It was Saturday night. The team was on the road, playing before a national television audience. The team had actually had recent success against its opponent, but the historical record was on the side of the home team.
It was a big game for both teams, but for different reasons. One had national title aspirations; the other was looking for respect.
The fan was pensive, concerned. In a word: nervous.
Of course I’m talking about my son-in-law, Mac, an Oregon alumnus and fan, who was nervous about his No. 1 Ducks going into the Los Angeles Coliseum to face the USC Trojans. Everyone in Portland was worried about the USC game, as every game when you’re the top ranked team is a potential pitfall. Every game can “end” a season. Every opponent is gunning for you. With the Trojans banned from bowl participation due to NCAA sanctions, this was the Trojans’ bowl game. Mac had every reason to be nervous.
I, on the other hand, was not.
There used to be a time when I could not eat before a CU game. I was so pent up with energy that there was no way I could keep down any food, much less a grease bomb from a tailgate or a stadium vendor. This Saturday, though, before the 7:15 p.m. kickoff against Oklahoma, I took my wife out for an early dinner – small consolation for my being surly and despondent the remainder of the weekend.
There was really no reason to be nervous about the Buffs against the Sooners. No one with an IQ above room temperature could make a rational argument for the stumbling Buffs to keep up with the high-powered Sooners. The only issues to be resolved were whether Colorado would score, and whether the Buffs could keep the Sooners under 50 points. That Colorado was successful on both counts was of little consequence. It was yet another loss on the road in the Dan Hawkins’ era.
This is the second time Buff fans have endured this long a drought without a winning season. Between 1979 and 1984, Colorado endured six consecutive losing seasons. Arriving in Boulder as a freshman in 1980, I lived through five of those.
This time for me, though, the drought is much different; much worse.
Because I know now it doesn’t have to be this way.
I did not grow up a Buff fan. When I came to Boulder, I was unaware that the Buffs had finished No. 3 in the nation in 1971 (behind only fellow Big Eight members Nebraska and Oklahoma, the only time three members from the same conference finished 1-2-3). I hadn’t heard that Colorado had been to the Orange Bowl as recently as 1976 (in that year, I was cheering on the hometown Bobcats, as Montana State won the Division II national championship).
Rather, my reality was that in the 1980 opener, the Buffs trailed UCLA 56-0 … at halftime. My very first home game as a Buff fans was a 49-7 loss to Indiana (with Lee Corso as the head coach. Lee Corso!), followed by a scathing Sports Illustrated article condemning Chuck Fairbanks and the CU administration for cutting “minor” sports like wrestling and baseball. The next home game was fun for us fans in stands … only because we wanted to see what the scoreboard would read if Oklahoma reached 100 points. The Sooners had to settle for an 82-42 victory, a track meet which set a number of school, conference, and national records. A home loss to Drake (Drake!) followed … and so on, and so on, and so on.
That was my introduction to Colorado football. What was there to be nervous about?
The 1-10 seasons in 1980 and 1984, though, made the rise to national prominence later in the decade all the sweeter. As Colorado became nationally relevant, so too did the outcome of each game. Contests against Oklahoma and Nebraska became yardsticks of progress. Defeats of Iowa State and the Kansas schools became anticipated; then expected. It was simply unacceptable to lose to a team with less talent, and every game in which the Buffs were favored became a potential trap. If Colorado were to become a conference or national champion, every game mattered.
I was always … always … nervous before a game.
Which makes the last five years all the harder to take. Yes, I have lived through a similar drought, the only other drought of losing seasons longer than the one Buff fans are currently enduring in the 120-year history of the program. Yet this is much worse, because I know better.
We used to do chants in the stands like, “That’s all right. That’s okay. You’ll all work for us someday!”. We relied on the mantra that it was the Colorado admissions policies which kept us from on field success, not our coaches or players.
But now I know better.
Colorado can compete at the highest level. Colorado can recruit the nation’s best players. Colorado can win championships.
Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt.
So, what will it take to get back to national relevance?
On the field, Bill McCartney turned the 1-10 Buffs in 1984 into 7-5 Buffs in 1985 by reverting to the wishbone offense. Such a drastic turn in offensive philosophy is not likely in 2011 (unless, of course, Mike Leach comes to Boulder). So it will take longer, especially with the difficult schedule the Buffs will face next season as a member of the new Pac-12.
Progress will have to come in slow, painfully slow, increments. There is talent on the roster, and there will be a huge senior class next season, which should help. After that, it will be up to the new coach to recruit quality players, selling them on the notion of instant playing time. There will have to be a renewed commitment from the University, both in terms of paying top dollar for top assistants, as well as in upgrading and maintaining top facilities. Colorado may not have started the arms race in terms of making college football a mulit-million dollar enterprise, but the Buffs cannot compete without recognizing the necessity of being competitive off the field as well as on.
Early in the second quarter of the Colorado/Oklahoma game, when the Buffs scored to make the score 13-3, I received a text message from my son-in-law. Mac, who was watching the Oregon/USC battle go back and forth from his home in Portland, noted,”CU and OR hanging in there”. Oregon would trade the lead with USC for much of the first half before pulling away in the second half to win going away, 51-31. Meanwhile, in Norman, Colorado would, shortly after I got Mac’s message, give up an 81-yard touchdown pass, have a punt blocked, and give up yet another touchdown pass just before half. A 13-3 game quickly deteriorated into a 29-3 halftime bulge and a 43-10 domination.
Mac was nervous for much of the Oregon/USC game. There was much on the line for the Ducks and their fans. Any loss could result in a “bad” season.
At the same time, all Buff fans have left to be nervous about is whether the team will finish the 2010 season on an eight game losing streak. Any win would be a “good” win at this point.
There is really no reason for Buff fans to be nervous the remainder of 2010. Mac, meanwhile, will be sweating out every game.
I would rather be nervous …