Cornhusker linebacker had opined: “They can use Sal Aunese’s death anyway they want … They still have to strap it up and play football.” After Colorado defeated Nebraska, 27-21, an editorial in the Omaha World Herald flatly accused McCartney and Colorado of exploiting Aunese’s memory.
For 1990, there would have to be a different means of motivation. McCartney, though, pointed to the Omaha’s newspaper as an indication that the rivalry between Colorado and Nebraska, long sought by McCartney but just as long dismissed by Nebraska, had finally come into its own. “Now we have a rivalry,” said McCartney, referring to the editorial. “So much so that grown adults sit back and take shots … You can bet that when we go (to Lincoln) next year, yeah, we’ll have a rivalry.”
Colorado seemed to be properly motivated for “success after Sal”. The question now became one of whether there would be enough success to maintain the Buffs’ lofty national status.
One issue not in doubt for the Buffs as they entered fall camp, 1990 - the name of the head football coach. On July 26, 1990, Bill McCartney, who had finally reached the .500 mark in his career at Colorado midway through the 1989 season (McCartney entered the 1990 season with a 46-45-1 overall record), was given a “lifetime” contract. The 15-year contract (which as Buff fans were to discover later, had an out after five years) was the longest contract extension in Colorado’s athletic history. “I’m just delighted to have the contract,” said McCartney. “There are very few guys in coaching who get a chance to look beyond the foreseeable future. Our family couldn’t be more appreciative or excited.”