On the Road Again

The 1986 season was a watershed in Colorado football history.

Yes, the Buffs had finished 1985 with a winning season (7-5), and had gone to a bowl game for the first time in almost a decade, but it is the 1986 season which is seen as the turning point in Buff fortunes. Still, when the Buffs opened the 1986 campaign 0-4, it was hard not to consider that 1985 was an aberration, and that the aura of losing was once again to permeate the Colorado campus. Colorado rallied, though, to post a surprising 6-1 Big Eight record, including an historic 20-10 win over Nebraska.

Even a 28-0 loss to No. 4 Oklahoma did little to dampen fans’ spirits. After the Buffs dominated Kansas State, 49-3, to post a 6-5 record and the right to participate in a bowl, Colorado fans didn’t care where the game was or who the opponent would be. We were just glad to be invited.

The location? Houston, Texas.

The game? The Bluebonnet Bowl against the Baylor Bears.

What was a Buff fan to do?

Two words: “Road Trip”!

Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” sings the praises of the open road. One would assume that Willie, being a country singer, has often traveled the open road across the Texas prairies.

He can have it.

Buoyed by the euphoria of the Nebraska game, and not dissuaded by the memory of long drives across the states of Nebraska and Kansas in 1985, plans were made to attend the 1986 Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston, Texas. Rather than fly to Houston, however, three poor (you might prefer “financially challenged”) third year law school students set out to drive from Colorado to Texas for the bowl game.

What a dumb idea.

This trip would be without Brad, the one and only time I have not attended a bowl game with my cohort. For the journey to Houston, I would travel with Dave and Bill. Friends from law school, neither was as fanatical about Colorado football as Brad and I, but both were up for the adventure.

Our journey started at Stapleton International Airport in Denver, where Dave picked me up in his car. (I had spent Christmas at home in Bozeman, Montana). From there we headed south, leaving Interstate 25 to head southeast to La Junta, Colorado.

La Junta, where Bill was from and was staying over the holidays, is as close to the end of the earth as you can get without falling off the edge. I say this as someone who grew up in Montana, one who has driven across North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, and who has traveled across eastern Wyoming so many times that I know hundreds of antelope on a first name basis.

There was nothing in La Junta.

No snow. No horizon. No color. No people.

And no car.

No car?

In La Junta our trip hit a snag. Dave had felt that his little car would: a) be very cramped for a trip to Houston, and b) very well might not make it. Bill had access to his mother’s full size car, but his mother was (understandably) reluctant to allow three single male twenty-somethings to drive it halfway across America. With Dave’s car already in La Junta, Bill now lobbied for using Dave’s car. Dave insisted we use Bill’s. I, with my little 1981 Chevy Citation parked at my Dad’s house back in Aurora, just wanted to get on the road.

After some negotiating, we took Bill’s mom’s car down to the mechanic for a tune-up, and, some six hours after we entered the little paradise known as La Junta, Colorado, we were on the road again.

The drive across Texas was done mostly at night.

As it turned out, it was for the best.

I understand the notion that everyone, almost without exception, is proud of their hometown and their home state. Texans are notoriously proud of their state. For the life of me, I fail to see why. In my life, I have lived in two cities, Bozeman, Montana, and Boulder, Colorado. Both are college towns nestled next to the Rocky Mountains. Both fight growth problems simply due to the fact that visitors fall in love with them and want to move there.

Why anyone would volunteer to live on the bleak plains of Texas, much less be obnoxiously proud of their station, is beyond me.

The trip across Texas took half a day, driving non-stop.

It seemed like six weeks.

While in Houston, we had a day before the game to do the things tourists do. We took in the Space Center, the Astrodome (the Bluebonnet Bowl was to be played in Rice Stadium), and drove down to Galveston to check out the Gulf of Mexico and eat some gulf shrimp. I had my picture taken next to rockets and palm trees. All in all not a bad time, but not exactly the best vacation.

Didn’t really matter, though.

We were in town for the game.

December 31, 1986 – at Houston, Texas         No. 14 Baylor 21, Colorado 9

It was great to be in a bowl game for the second consecutive year, but the game itself was yet another reminder that the 1986 Colorado Buffaloes, for all that they had accomplished, were still a young and unpolished team. Four turnovers killed the Buffs, as defenses ruled the day in the 21-9 Baylor win.

The game was played in front of 40,470 fans, mostly from nearby Waco, the home of the Baylor Bears. Colorado sold only 2,937 tickets for the game, making the contest for all practical purposes a Baylor home game.

Baylor came into the game ranked 14th in the nation, carrying a 8-3 record. What was more, the Bears were only ten points away from being 11-0, having fallen by less than a touchdown to USC, Southern Methodist, and Texas A&M. Baylor was a worthy opponent for the Buffs, and played as if they had something to prove.

The defense kept Colorado in the game, surrendering only one touchdown drive of over 21 yards. After the Buffs put together a 20-yard drive early in the second quarter, culminating in a 36-yard Dave DeLine field goal, Colorado was very much in the game. The score was 7-3 Baylor, but Colorado had the momentum.

Two turnovers took care of that.

Pushed back to their own eight yard line with 6:17 to go in the first half, the Buffs fumbled the ball away. Baylor required just three plays to score, pushing the lead to 14-3. After the half, Colorado again shot itself in the foot, as the Buffs’ fumbled on its second play from scrimmage. Baylor took over on the Colorado 21-yard line. Four plays later, halfback Derrick McAdoo scored his second one yard touchdown, and all of the sudden it was 21-3 Baylor with 12:56 to go in the third quarter.

Despite the deficit, there was plenty of time for the Buffs to get back in the game.

Finally, late in the third quarter, quarterback Mark Hatcher broke loose on a 31-yard touchdown run to make the score 21-9. Coach Bill McCartney opted to attempt a two point conversion in order to get the Buffs back within ten points, but the run failed.

Twice in the fourth quarter, Colorado threatened. On both occasions, however, the Bears were able to force a fourth down, and on both occasions the Buffs were unable to convert. The fourth quarter wound down without any additional scoring, and most of the 40,000 fans who were in attendance went home happy.

For the first time all year, the Buffs’ offense was led by the passing game. This was not due to big numbers being put up by Mark Hatcher and Marc Walters, who combined to complete seven-of-14 passes. Rather, it was because the 111 yards passing was simply more than the 83 yards the rushing game mustered.

The Bluebonnet Bowl was the only game in 1986 that the Colorado wishbone had been held under 100 yards rushing in a game.

It has long been the adage in football that one of the reasons the wishbone is successful is that it takes great discipline for the opposition to handle it, and teams with only one week to prepare cannot make the necessary adjustments in time. One way to beat the wishbone is to employ it yourself, a la Oklahoma.

Another is to have extra time to prepare, and Baylor had a month to study film.

To be successful in the future, therefore, it was apparent that Colorado could not rely solely upon the precision of the wishbone to move to the next level of success. Coach McCartney would need to make adjustments if 1987 was to be an interesting season.

“A time of reckoning is coming when the wishbone has to arrive,” said McCartney after the game, “I see us emerging as a real contender from here on in. Up until now, we’ve had our moments, but there’s a lot to be gained from the experience we’ve had this year.”

The 1986 team had finished 6-6.

It would prove to be the last non-winning season for Colorado football for the next decade.

New Year’s Eve, 1986 – Disaster No. 1

Suffering a loss in a bowl game hurt. Suffering a loss in a bowl game with a 20+ hour drive home still before us really hurt. The only consolation left for us was that the Bluebonnet Bowl was played the afternoon of December 31st. We still had New Year’s Eve in Houston to console us and make the trip memorable. After all, we were three young, single, law students in a distant city.

Why not go out in a blaze of glory?

First stop was the hotel were the football team was staying. There was a New Year’s Eve party planned there for Colorado fans, so this seemed like a logical place to start. Sadly, the party was less than festive. Colorado faithful milled about, with few really interested in partying. We did run into my former RA (dorm Resident Advisor) Kimbirly, but there was little reason to stay. We headed out into the night in search of some action.

Acting on a tip from a hotel employee, we sought out a “hot” night club. Driving up to the club, the long line outside the front door indicated that this was a place to be. We joined the line, and some forty minutes later were nearing the front door.

It was then that a passerby mentioned to me that I would not be allowed in. I didn’t know if I should be worried or insulted, so I inquired as to why. It was then that we were informed that the club had a dress code, and that my blue jeans would not pass muster. Dave and Bill were dressed in more acceptable attire, and my companions of the last few days, so close to getting in, were not budging.

As I had not brought anything other than jeans with me on the trip, and the idea of shopping for new pants at 10:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve being less than palatable, I was left on my own. My parting gift was the car keys, along with instructions to return at 2:00 a.m. to recover my partying travelmates.

On my own in Houston, Texas. One hour to midnight.

My first attempt at salvaging the evening was returning to the hotel party to search for Kimbirly. The ballroom was filled with middle-aged and only mildly enthusiastic Buff fans. No Kimbirly. Disconsolate and angry at my “friends” for abandoning me, I drove back to our hotel.

New Year’s Day, 1987, was rung in along with Dick Clark and a replay of midnight at Times Square.

I had no way of knowing it at the time, but this was just the first of a series of disastrous New Year’s Eves I would endure following the Buffs around the country.

[In subsequent trips, I would, on New Year’s Eve: 1) lose my wallet at Disneyland; 2) get stuck in an airport in Atlanta waiting for a connecting flight to Miami; and 3) get lost in a New Year’s Eve celebration in Tempe. C’est la vie!]

Game Notes … 

The bowl loss gave Colorado a 4-8 overall bowl record, and a five-game losing streak in bowl games. The Buffs last bowl win came in the Bluebonnet Bowl of 1971, when Colorado defeated Houston, 29-17, in the 1971 Bluebonnet Bowl.

– Dave DeLine’s 36-yard field goal actually was the longest of the Buffs’ first 12 bowl games. Prior to 1986, three kickers shared the record – 33 yards. It wasn’t until 1993, when Mitch Berger connected from 44 and then 49 yards out, that the longest field goal bowl record had a meaningful number.

– Baylor was a more than worthy opponent for Colorado. The Bears went 8-3 in the regular season in 1986, going 6-2 in Southwest Conference play. Baylor won the last four regular season games of the season, including a season-ending 18-13 win over Texas and a 29-14 win over 10th-ranked Arkansas.The bowl game was the third in four years for Baylor under Grant Teaff, though the Bears would not go bowling again until 1991. Baylor finished the 1986 season ranked 12th in the nation.


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