I spent much of the week leading up to the Washington State reminiscing about the 1980 season.
It wasn’t by choice that I was thinking back to my freshman year in Boulder. Rather, the Buffs actions on the field had taken me, involuntarily, back to one of the darkest periods in CU history.
The 69-14 beat down by Fresno State broke some records which had lasted over three decades. In the 1980 opener – my first game as a black-and-gold clad Buff fan – Colorado fell behind UCLA 56-0 … at halftime. That the Bruins failed to score the remainder of the game was on little consolation, as the tone had been set for the 1-10 season.
In the 1980 home opener, CU lost to Indiana (coached by – Heaven help us – Lee Corso), 49-7 … and then things got even worse. A scathing Sports Illustrated article about Chuck Fairbanks’ excesses in the wake of Colorado shutting down “minor sports” was followed up by another record-setting loss, this time in the epic 82-42 loss to Oklahoma. Then the Buffs lost to Drake for the second year in a row!
The humbling loss to Fresno State last week was a jolt back to the past. Not only were the Buffs beaten by the Bulldogs, and beaten badly, but the loss seemed to remove all hope for future success anytime in the foreseeable future.
In my despair, I harkened back to how, in the student section in 1980, the CU fight song had been re-written by disgruntled fans.
Fight CU down the field
CU must win
Fight, fight for victory
CU knows no defeat
So roll up that mighty score
Never give in
Shoulder to shoulder
We will fight! Fight! Fight, fight fight!
The fight song had been modified. The beer-enhanced student section bellowed out:
Fight CU down the field!
CU might win
Fight, fight for every yard
CU will know defeat
But do at least try to score
Never give in (until the 2nd half!)
Shoulder to Shoulder
We will try! Try! Try, try, try!
What was most discouraging for me this past week, and for many Buff fans after the Fresno State game, was not the placement atop the ESPN Bottom Ten, not the national ridicule placed upon the program, or even the ridiculous argument that the Pac-12 may have somehow made a mistake in taking Colorado into its league.
Rather, what had me most depressed was the reality that, as bad as Colorado had looked in its first three games, the worst was yet to come. Much more difficult opponents lay ahead on the calendar, and there was the feeling that the players had already checked out, on the season and on the coaching staff.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I will never call out a player for lack of effort. The time demands on a student-athlete are ridiculous. The toll we demand upon the bodies of 19-22 year olds, just for our amusement and bragging rights is archaic. Players want to win just as much – and yes, more – than any fan in the stands. This I do not question.
That being said, there are times when players, and teams, appear to be just going through the motions. The desire to win might be there, but the extra effort – 11 players swarming to the ball on defense; all 11 players in sync on offense - is not always present.
How would the Colorado football team react to the humbling loss to Fresno State?
It was a question that tormented me throughout the week.
Expectations were reduced to a minimum. The Buffs were a 20-point underdog to a team which had lost seven of its last eight games in 2011, and had struggled with the likes of Eastern Washington and UNLV. A victory over the Cougars was not demanded, just consistent play and a full 60 minutes of effort.
Little did we know, though, that the Buffs had a secret weapon.
No, it was not the individual meetings Jon Embree conducted with each player early this past week, though that certainly may have helped.
No, it wasn’t the placement of offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy down on the sidelines, though that certainly may have kept the Buff players from hanging their heads when Washington State went up 31-14 early in the fourth quarter.
Instead, it may have been a video put together by Jamie Guy and John Snelson.
As reported at cubuffs.com (the full story can be read here), Guy, director of sports video at CU, woke up earlier this week with the idea of using former players to tell a roster full of young players “what it means to be a Buff” and “what singing the fight song means to them.” Guy approached Embree, who immediately got on board and told Guy and his guys to get to work.
With help from Snelson, his top assistant, and student assistant Connor Cassidy, Guy got in touch with about a dozen former players, explained the project and asked for their help.
With such a young team and with a recent resume so short on success, Embree and his staff had believed the Buffs’ past was being lost. One assistant coach had talked earlier in the week of arriving in Boulder a couple of decades ago and having “the torch” passed on to him and his freshman class by former players such as Mickey Pruitt, David Tate and Eric McCarty.
When the current crop of freshmen arrived, not only was there no one to pass the torch, the flame had all but gone out. Guy sensed that, too. From about 9 a.m. Thursday to 6:30 a.m. Friday – in time for the team’s early afternoon departure to Spokane – he had contacted and interviewed former CU players from the 1960s (Estes Banks), the ’70s (Brian Cabral), the ’80s (Mike Marquez, Embree) and the ’90s (Eric Bieniemy, James Hill, Kanavis McGhee, Alfred Williams, Chad Brown, Charles Johnson, among others).
About three weeks of work was crammed into just over two days. And as Snelson applied the final editing touches early Friday morning after an all-nighter, it turned out that anymore time might have been unnecessary.
An emotional Brown spoke of what the Bill McCartney mantra – “The Pride And Tradition Of The Colorado Buffaloes Will Not Be Entrusted To The Timid Or The Weak” – means to him. Brown said he only needed to say, “The Pride . . .” to his 13-year-old son – and his boy would finish the sentence.
One of Brown’s most regretful memories as a Buff was when McCartney covered up the sign in the team’s auditorium because of a lackluster Saturday. “It hurt me to my core,” he said.
Bieniemy spoke passionately and it turned out, prophetically, of what it means to be a Buff: “You’re going to get knocked down. Are you willing to stand up and get knocked down again? It’s not what you do in the first and second rounds, it’s what happens in rounds 14 and 15.”
This came from Marquez: “You’ll have fans and family behind you, but nobody will be behind you like former players.”
The current Buffs watched the video and were moved. “It meant everything . . . I started tearing up,” said junior defensive back Parker Orms. “This program means so much to so many people, me and my family. It always has. I’m just glad these guys got an opportunity to sing the fight song (Saturday) and know what that means, know what it feels like. The locker room was the greatest since I’ve been here.”
“It gave me chills, honestly,” Webb said of the video. “We don’t take that legacy lightly. After seeing that, I think some of the freshmen really got a sense of what this place is about.”
Count freshman tailback/fullback Christian Powell among them. He called the video “personal. Everybody who was interviewed, that came from the heart. It was very inspirational and I think it carried over to today.”
Embree had no doubt that it did: “It was huge,” he said.
There is no question that college football is a game of emotion. How else can you explain the upsets which take place every Saturday? Certainly, the top teams get the top players, and win more than their fair share of games on skill alone. Still, every game starts out 0-0. Every weekend is an opportunity for a fresh start.
I toyed with several options for this week’s essay. “Smoke and Mirrors” would have been a play on all of the smoke from northwest fires which I had to drive through to get to Pullman, and the surprising way in which Colorado scored 21 points in the final seven minutes.
“At least now there is hope” was another option for this week’s essay theme. Brad, early in the fourth quarter, when it appeared that the Buffs had shown at least enough resolve to make the final score respectable, sent me a text with those exact words.
Both would have been appropriate.
But playing off of the CU fight song – “Never Give In!” – was the better choice.
The Colorado football team, its coaches and players, fought through a barrier this week. It wasn’t enough that the Buff players and coaches were all saying the right things. It wasn’t enough that the CU administration gave head coach Jon Embree votes of confidence. It wasn’t enough that former head coach Bill McCartney felt the need to come to the Tuesday press conference to rally the troops.
It had to be shown on the scoreboard.
Whether the video made the difference, we will never know for certain.
All we do know for certain is that this Buff team did not give up.
It did not give in.