Birth of a Rivalry
After his team was dominated by the 9th-ranked Oregon Ducks, 45-2, head coach Jon Embree was asked what he told his younger players, forced into action due to injuries to over a score of players. “I told the team, that is what you want to be,” said Embree, pointing to the visiting locker room.” That team in that locker room over there, that is what you want to be.”
When Colorado head coach Chuck Fairbanks abruptly left Boulder for the USFL in May of 1982, there were few tears shed around the CU campus. After all, Fairbanks had posted a 7-26 record in his three years in Boulder, and done little to endear himself to the Buff Nation.
The worst part of the departure of Fairbanks was the timing. The recruiting Class of 1982 was already signed; spring practice concluded. It was not exactly the best time to go looking for a new head coach.
Colorado ultimately settled on a little known assistant coach, Bill McCartney, for its new coach. The defensive coordinator at Michigan, McCartney arrived in Boulder in June, 1982. Upon his arrival, McCartney not only found a team in disarray, he found – much to his surprise – a team without a rival. McCartney had played center at Missouri, a team which had a rivalry with Kansas which dated back to the Civil War. At Michigan, he coached a team which had not one, but three bitter rivals – Michigan State, Notre Dame, and Ohio State.
Colorado did not have an in-state rival (the Buffs had not played their little brothers to the north, the Rams of Colorado State, since 1958, and hadn’t played Air Force since 1974). There was no year-end rivalry game against a Big Eight opponent, either. The previous three seasons, the Buffs had finished the season against Kansas State, but Iowa State and Oklahoma State had also been recent year-end foes.
McCartney asked his players, staff, and boosters which team they would most like to beat, and the answer Coach Mac received was nearly unanimous … Nebraska. So McCartney decided that Nebraska, a team which the Buffs had not defeated in 13 years, and had crushed the Buffs a year earlier in Lincoln, 59-0, was to be the Buffs’ new rival.
McCartney chose Nebraska not only because of the Buff Nation’s loathing of the Crimson and Cream, but because of the way the Cornhusker program was run, and the success which was not only expected, but demanded, from the team.
Nervous laughter met McCartney’s announcement, but Coach Mac set about to turn his program into a worthy rival of Nebraska. It took Bill McCartney’s Buffs five tries before they defeated the Cornhuskers, but by McCartney’s eighth season, Colorado was not only the equal of Nebraska, but the equal of any other team in the nation.
While Nebraska and its fans would never acknowledge the rivalry, ABC and the rest of the nation did. When the Big 12 was formed, and the Nebraska/Oklahoma regular season finale was taken off the schedule, Nebraska and Colorado were chosen to be the featured Thanksgiving weekend showdown from the Big 12 North. Not Nebraska v. Kansas State, not Nebraska v. Missouri, but Nebraska v. Colorado.
That recognition was directly traceable to Bill McCartney’s bold move in 1982 to declare that Nebraska, despite all evidence to the contrary, should be Colorado’s rival.
So, who should be the Buffs’ new Pac-12 rival?
Fast forward to 2011. Colorado, which could have – should have – joined the Pac-12 in 1996. At the time, Colorado was a top ten team and had been ranked in every poll for the past seven seasons. Colorado could have been a real power in the Pac-12 from day one. Instead, Colorado limps into the Pac-12 conference as a bottom feeder, with little respect or appreciation.
And, just like in 1982, Colorado has a new head coach, and is in search of a rival.
Let’s look at the options:
Colorado State – Puh-lease. Even with some of the poorest teams in Colorado history over the past decade, the Buffs are 18-6 against the Rams since the series was resumed in 1983. With the new Pac-12 contracts, the disparity between the schools will likely only grow greater, both on and off the field;
Utah – This is the “rival” of necessity, with the other Pac-12 teams already locked into long-standing season-ending rivalry games against in-state opponents. The problem is that the Buffs and Utes have not played in almost half a century, and have little in the way of rivalry - unless you count the ski teams (both annually compete for the national title, with the Buffs taking national championship No. 19 last spring). When the Big 12 teams were paring up in 1996, the South had Oklahoma/Oklahoma State and Texas/Texas A&M year-end games already in place. Baylor and Texas Tech got stuck together because there was no one else left with which to dance. It feels the same with Colorado/Utah – its a forced marriage. Check back with me in a generation, and I may feel differently, but, for now, don’t have any reason to get excited about Colorado v. Utah;
Arizona/Arizona State – Colorado has never defeated Arizona State (0-2), but almost never loses to Arizona (12-1). Despite the relative proximity to the southwest schools, there is nothing there which screams “rivalry” about either of these teams;
USC – the choice of many CU fans as a rival. Thing is, though, that everyone hates USC. I see USC like I did Texas and Oklahoma in Big 12 play: A big game every season, but there is not enough mutual animosity to make this a rivalry. The Trojans have the Bruins and the Fighting Irish, in addition to all of its old Pac 8/10 foes, to contend with. The Buffs have to take a number in the line of teams which hate the Trojans;
UCLA – in some ways, the Bruins are a good fit for a rivalry, but I see UCLA as I did Kansas – I would love to beat them in basketball, but wins over the Bruins in football will not carry the same cache they will once former CU head coach Rick Neuheisel is gone, and players with connections to both CU and UCLA (Kia Maiava, Josh Smith, Tyler Embree, Joseph Fauria, Paul Richardson) have moved on;
Cal/Stanford – What Colorado has in common with these teams is a love/hate relationship between the schools and the athletic departments. Berkeley and Palo Alto, like Boulder, has elements in the community which take pride in thier indifference to their football programs. Stanford, despite the nation’s longest winning streak and longest run in the top ten in school history, has only recently begun selling out home games. Nationally, the term “rivalry” is almost always preceded by the word “intense”. I don’t see Colorado games with Cal and Stanford ever getting “intense”;
Washington State / Oregon State – The Cougars and Beavers are the only two teams in the Pac-12 with an all-time winning percentage below .500. The weak sisters of the bigger state programs (not uncommon in the west – See: Idaho/Idaho State; Utah/Utah State; Montana/Montana State; Colorado/Colorado State), Washington State and Oregon State will always play in the shadow of Washington and Oregon. Not great rivalry fodder;
Washington – Other than Oregon, the school which has the best fit for Colorado as a rival. The Huskies are similar to the Buffs in terms of history, support, resources, and national recognition. The thing is, even though the two teams have had some memorable games in the past two decades (the 1989/90 games between nationally ranked teams, both won by CU, and the 1999/2000 revenge games against Rick Neuheisel, both won by Washington), there seems to be a mutual respect between the programs. Besides, both sets of fans have a mutual dislike for Rick Neuheiesl. It’s much harder to be a rival with a friend …
Which leaves us with Oregon
Why should the Colorado Buffaloes, new to the Pac-12, take on Oregon as its new rival? The teams do not play in the same division, and so will only play each other four out of every six seasons. Oregon is enjoying its best run in school history; Colorado its worst. The teams have only played 16 games in their history, and, prior to 2011, hadn’t met in a regular season game since 1987.
How is Oregon a good fit as a rival?
First, there is a history. In the 16 games the two teams have played since 1949 (8-8), there have been some memorable moments. The two teams met four times in the 1950′s, with each team going 1-1 on enemy soil. The 1955 game (a 13-6 Colorado victory), it might interest you to know, was the first live sports event ever telecast from Eugene.
Colorado took three of four games in the 1960′s and 70′s, with the 1979 game in Boulder the first game ever shown (albeit on tape delay) by a fledging new network by the name of … ESPN.
The 1984 and 1985 games between the two schools were memorable for what took place both on and off the field. Both games came down to a defensive stand by Colorado. In 1984 in Eugene, the Duck offense was able to pull out the win, while in 1985, Mickey Pruitt sacked Oregon quarterback Chris Miller on a fourth-and-goal attempt to preserve a Colorado victory. The two games were also memorable because of the near fatal injury suffered by Colorado tight end Ed Reinhardt at the end of the 1984 game. For several days, it was uncertain whether Reinhardt would live, but the Colorado junior did survive. Colorado head coach Bill McCartney was so touched by the assistance rendered by the people of Eugene that several were invited guests at the 1985 game in Boulder.
Between 1987 and 2011, the two teams met three times, all in bowl games. In the 1996 Cotton Bowl, Colorado head coach Rick Neuheisel did not endear himself to Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti. Up 32- 6 with five minutes to play, Neuheisel called for a fake punt. First-year Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti gave a stern “no comment” about the play, but Neuheisel was quick to explain. “We faked the punt …. strictly because they were lined up to block the punt,” said the Buffs’ coach after the game. “And if you have been following Colorado football, we’ve had five of ‘em blocked.” Neuheisel concluded with an apology: “I apologize if there are any hard feelings.” The fake punt led to another touchdown, and a 38-6 Colorado victory.
Neuheisel got the best of Bellotti again a few years later, in the 1998 Aloha Bowl. Oregon came into the game ranked 21st in the nation, but, in what would prove to be Neuheisel’s last game before bolting for the Washington Huskies, the unranked Buffs prevailed, 51-43.
Oregon coach Mike Bellotti finally got a measure of revenge in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl. Both teams – No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Colorado – were snubbed for the Rose Bowl and the BCS national title game against Miami. Nebraska, despite not even winning its conference championship – or even a division title – was somehow picked to participate in the title game (where the Cornhuskers were crushed). Colorado, ranked 14th before upsetting No. 2 Nebraska and then No. 2 Texas in succession to end the regular season, didn’t have anything left in the tank for the No. 2 Ducks, with Oregon dominating the Buffs, 38-16.
So, there really is a history …
Second, the lesson from Bill McCartney. It would have been easy to choose fellow bottom feeder Kansas State as a rival in 1982. Instead, Coach Mac decided he wanted to take on the top dog, Nebraska. In so doing, McCartney elevated the program to national prominence.
Choosing Oregon would have the same affect.
No, Colorado will never have the money Oregon has at its disposal. Nike U – as was the case with Nebraska - will always have better facilities than Colorado. The new Pac-12 contracts, however, will level that off that advantage, at least to an extent. By getting all of the teams to agree to equal revenue sharing, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott infused a certain level of consistency around the league. It won’t be visible immediately – Colorado had to pay off Hawkins and his staff; then there is the lost revenue ($6.8 million) from CU buying itself out of the Big 12; and the reduced revenue in 2011 as Colorado is not a full participant in the last year of the old Pac-10 television contracts. Give it 4-5 years, though, and you will start to see the benefits of the new Pac-12 contracts. After all, you can only put so many big-screen televisions in the players’ lounge, and only add so many acres to the weight room, before you start to see the Law of Diminishing Returns kick in.
True, Colorado will be able to buy its way into the top ten like Oregon and Oklahoma State have, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen by a more traditional path.
Third, it’s personal. As many of you know, I turned 50 this month (see: “Reflections on Turning Fifty”). Lee and I have two grown children living in Portland. Both are married, and each has a young son. Between our kids and their spouses, there are two masters degrees and two doctorates, with diplomas from schools from Pitt to Portland State.
For my birthday, we Skyped with our family in Portland. In honor of my birthday, the kids set aside their own school histories, and donned the black-and-gold of the University of Colorado. Even our two grandsons – 18 months and 18 weeks – were decked out in Buff colors.
Oh, but there was one exception.
My son-in-law, Mac, was wearing the green-and-gold of his alma mater, Oregon.
Now, it bears stating that I love Mac very much. He is an excellent attorney, and is a great husband and father.
But really? On my 50th birthday? When everyone else in my family was wearing CU colors, Mac stayed with his green and gold.
Yes, it would be easier for Colorado to pick another team as a rival. Colorado will be on equal footing with Utah and UCLA much more quickly than it will be with Oregon. Lopsided defeats to the Ducks may be in the offing the next few seasons.
But it’s time to be patient.
If Colorado fails to win a Pac-12 game this year, it will be the first time since 1915 that the Colorado football program has finished last in conference play. If the Buffs post a losing record next season, it will be the seventh in succession, something that has not happened before in the 121-year history of the program. This down cycle is the exception, not the rule.
Over the past two seasons, Oregon has won more games than in any previous two years in its history. Over the past three years, the Ducks have posted more wins than any other three year cycle. Over the past four years - and the past five years - Oregon has registered more victories than any other four or five year period in school history. Oregon’s recent play is the exception, not the rule.
Amongst teams in the Pac-12, Colorado is fourth in terms of all-time winning percentage … Oregon is 10th.
Let the Ducks have their day. The Buffs’ days will come.
It made little sense for Bill McCartney to choose Nebraska as the Buffs’ main rival in 1982.
It makes little sense for the Buffs to choose Oregon as its Pac-12 rival in 2011.
But, by not settling for having a rivalry with Colorado State or Utah will make the Buffs’ return to prominence all the sweeter.
“Sometimes when you are in the middle of something like this, you can lose focus on the bigger picture and I want these younger guys to understand what the bigger picture is.” said Embree. “I want these young guys to understand about where we are going. Unfortunately, we have some growing pains that you never like to go through, but if they do it right and embrace it; they won’t have to go through it again.”