October 9th – Boulder           No. 7 Nebraska 40, Colorado 14

Many times, the numbers say it all.

1980: Nebraska 45; Colorado 7.

1981: Nebraska 59; Colorado 0.

The last two lopsided losses to the Cornhuskers were only the most recent. In the series, the totals were intimidating. Fourteen straight Nebraska wins overall vs. Colorado. No wins for the Buffs against the Cornhuskers in Boulder since 1960.

Nebraska’s record coming into the 1982 game: 3-1, ranked seventh in the nation. Colorado’s record: 1-3 and going nowhere.

With this background, and a final score of 40-14, it would be easy to dismiss this game as another Husker rout in a long string of mismatches.

Such a conclusion would be wrong.

Yes, the Buffs did lose that day. Yes, it was the 15th straight loss to Nebraska. But, no, it was not the typical yawner for the Cornhuskers. Colorado quarterback Randy Essington passed for 361 yards, the most-ever by a Nebraska opponent. Two Colorado receivers, Donnie Holmes and Dave Hestera, each had over 100 yards receiving. Before Nebraska scored 20 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, the score was an unnerving – at least to the Husker Nation – 20-14 at the start of the fourth quarter.

The game, though a loss, was the genesis for what was to become in the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s one of the most hotly-contested rivalries in college football.

In Search of a Rival

Having gone to school at Missouri, Bill McCartney was familiar with the Big Eight, its rivalries, and its history. After all, it was his alma mater which had come up with the notion of a “Homecoming” for its border war game against the Kansas Jayhawks. In a long association with the Michigan Wolverines, McCartney had seen “rivalry” re-defined for him, having been a part of Wolverine rivalry games against Ohio State, Michigan State, and Notre Dame.

Coming to Colorado, he wanted to focus on Colorado’s rivalry game.

But he couldn’t find one.

McCartney stated he was surprised to learn that Colorado really did not have a rival. Colorado State and Air Force, the other two Division I schools in the state, were members of the Western Athletic Conference and were not regularly played. Utah had once been a fierce rival of Colorado, with the first of over 50 games in the series being contested way back in 1903. However, Colorado and Utah hadn’t met since 1962. Other schools in the Big Eight had either in-state rivals, like Kansas/K-State or Oklahoma/Oklahoma State, or traditional rivals based on proximity, like Kansas/Missouri, or excellence, like Nebraska/Oklahoma. Colorado had a history with the other Big Eight teams, but no real rivalry.

Coach Mac set out to change that. Learning that Nebraska was the most hated of the Big Eight teams by Colorado fans, McCartney declared Nebraska to be the Buffs’ rival. All other games on the calendar in the Buffs’ locker room would be stenciled in in black; the Nebraska game would be highlighted in red. McCartney barnstormed throughout campus, speaking to alumni groups and student gatherings in an attempt to incite the fans to come to the game, and, just as importantly, not to sell their tickets to the Husker masses who flocked every other year to Boulder to watch their team. A bonfire was planned for the week leading up to the game. No one in the football department would be allowed to wear red. Everyone would focus on the Nebraska game.

To most in Boulder, this hype was amusing, if not a little disconcerting. Why Nebraska? Colorado hadn’t beaten Nebraska since 1967, and was being routed routinely by the Cornhuskers. Over the previous ten years, the average score was 40-12. If Colorado couldn’t beat Drake or Wyoming at home, why go after the top dog?

McCartney would not be dissuaded, though, and his ability as a motivator first became evident in the 1982 game. Against the mighty Huskers, Coach McCartney was able to look up at the scoreboard as the fourth quarter began and note that his team trailed the seventh ranked team in the nation by a score of only 20-14. For the Colorado program, embarrassed 59-0 in Lincoln with basically the same squad a year earlier, this was a moral victory of the highest magnitude. That the highly ranked Huskers put it into a higher gear and scored 20 unanswered points in the fourth quarter was of little consequence. Colorado had found a direction, along with the man to lead them.

Meeting Coach Bill
I feel I can say with some degree of confidence that Bill McCartney does not remember the occasion of our meeting.

I, however, will never forget it.

It was the week leading up to the 1982 Nebraska game. Coach McCartney was making the rounds of every alumni and student group he could find, trying his best to convince everyone to come to the game and watch Colorado upset the mighty Cornhuskers.

I happened to be among a group of 30 or so who were attending a DRC meeting the night Coach Mac came to see us. DRC stands for Dormitory Representative Council, which was a group of volunteer students living in the Colorado dorm system who get together once a week to discuss dorm issues, from the mundane (ice cream machines in the cafeterias) to the serious (establishing and maintaining a program of volunteers to be available to escort women across campus at night). With 23 dormitories spread across the campus, and with the backing of a student-oriented Housing Director in Dan Daniels, the DRC was not a body without input or responsibilities.

Bill McCartney came to speak to our relatively small gathering less than a week before the game. Stop for a moment and think about that! A scant five days before the Buffs were to face the No. 7 ranked team in the nation! The same team which had crushed Colorado 59-0 a year before, the same team which McCartney had staked his fledgling reputation on beating, and yet there he was. Speaking to a handful of students, imploring us to attend the game and will the Buffs on to victory.

My first reaction was that the man was crazy. Crazy not only for thinking he had a shot to beat a team of Nebraska’s lineage, but for being away from his post so close to the game.

Shouldn’t he be watching game films or something?

By the end of the short talk, though, head coach Bill McCartney had demonstrated why he had been hired to coach at Colorado. In just a few minutes, McCartney had us so fired up that he had us believing that we – not the Buff football team “we” – but the “we” in the room – could go out and lay waste to the hated Cornhuskers. He had us convinced that if we all believed in and supported the team, that this would be the year that the red hoard from Nebraska would at long last go home with an “L”.

Bill McCartney was and is that great a speaker. His reputation as a motivational speaker is not without merit. He walked into our meeting as a curiosity, he walked out leaving a room full of believers. While I did not always agree with everything that Bill McCartney did on or off the field, and while admitting that at least once I was upset enough that I wanted to go down on to the field during the game to renew our acquaintance (see: 1984 UCLA game), my respect for Bill McCartney as a motivator of his team never wavered after getting a dose of Bill, up close and personal, in the fall of 1982.

– Game Notes … 

– The Buffs out-scored Nebraska 14-0 in the third quarter – but Nebraska out-scored Colorado 40-0 in the other three quarters.

– Randy Essington completed 24-of-51 passes for 361 yards against Nebraska, setting several school records in the process. His passing yardage of 361 yards stood until 1992, when Koy Detmer went for 418 v. Oklahoma. His pass attempt total – 51 – was matched later in the season by Steve Vogel against Kansas State. Their combined record stood until Joel Klatt had 54 attempts in a game against Kansas in 2003.

– The 361 yards passing was also a record for Nebraska – the most the Cornhuskers had ever allowed an opponent to that date.

– Tight end Dave Hestera had six catches for 105 yards; wide receiver Donnie Holmes had seven catches for 107 yards – the first time in Colorado history that two Buffs had over 100 yards receiving in the same game.

– The 53,022 in attendance for the Nebraska game was by far the highest total of the season. Second-best was almost 10,000 fewer – and that was for a game against Oklahoma (43,908).

– Nebraska came to Boulder as the No. 7 team in the nation, and would not leave the top ten in the rankings the entire season. The Cornhuskers would go on to run the table in the Big Eight, heading to the Orange Bowl with an 11-1 record (a 27-24 September loss to No. 8 Penn State being the only blemish). Nebraska took on No. 13 LSU in the Orange Bowl, defeating the Tigers, 21-20, finishing No. 3 in the final polls (Penn State would go on to win the national title, defeating No. 1 Georgia, 27-23, in the Sugar Bowl).


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