CU at the Game – Background for 1980


A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” – Winston Churchill

Before winding the clock all the way back to 1980, we first need to make a brief stop in September, 1985. It was then, without knowing it at the time, that I acquired what would become the symbol of my “fanaticism” for Colorado football.

It remains in my dresser drawer to this day. It is my proof of purchase, if you will, for demonstrating my “belief without evidence” in the Buffs. (“Belief without evidence” was a catch phrase Northwestern head coach -and future CU head coach – Gary Barnett would use to inspire his players during the Wildcats improbable run from doormats to the Big 10 Championship in 1995).

In September, 1985, it served as little more than an advertising ploy, a means by which the Coors Brewing Company of Golden, Colorado, could utilize me as a walking billboard for its products.

“It” is a simple t-shirt, so lacking in inherent value that they gave them away. Gold in color, sponsored by Coors, it came with the slogan “Back to Black” imprinted on the back. The shirt came to lofty status in my eyes only after time had caused the gold to fade to a less than attractive off-yellow.

The shirt was a freebie. Free to anyone who purchased a student season ticket in 1985 for the University of Colorado football team. There were over 20,000 students registered at CU in the fall of 1985. My season ticket number for that year was 00049.

In my first five years at the University of Colorado (1980-84), the Buffs won a grand total of 11 football games (the same number of wins the Oklahoma Sooners would post by themselves in 1985). What was worse was the fact that there was no reason to be overly optimistic about the 1985 squad, either. The Buffs were coming off a 1-10 season. Head coach Bill McCartney had elected to try the wishbone, shunned by most other programs as an outdated offense.

Anyone who turned their back on the University of Colorado football team in September, 1985 (if they hadn’t already) was well justified in their position. A few of us remained. A few of us were loyal even when the team was, to put it kindly, lousy. A few of us purchased season tickets before the CU wishbone hit the field running, and the Buffs began a run of 12 consecutive winning seasons.

We received the t-shirts.

Rating your team

In college football, there are generally three types of programs.

First, there are the teams with a storied past, often accompanied by a legendary coach – a Bear Bryant, a Knute Rockne, or a Bud Wilkinson. These teams have a long history of national success, museums with trophies and walls of honor, and traditions which date back as far as anyone can remember. Fans of these teams anticipate the season with religious fervor, and know the two-deep roster at every position. The fans of these teams go into each season looking for their team to dominate early non-conference patsies, followed by a conquest of conference foes, culminating in a season-ending rivalry game with another school of like prestige. If all goes according to plan -and why shouldn’t it? – there will be a date with destiny in January. More records will be set, more trophies won, and another chapter of history written. Every high school player worth his time in the 40-yard dash will thereafter sign with the school, and the cycle will begin anew.

The second group of schools consists of legendary “wannabes”. These schools have a solid history of success, and maybe a run in their school’s past of a few years in the sun. There are references to past greatness in the media guides, but no one really remembers too much about them. The fans look forward to the upcoming season, but do so as much for the getting together with friends as for the games. If pressed, they can name the starting backfield. These fans look for their teams to beat the easy non-conference foes (the games usually at home) and stay competitive with the big non-conference opponent (the game usually on the road). The conference schedule provides some easy -barring lapses or injuries – conference wins, some challenges (to see where the team really is this year), and some penciled-in losses which, if the players make the great plays and the coach can figure out the right play calling, may turn into upsets. The season culminates with a season-ending rivalry game that matters for the week before and the week after the game. If all goes according to plan – and, with a little luck, why shouldn’t it? – the team will be invited to a major bowl game. The recruiting will then begin in earnest, with the pitch the same as the year before: “Come to our school, and be responsible for helping us become a champion”. A few highly recruited names may sign, but usually not enough to push the team over the top.

Then there are the also-rans. For these perennial losers, the psyche is different. The city is more likely to boast of the Chemistry Department’s success than that of the football team. If the team ever was successful, it was more than likely back when leather helmets and the winged-T formation were being utilized. The media guide is thin, and the fans look forward to the tailgating more than the game itself. If pressed, these fans can name the head coach, but can’t speak the name without an epithet, as in: “My sister can throw the ball better than the quarterback that #*^@! Coach recruited”. And yet, each year, hope springs eternal. These fans start the season hoping the team will beat the easy non-conference foe (usually one from a lower division or conference is scheduled, to ensure at least one early-season win), and come to watch the better non-conference opponents beat up on the home team (the program needs the influx of cash the big name team will bring). The conference schedule allows for some hope, and the season usually swings on whether the games against the other lower division conference opponents will be played at home or on the road. The season may end with a rivalry game, which in some instances may be all the teams really play for anymore (See: Harvard/Yale; Army/Navy). If all goes according to plan -and, hey, didn’t the coach say we would be more competitive this year? – the team can finish .500 and aspire to a higher level. Recruiting is left for the debate team. Once is a great while, a true “student-athlete” will come along, but it usually takes more than one or two players to make a difference.

And this, of course, is the beauty of college football. Teams are constantly sliding or rising through these levels of achievement. Every year brings the hope of greater success than the year before. The process of change is usually a slow one, and can be agonizing. It may seem one season that the team is about to rise from the lowest level and become competitive, and even compete for a bowl game, only to slide back to the bottom the next year. Conversely, a team at the highest level may seem, through graduation, probation, or injury, to be headed south, only to rise to the occasion and maintain it’s lofty status. Only rarely does a team skip an entire level, and, when it does, it is national news (See: Northwestern, 1995).

CU in the 1970’s – on the verge

By the fall of 1980, the University of Colorado football program had fallen into the lowest category. Chuck Fairbanks was the head coach, entering into his second season. Fairbanks had been brought in as the savior for the team, to take the team to the next level. Unfortunately, the team went the wrong direction in changing levels.

In the early 1970’s, CU was a team on the verge of greatness. Head coach Eddie Crowder (1963-73) had led Colorado to its highest ever finish in the polls, 3rd, at the conclusion of the 1971 season. CU finished 10-2 that year, losing only to Nebraska and Oklahoma during the regular season. On New Year’s Eve, behind 202 yards rushing and a two touchdown effort by Charlie Davis, the Buffs capped their first ten-win season ever by beating the hometown Houston Cougars 29-17 in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl. In the final polls, CU finished behind only Nebraska and Oklahoma, the first (and only) 1-2-3 sweep of the polls by a conference in history. Both of CU’s nemeses won their bowl games handily, with Nebraska getting the nod as #1 in Bob Devaney’s last season as head coach. The Cornhuskers were voted in as the nation’s best team due to the Cornhuskers 35-31 November victory over OU in Norman, in what many have called college football’s “Game of the Century”.

Bill Mallory took over for the Buffs in 1974, and had some success in a conference rapidly becoming known as the Big Two and the Little Six. From 1974-78, Mallory had 18 conference wins, but only one against Nebraska and Oklahoma. His 1975 team went 9-3, and came within a missed extra point (with 1:19 remaining) of tying the #1-ranked Sooners in Norman. In 1976, CU beat Oklahoma and won a share of the Big Eight title (with a 5-2 conference record) and the right to represent the Big Eight in the Orange Bowl. CU fell to Ohio State 27-10, though, and finished 8-4, ranked 16th in the nation.

The Buffs dropped to 7-3-1 in 1977, and while two of the losses were to Nebraska and Oklahoma, Bill Mallory was falling from favor with the CU faithful. Colorado started 5-0 in 1978 and ranked 13th in the nation, but when the Buffs crawled home at 6-5, the writing was on the wall. Mallory was gone three days after the last game of the 1978 campaign. The search began immediately to bring in a name head coach to beat Nebraska and Oklahoma, and to take the football program at the University of Colorado to the highest level.

It appeared at the end of 1978, the Buffs were just a strong head coach away from national prominence. The team, after all, had been ranked as high as 13th during the just concluded season. Little did the CU faithful know, however, that when team fell from the polls in October, 1978, after spending the better part of the ’70’s ranked nationally, that it would be more than ten years before Colorado was to return to the polls and national prominence.

Chuck Fairbanks – he seemed like the logical choice

Chuck Fairbanks was a successful head coach. He had been the head coach of the hated Oklahoma Sooners. What’s more, he had had some success as a professional head coach with the New England Patriots. He seemed to be a good choice for the CU program – a known name with a history of success. With Bill Mallory shown the door after 1978, the 1979 season was to begin the reign of Chuck Fairbanks at the helm of the University of Colorado football program.

Problems began, though, before Fairbanks ever officially set foot in Boulder. There was the not so small detail that Fairbanks in 1978 had four years remaining on his contract with the Patriots. Only after a legal fight and a buyout (paid by CU boosters) was Fairbanks able to come to Boulder.

Fairbanks did not make matters easier on himself in his first year, 1979. The Buffs went 3-8 in Fairbanks’ first campaign. It was the worst record for Colorado since the Buffs went 2-8 in 1964. To make matters worse, the Buffs were not only pounded by the Big Two (49-24 by Oklahoma; 38-10 by Nebraska), but went 3-6 against the rest of the schedule, which boasted nary a single ranked team. The University of Colorado football team even had to suffer the embarrassment of losing to Drake University, 13-9, at home. (You may count yourself as a true football fanatic if you know that the nickname for Drake is the Bulldogs, and that, later in the 1980’s, Drake was to drop it’s football program – only to bring it back a few years later).

CU vs. Oregon in the first game ever televised by ESPN ... just a bit before my time
CU vs. Oregon (1979) in the first game ever televised by ESPN … just a bit before my time







Still, there was some reason to have hope entering into the 1980 season. The 1979 team did win the last two games of the season, albeit against the woeful Kansas schools. And, after all, Fairbanks didn’t have time (he didn’t officially hit campus until April 2, 1979, only a week before spring drills) to install his program.

The last two games of 1979, a 31-17 win over Kansas and a 21-6 victory over Kansas State, were omens of better things to come.

Or so hoped the faithful as the curtain rose on the 1980 season.

4 Replies to ““Fanaticism” – 1970’s overview – Chuck Fairbanks”

  1. Well your piece still is good. I haven’t changed my opinion as exspressed in October 2009 in your original writing but I have published a book about my years playing for Crowder, which is titled, “A Chip Off The Old Buffalo”. I attempt to cover Eddie’s first years as well as my coming of age through it all.The book is available at B&N,, or Coach Crowder was complicated and had talent but didn’t provide to his players what he reqired of them, loyalty!

  2. I respectively disagree with DT. Bill Mallory’s best CU teams were in 75 and 76 with Eddie Crowder’s players. The talent level of the players recruited to Colorado was going down hill fast, simular to the end of Gary B’s time here. Fairbanks came in and thought he could win without putting in the time or work but, the program was already in the rebuilding mode.

  3. Mallory in my opinion was never provided the support from Crowder. Mallory had established a solid program including having the most NFL players of any program at the time. Eddie was afraid it wouldn’t work under Mallory and didn’t have the courage to support him and actually get there as would happen under McCartney. What was needed was to get rid of Eddie, which was done fortunately before he could muck up McCartney’s program. But for that Eddie would have ruined that program as well.

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