National and Big Eight recap – 1981

In 1981, the Clemson Tigers brought a National Championship back to the Atlantic Coast Conference for the first time since 1953.

Clemson capped off a 12-0 campaign with a 22-15 defeat of Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The Tigers were not led by household names, but team players such as quarterback Homer Jordan, flanker Perry Tuttle, and tailback Cliff Austin all contributed to the championship. Coach Danny Ford was the consensus coach of the year, but the Heisman went to a tailback on the other coast: Marcus Allen of USC.

In the Big Eight, Nebraska wrestled control of the conference from Oklahoma.

The Cornhuskers went undefeated in conference play, gaining an undisputed claim to the top team in the Big Eight for the first time since 1972. Led by Outland Trophy winner (named for the most outstanding college interior lineman) center Dave Rimington and an explosive backfield including quarterback Turner Gill and running backs Roger Craig and Mike Rozier, Nebraska only struggled outside of conference play, losing early to Iowa (10-7) and Penn State (30-24), and later in the Orange Bowl to the undefeated National Champion Clemson Tigers.

Other bowl teams from the Big Eight included Oklahoma, which went 7-4-1, beating Houston 40-14 in the Sun Bowl to finish 20th in the polls, and Kansas, making only its 6th bowl appearance in school history. The Jayhawks lost to Mississippi State 10-0 in the Hall of Fame Bowl to complete an 8-4 campaign unranked.

Nowhere to go but up

1981 had to be better for the University of Colorado football team than had been 1980.

It just had to.

The Buffs had been outscored by an average of 41-14 in Chuck Fairbanks’ second season as head coach. No other Buff team other than the 1-10 1980 Buffs had failed to win at least two games since World War I. No club before the 1980 group had lost more than eight contests.

It was quite clear that the team needed an infusion of talent and enthusiasm. Colorado made attempts to improve in both areas, with limited success.

As if to exorcize the past, the Colorado’s powers that be decided to recharge the team and fans. Drastic times, after all, called for drastic measures. So the CU administration boldly looked to the heavens and made a decision. The University of Colorado football team would be enhanced in 1981 …

… by changing the school colors.

To put it in the most delicate terms: it was a perfectly stupid idea.

Colorado’s official school colors have always been silver and gold, but the team had played in black and gold since the early 1960’s. Now the Colorado football team, starting with the 1981 season, was to run onto Folsom Field wearing blue and gold. The Colorado Board of Regents approved an official change to what was listed as columbine blue, which came to be defined as “Colorado sky blue at 9,000 feet”.

Colorado head football coach Chuck Fairbanks decided to alter the newly uniformed Buffs with a youth movement. Colorado would begin the 1981 the season with no less than ten sophomore starters. Three of the four starters in the offensive backfield were sophomores, including quarterback Randy Essington, who had started as a freshman against Missouri in 1980. By mid-season, Essington would be replaced at starter by another sophomore, Steve Vogel.

Black and Blue

My roommate for my first two years at Colorado was Kurt, a music major from Michigan. We were placed together by a computer preference program. Presumably this was the same computer preference program which determined that spice cake would go best as the main dessert on days when lasagna was the main dish in the dorm cafeteria.

As B.D. the football star noted when meeting his new roommate, Mike Doonsberry, in an early Doonsberry strip, “there are still a few bugs in the system”.

This is not to say that Kurt and I did not get along. We did live together for two years, and only the freshman year was required of us by CU. Kurt was a good friend, and the last I heard, he had fulfilled his stated desire of becoming a high school band director.

There was not a great deal Kurt and I had in common, however. My experience in music was an short-lived experiment with playing the trumpet in high school, and Kurt’s exposure to football was by playing in the Colorado marching band. Through Kurt’s position as a member of the marching band, though, we found common ground. We on Second East of Libby Hall were treated for two years to the highs and lows of the inner workings of the CU band.

The University of Colorado marching band does not have the zany history of the Stanford band, and does not have the precision or discipline of Texas A&M band. At Stanford, the band prides itself on its irreverence for all which is tasteful and politically correct. At A&M, the band is so precise, even the opposing fans (when the band goes on the road) will watch in amazement and give the band standing ovations. Most marching bands fit somewhere between those of Stanford and Texas A&M.

In the early 1980’s, the CU band did not fit in anywhere.

The band was small (with no hope of a road trip over the holidays to a warm bowl site, why sign up?), and was not particularly effective. Part of the blame goes to the band, as the repertoire was often less than inspiring. Part of the blame goes to the fans, or, more precisely, the lack of fans. But much of the blame goes to whoever decided to place the band in its own little corner of the world, in the north endzone below the scoreboard (remember, this was nine years before the Dal Ward Center was constructed).

Far from any fans (except for the opposing teams’ fans, who were given seats in the northwest corner of the stadium), the band was not often heard, and when it was, what the east side stands (the students) heard was often heard at a slightly different time than what was heard on the west side stands (the alumni). While I readily admit to not having a clear understanding of physics and how sound travels, and can state without fear of contradiction that the distance between the band and the fans rendered the CU ineffective in trying to rally a poor team. It wasn’t until some time passed, and a new north endzone and some common sense entered into the scenario, that the band was moved back amongst the student section.

The bands’ plight became pathetic in 1981.

By some rationale known only to those who had a say (and I do not believe they will be jumping out of the woodwork to claim credit), CU unceremoniously changed school colors from the traditional black and gold to “Colorado sky blue at 9,000 feet” and gold. With the school colors officially being silver and gold, I can acknowledge that some license was there for the taking, but “baby blue” was not the answer for a football team coming off of a 1-10 season. The uniforms looked like those of UCLA, and since UCLA had clubbed the Buffs 56-14 in the 1980 season opener, perhaps it was a case of imitation being the most sincere form of flattery.

In any event, someone forgot to consider the band.

The band, honoring the long standing tradition of universal bad taste in bridesmaid dresses and band uniforms, had black uniforms with a white chest plate and gold trim. The uniform was much too hot for warm September games, but it did have the school colors – at least until the team changed to baby blue. The band, then, in 1981 was not only far from the fans, small, and ineffectual, but now facing the embarrassment of being in a different color scheme than the team it was playing for.

(Author’s note: for those fans of other teams -Texas, Notre Dame, USC, etc. – familiar with the notion that everything associated with the football program is provided for by ample funding, the following may prove somewhat incomprehensible).

As a result of the change in school colors, fans were constantly visually and verbally reminded of the band’s plight.

For the next few seasons, before, during, and after each game the fans were informed by the P. A. announcer that there were collection bins, manned by pleading band members, where fans could place their donations for new band uniforms. (The irony for the CU band came a few years later, when, upon finally raising the money to buy uniforms of Columbine blue and gold, the football team went … “Back to Black”.).


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