The 1989 Season – A Look Back at CU’s run to the Orange Bowl

Here is a look back at the run to the national championship game in 1989. The death of Sal Aunese bonded the Buffs, leading CU to an undefeated regular season, which included wins over Texas, No. 10 Illinois, and No. 21 Washington in non-conference play, and an epic 27-21 win over No. 3 Nebraska …

Spring Optimism – 1989


For every college football team, spring is a time for optimism.  No team has sustained a defeat; the opportunity for a successful fall campaign is there for the taking.  Hard work, team unity, and a little luck is seemingly all that is required for success.  Of course, optimism takes different forms depending on the results of previous season.

For those teams which competed for the national championship in 1988, the spring of 1989 was a time to find that missing piece of the puzzle; an opportunity to hone skills for the championship drive.  For teams at the opposite end of the spectrum, such as the eighteen teams with new head coaches for 1989, the spring represented a fresh start.  This was no truer anywhere than at Southern Methodist University, where the Mustangs were starting over after receiving the death penalty from the NCAA, forcing the cancellation of the program for 1987 and 1988.  In Dallas, optimism was simply having a team to cheer for, hoping for a win or two from a team which could boast only three players who had ever played a down of college football. [SMU did manage two wins in 1989 – over Connecticut and North Texas].

Other teams, such as the one fielded by the University of Colorado, optimism was the catch word of the day.

No fewer than 18 starters returned from the 1988 squad which had posted an 8-4 record, the school’s best since 1976.  “We have the makings of a very good team,” said head coach Bill McCartney.  “There is good competition at several positions, and better balance all around.  This squad also promises to have good senior representation and leadership, yet is still a relatively young team.”

There were dents in the armor.  There were questions of depth in several areas.  Then there was the distraction of a scathing Sports Illustrated article about the program, condemning the arrests of several CU players and a perceived lack of discipline amongst Colorado athletes, leaving a black cloud looming over Boulder.  Finally, there was a difficult non-conference schedule to address, featuring two likely top-20 teams, Illinois and Washington.

And then the roof fell in.

On March 29, 1989, Bill McCartney received a call from team trainer and director of sports medicine, Dave Burton. The call confirmed the worst.

Sal Aunese, the Buffs’ starting quarterback, had cancer.


Sal Aunese had been diagnosed with a radical form of stomach cancer.  Burton informed McCartney that the cancer was inoperable, and was almost always fatal.  The oncologist in Denver feared that Aunese might not survive the week.  Chemotherapy began almost immediately, and Aunese’s condition improved slightly.

A week later spring practice began.  At its conclusion, on April 29th, the spring game was conducted.  A crowd of 13,642, the most ever for a Colorado spring game until 2008, attended.  So too did Aunese, weak from chemotherapy, but still able to stand upright on the field.  One of most poignant moments in CU football history took place after the game as the football team huddled around their weakened quarterback.

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Preseason – 1989

All off-field distractions aside, the 1989 edition of the Colorado Buffaloes seemed to be one of the strongest in years.

Darian Hagan would step in at quarterback for Aunese, with the task of keeping the Buffs’ high-powered offense purring.  Returning were tailbacks Eric Bieniemy, J.J. Flannigan, and O.C. Oliver.  Bieniemy was the nation’s sixth-leading rusher in 1988, and even more was expected of him in 1989.

The defense was led by bookends at outside linebackers, Alfred Williams and Kanavis McGhee.  “They are two veteran, talented kids who have wonderful potential,” gushed McCartney of his All-American candidates.  “There’s no telling how good they’re going to be because they keep getting better.”

Special teams were also a strength.  Colorado led the nation in net punting from 1985-88, with Barry Helton twice receiving All-American recognition, followed by Keith English in 1988.  Now it was up to transfer Tom Rouen to continue the tradition.  Ken Culbertson, who had connected on 6-of-11 field goals and 19-of-20 extra points in 1988, returned as the Buffs’ kicker.

With games against Texas, in-state rival Colorado State, Illinois, and Washington filling the non-conference plate before Big Eight play was to begin, the Buffs’ knew that a fast start against tough competition would be essential if national attention was to be expected.  After spending all  of one week in the Associated Press poll in 1988, there was reason to believe that the 1989 Buffs would begin the season ranked, which hadn’t occurred since 1977.

The preseason magazines were split.  Some, such as Football Digest and Football Action, did not rank Colorado in their preseason top 25.  Others, though, had a different view.  The Sporting News, while giving its nod to Nebraska as the top team in the nation, ranked the Buffs 8th.

The final say went to the writers who contributed to the AP poll.

In their opinion, the Colorado Buffs were the 14th-best team in the nation.  Michigan received the nod as the preseason No. 1, followed closely by defending national champion Notre Dame.  “I don’t care about all that”, said Michigan’s head coach Bo Schembechler.  “Of course, we may or may not be that good.”  Michigan would have its chance to find out, facing No. 2 Notre Dame on September 16th.

In all, six teams received first place votes in the pre-season AP poll.  Michigan had 23, followed by Notre Dame with 20.  The top two were followed by third-ranked Nebraska (10 first place votes); Miami (4); USC (1); and Florida State (2).  Oklahoma was the only other Big Eight team other than Nebraska and Colorado to find a spot in the poll, coming in just behind the Buffs at No. 15.  Illinois, the Buffs’ third opponent, received a preseason rank of No. 22 in the AP rankings, expanded for the first time in 1989 to include the top 25 teams.

The news was even better in the USA Today/CNN coaches poll, where the Buffs were ranked No. 12 (Notre Dame out-polled Michigan in this poll as the No. 1 preseason favorite).  The preseason ranking was heady stuff for the Buffs, but there was no time to enjoy the lofty status.

Up first was a team with a great tradition, Texas, which was looking to make an early impression of its own.

Game One … 

September 4th – Boulder           No. 14 Colorado 27, Texas 6

The Texas Longhorns entered the 1989 season sailing in unfamiliar waters.

Texas had stumbled to 4-7 record in 1988, the worst season in Austin since 1956.  In order to turn matters around, and to avoid back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since the Depression, Texas and third-year head coach David McWilliams looked to the game against Colorado for redemption.  The game would be played before a national ESPN television audience on Labor Day night.

The game did turn out to be a coming out party, but it was not for the Longhorns.

It was for Colorado sophomore quarterback Darian Hagan.

On the season’s second play, Hagan dashed for 75 yards before being caught from behind, setting up a one-yard touchdown run by Eric Bieniemy to put the Buffs up 7-0 just 75 seconds into the game.  The touchdown was all the Buffs would need, as Colorado cruised to a 27-6 win over Texas to open the 1989 season.  Hagan, who entered the game with 175 career rushing yards, ran for 116 yards and a touchdown as the Buffs looked dominant on both sides of the ball.

…  With the win, the Buffs moved into the top ten for the first time in 22 seasons. Previously, the last time Colorado was a top ten team was in 1977, when the 5-0-1 Buffs were ranked 7th.  A 33-15 loss to No. 18 Nebraska the following weekend, however, dropped the Buffs to 15th  in the next poll, and out of the top ten for the next 12 seasons.

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Game Two …

September 9th – Boulder        No. 9 Colorado 45, Colorado State 20

The Colorado State Rams were 1-10 in 1988, and were 0-1 coming to Boulder to face the ninth-ranked Buffs.  Still, Colorado State’s opening loss was a 17-14 heartbreaker at Tennessee, and nothing was being conceded by the Rams to their neighbors to the south. Colorado State, under new head coach Earle Bruce, raced out to a 14-7 first quarter lead against the heavily-favored Buffs.

It would take an offensive explosion on the part of the Buffs in the second and third quarters to finally pull away from the Rams, winning 45-20.

With only a 71-yard touchdown run by Darian Hagan keeping Colorado in the game early on, the Buffs were forced to turn up the intensity.  Two long Colorado State touchdowns, a 59-yard run (on the game’s first play from scrimmage) and a 55-yard pass, put the Rams up 14-7 after the first quarter. Ten seconds into the second quarter, though, the score was tied, as Eric Bieniemy posted a long touchdown run of his own, scoring from 44 yards out.

Trailing 17-14 midway through the second quarter, Colorado went on to score on four straight possessions to take control.  Ken Culbertson tied the score at 17-all with a 32-yard field goal, and tailback Eric Bieniemy scored from six yards out 20 seconds before halftime to put Colorado ahead to stay, 24-17, at halftime.

Two third quarter scoring runs, a 14-yarder by J.J. Flannigan, and a four-yarder by Charles S. Johnson, gave the Buffs a 38-20 lead after three, finally allowing the 44,921 on hand in Folsom Field cause to relax. Bieniemy’s third touchdown run of the game, from nine yards out midway through the fourth quarter, closed out the scoring in a 45-20 victory.

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Game Three … 

September 16th – Boulder      No. 8 Colorado 38,  No. 10 Illinois 7

The University of Colorado served notice to the football world that the 1989 Buffs were for real, dominating No. 10 Illinois, 38-7.

For the third straight game, the Buffs scored on their first possession.  A 74-yard pass from Darian Hagan to wideout Jeff Campbell set up a one-yard scoring run by Eric Bieniemy to give Colorado the early lead, 7-0.  After the Illini tied the score on a two-yard run by Howard Griffith, Colorado took the lead for good as Bieniemy took a pitchout from Hagan, then lofted a halfback pass to a wide-open M.J. Nelson for a 48-yard touchdown and a 14-7 lead.  Later in the first quarter, halfback J.J. Flannigan celebrated his 21st birthday with a 45-yard run to put the Buffs up 21-7.  Colorado never looked back after that, posting its first win over a top ten team since the 1986 upset of Nebraska.

The Colorado defense completely negated quarterback Jeff George and the Illinois’ offense. After the Illini tied the score at 7-7 on an 80-yard drive, the Buffs did not allow Illinois to cross midfield again until midway through the fourth quarter.  George was sacked four times and intercepted twice, with both picks leading to Colorado touchdowns. The second half was more of the same for the Buffs, as a 45-yard field goal by Ken Culbertson was supplemented by touchdown runs of nine yards (by J.J. Flannigan) and four yards (by Bieniemy).

On the afternoon, Colorado out-gained Illinois 475 yards to 193, completely dominating both sides of the ball.  In a radio interview earlier in the week, quarterback Jeff George had made the mistake of calling the Buffs “an average team” and perhaps overrated.  “I think for an ‘average’ team, we did pretty good – even by his standards,” said outside linebacker Alfred Williams after the game.

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Farewell to Sal … 

On Saturday, September 23rd, shortly after 9:00 p.m., Sal Aunese died.

The 21-year old honorary captain of the 1989 Colorado Buffaloes finally succumbed to the cancer which had been diagnosed in March.  Although not unexpected, the announcement hit the team hard.  “He was the heart and soul of this team,” said senior wide receiver Jeff Campbell.  “He meant a lot to us”, said defensive co-captain Michael Jones, a senior linebacker.  “God, it hurts, just to see him go like this … I just can’t imagine him being gone.”

Aunese had attended each of the Buffs’ first three games, watching from a private box high above Folsom Field.  Colorado players had saluted him before the Illinois game, and Jeff Campbell saluted Aunese after his 74-yard catch on the game’s first series.  It would become the signal for the remainder of the year that the Buffs were thinking and remembering their fallen leader.  An emotional memorial service was held the next Monday, a service wherein Bill McCartney spoke not only as a coach, but also as the grandfather to Aunese’s child.

While the Buffs were saying the right things about preparing for Washington “I know Sal would want us to win this one (against Washington),” said Michael Jones, “so there’s no reason to lay down now” – it could only be speculated that the distraction would take its toll on the Buffs.  Colorado was playing after a bye week, were playing for the first time on the road, and were up against a quality opponent.  But the Buff players had a secret weapon –  a twelfth man – in Aunese.  Aunese dictated a letter to the team before his death.  Each Colorado player was given a copy before the Washington game:

Dear Brothers and the family whom I hold so close ….”  it began.

Aunese closed the letter:

Hold me close to your hearts as you know I do you.  Strive only for victory each time you play and trust in the Lord for He truly is the way.  I love you all. ‘Go get ‘em’ – and bring home the Orange Bowl.

 Love, Sal”

Alfred Williams remembers Sal’s last game

When Alfred Williams was notified that he had been selected to as a member of the 2010 Class to be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame, he was asked by to select a few memories from his playing days.

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Darian Hagan remembers Sal Aunese …


… ESPN’s Outside The Lines story on Sal Aunese …

Game Four … 

September 30th – at Washington          No. 5 Colorado 45, No. 21 Washington 28

The Colorado Buffaloes, inspired by the words of their fallen quarterback, raised their season record to 4-0 with a dominant performance against Washington, handing the Huskies a 45-28 thrashing.

In posting the highest point total by a Washington opponent at Husky Stadium in 15 years, Colorado ran over, through, and around Washington.  The Buffs had six players run for over 40 yards apiece in accumulating 420 yards on the ground.

The game was competitive for much of the first half. Washington struck first, connecting on a 21-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead midway through the first period.  Colorado responded on its next drive, with George Hemingway slamming through the middle of the Husky line for large chunks of real estate. With the Washington defensive line focused on Hemingway, Eric Bieniemy burst through on a 35-yard scoring run to put the Buffs on top to stay.

Much of the rest of the first half was a slugfest, with both teams successful in gaining yardage, but not successful in putting up more points. The Buffs nursed a 7-6 lead for much of the second quarter, escaping a deficit when the Huskies missed a field goal attempt midway through the second quarter.

With less than two minutes before halftime, the Buffs finally took command.

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Alma Mater

As the Washington defense deteriorated over the course of the afternoon, so to did the weather.  By the fourth quarter, there was a steady drizzle, and many of those clad in purple and gold had left.

The black-and-gold contingent, however, remained until the final gun.  Why would we leave one of the best games in recent Colorado history?  And besides, where did we have to go?

With 10:21 left in the game, backup Colorado quarterback Charles Johnson scored on a 16-yard run.  The touchdown gave the Buffs a 45-14 lead, removing any doubt as to a late Washington comeback.  Out in the hinterlands known as Section 6, a rousing version of the Colorado fight song was sung after the extra point.

Buoyed by the team’s efforts, and perhaps feeling safe in our little group, Brad and I next began singing, without rhyme or reason, the Colorado alma mater.

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Game Five … 

October 7th – Boulder            No. 3 Colorado 49, Missouri 3

Missouri head coach Bob Stull spent ten years as an assistant to Washington head coach Don James before taking over for the Tigers in 1989.  “It’s amazing to see they scored (45) against the Huskies out there”, said Stull the week before the Colorado/Missouri game.  “They’re extremely strong this year.”

It took all of 34 seconds that Saturday for Stull and his Tigers to discover just how strong.

On the first play of the game, Colorado quarterback Darian Hagan connected with Jeff Campbell for 58 yards to the Missouri nine yard line.  On the next play, Hagan ran the ball in for a 7-0 Colorado lead with 14:26 still to play in the first quarter.  By the end of the first stanza, the score stood at Colorado 21, Missouri 0, as Hagan scored twice more, on a two-yard run midway through the first quarter, and an eight yard run just two minutes later.

By halftime, the score was 35-0, Buffs.  Most of the first line players sat out the second half as Colorado cruised to a 49-3 final score.

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Taking Aim at  No. 1

With the Missouri rout, the Colorado Buffaloes were now 5-0 on the 1989 season.  The big win was enough to persuade two Associated Press pollsters to vote Colorado as the best team in the nation.  This vote represented the first time since 1977 that the Buffs had received a vote as the No. 1 team in the nation (October 10, 1977 – the 5-0 Buffs received one vote. The following weekend, the No. 3 Buffs were tied by Kansas, 17-17, and fell to 7th in the polls).

Notre Dame, which was still solidly entrenched as the nation’s No. 1 team with 54 votes, lost three votes from the previous week despite a 27-17 win over Stanford.  The other defecting writer went with Miami, which now had four first place votes and remained No. 2 after routing Cincinnati, 56-0.

While Colorado was a national story, even winning the Big Eight was not a guarantee. Hot on the Buffs’ tails was Nebraska, which remained at No. 4 after mauling Kansas State, 58-7.

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Game Six … 

October 14th – at Iowa State          No. 3 Colorado 52, Iowa State 17

The 100th edition of the Colorado Buffaloes football team continued their assault on the record books as Colorado scored on all seven first half possessions en route to crushing Iowa State, 52-17.

The Cyclones stayed even with the Buffs through the first quarter, forging a 10-10 score with a 50-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter.  Thereafter, though, it was all Buffs.  Colorado scored 35 points in the second quarter, setting a school record for points in that particular stanza.  The halftime total of 45 points was also a new school standard for one half, besting 41 points laid on Northwestern in 1978.

In all, Colorado posted 662 yards of total offense, the third highest total ever.  The 9.19 yards/play average bettered the school mark by almost a full yard.  Leading the slaughter was Darian Hagan, who ran for two scores and connected with Mike Pritchard through the air for two more.  For his 269 yards of total offense, which included a career-high 187 yards passing, Hagan was named the Big Eight Offensive Player-of-the-Week.

Still, the Buffs took a hit in the first quarter as Eric Bieniemy was injured.  Bieniemy broke the fibula bone in his right leg on his fifth carry of the afternoon.  In six games, Bieniemy had rushed for 561 yards and nine touchdowns.  Picking up the slack were senior J.J. Flannigan, who ran for 79 yards and two touchdowns against Iowa State, and redshirt freshman Todd Bell, who collected 85 yards on 12 carries, including his first career touchdown in the third quarter.

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Game Seven … 

October 21, 1989 – Boulder          No. 3 Colorado 49, Kansas 17

The largest Homecoming crowd in the Bill McCartney era, 50,057, witnessed the methodical dismantling of the Jayhawks as the Buffs rolled to a 49-17 win.

Starting for the injured Eric Bieniemy, senior tailback J.J. Flannigan ran for 178 yards and three touchdowns, including two in the second quarter as Colorado built a 21-3 halftime advantage.  Before Kansas was allowed to score its two consolation touchdowns in the fourth, Colorado had built the lead to 42-3.

The 482 yards of total offense was becoming expected of the Colorado offense.  After scoring once in the first quarter, on a 13-yard run by Darian Hagan midway through the quarter, Colorado proceeded to score 14 points in each of the remaining three quarters. While not treated to an exciting finish, Buff fans were at least entertained by Flannigan, who put an end to any lingering doubts about the Colorado running game without Bieniemy. Flannigan had touchdown runs of four and 41 yards in the second quarter, then a 64-yard score in the third quarter before taking his 178-effort to the bench in the fourth quarter. Senior fullback Erich Kissick scored his first touchdown of the season on a one-yard run, while backup quarterback Charles S. Johnson scored on an eight-yard run, to close out the Buffs’ onslaught.

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Things Have Changed

 The week before the Oklahoma game, the history of the rivalry was oft-cited, and it did not paint a pretty picture for the Buffs.  Oklahoma led the series, 34-8-1, including a 19-3 record against Colorado in Norman.  The Buffs had not beaten the Sooners in any of Bill McCartney’s previous seven attempts, losing by an average score of 33-11.  Colorado had not so much as been in the lead in any game since 1976.  The last Colorado victory over Oklahoma had come in the 1976 game; the last Colorado win in Norman? 1965.  “Nobody”, Bill McCartney understated, “has dominated Colorado more through the years than Oklahoma.”

But this was 1989.

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Game Eight … 

October 28th – at Oklahoma          No. 3 Colorado 20, Oklahoma 3

Colorado used a stifling defense and just enough offense to take a 20-3 decision over Oklahoma in one of the biggest wins in Colorado football history.

Raising its season record to 8-0 for the first time in sixty-two years, the Buffs gave notice to future opponents that its defense was just as good as its offense.  Colorado held the Sooners to only 248 yards of total offense, including completions on only three-of-22 passes in the stiff afternoon breeze at Memorial Stadium.

For much of the first half, it appeared the game might end in a scoreless tie.  Each team gained only 43 yards of total offense in the first stanza.  Midway through the second quarter, though, the Buffs put together a drive of 50 yards in 11 plays, with Ken Culbertson connecting from 30 yards out to give the Buffs a 3-0 lead, their first lead over Oklahoma in 13 years.

(I’ll pause for a moment to let you read that again. You read it right – it was the Buffs first lead over Oklahoma in 13 years).

After the field goal, the Buff defense forced a three-and-out possession for the Sooners, giving the Colorado offense the opportunity to take control of the game for good.  On first-and-ten from the Colorado 47-yard line, quarterback Darian Hagan took off on an option run down the right sideline, gaining 39 yards to the Oklahoma 14.

Several plays later, on third-and-goal from the one-yard line, Hagan took off to his left.  Just as he was being hit, Hagan pitched the ball over the head of an Sooner defender to an unguarded J.J. Flannigan.

Touchdown, Colorado.

The Flannigan score allowed the Buffs to carry a 10-0 lead into halftime.

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Going for the Gold

While Colorado was handling Oklahoma, No. 4 Nebraska was taking care of business against Iowa State, 49-17.  Elsewhere, No. 1 Notre Dame dominated Pittsburgh, 45-7, but No. 2 Miami fell to Florida State, 24-10.  As a result, both Colorado and Nebraska moved up a spot, with Colorado the new No. 2 team; Nebraska the new No. 3 team.

Up next on the calendar? Nebraska at Colorado.

The eyes of the college football world would now focus on Boulder, Colorado.

For college football in 1989, the Colorado/Nebraska game was the “Game of the Century”. In fact, it was not even the “Game of the Year”, as earlier in the season No. 1 Notre Dame had squared off against No. 2 Michigan.  In Colorado, though, it was, in fact, the “Game of the Century”.

Never in 100 years of Colorado football had so much been at stake.  The opportunity to defeat the hated Cornhuskers, capture the Big Eight title, and remain in line for a chance to play for the national championship were all on the line.  The game had been a sell out since July.  Tickets with a face value of $25.00 were selling for $250.00.  Even Bill McCartney could not downplay the game.  “This is the biggest game I’ve been involved in as a coach,” said McCartney.  “Absolutely”.

Both teams were 8-0, 4-0 in Big Eight play.  Nebraska was No. 1 in the nation carrying the ball, averaging 400 yards rushing per game.  Colorado was ranked No. 3 at 376 yards per contest.  Nebraska’s defense was ranked 8th nationally; Colorado’s 19th.

“This is certainly the best Colorado team I’ve seen in the last 10 or 15 years – and maybe the best I’ve ever seen,” said Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne.  “I don’t see anything they don’t do well.  It’s a complete package.”

As if the hype was not enough to whip the home crowd into a frenzy, Colorado decided to honor its All-Century team at halftime.  Included in the honorees were Supreme Court Justice Byron “Whizzer” White, Hale Irwin, Bobby Anderson, and Dave Logan.  Honorees from the McCartney era were Mickey Pruitt and Eric Bieniemy.  All that 1989 had come to mean – the 100 years, the first legitimate shot at a national title, honoring Sal Aunese – all would come down to one afternoon in Folsom Field.

Game Nine … 

November 4th – Boulder         No. 2 Colorado 27, No. 3 Nebraska 21

Jim Nantz, the play-by-play announcer for CBS, introduced the Colorado/Nebraska game to the nation as follows: “Quite simply, there has never been a bigger game in Colorado’s 100-year history than this game today.”

After falling behind early, the Colorado Buffaloes played like champions, prevailing over Nebraska, 27-21, taking control of the Big Eight race to the Orange Bowl, and taking dead aim at a national championship.

The game began ominously for the Buffs.  In each of Colorado’s five previous games at Folsom Field in 1989, the Buffs had scored on the first drive of the game.  In the opening series against the Cornhuskers, though, quarterback Darian Hagan threw an interception, only his fourth of the season.  Nebraska took over at the its own 49-yard line, and quickly took the lead.  On the Cornhuskers’ first play from scrimmage, quarterback Gerry Gdowski, taking advantage of the over pursuit of a pumped-up Colorado defense, threw a screen pass to Bryan Carpenter, who raced 51 yards for a score.

7-0, Nebraska, just 1:30 into the contest.

Folsom Tomb

A few minutes earlier, 52,877 fans were making as much noise as twice their number.  Now, with the exception of the northwest corner of the stadium where the red-clad Husker fans were dancing with glee, Folsom Field went silent.  The home crowd, which had waited for decades for this moment, was stunned.  All the hype, all the promise.  Yet there was the score:   7-0, Nebraska, less than two minutes into the game.  This couldn’t be happening!

Not again.

While fear crept through the stands, confidence reigned on the Colorado bench.  “After they scored on the first play,” said wide receiver Jeff Campbell after the game, “everybody kind of looked at each other like, ‘All right, Here we go.’  And from there it just snowballed.”

One series later, all was right with the world again.

Taking over at the 30-yard line, Darian Hagan electrified the crowd with a play which was becoming his trademark.  Running left on the option, Hagan found room to run.  Racing downfield, Hagan ran toward the only remaining obstacle in his path, a Cornhusker cornerback Jeff Campbell was trying to screen for his quarterback.  At the Nebraska 40-yard line, 30 yards from the line of scrimmage, Hagan pitched the ball to tailback J.J. Flannigan, who had continued to trail Hagan downfield.  Flannigan carried the ball the remaining 40 yards untouched, and Colorado was back in the game, 7-7.

Here is the YouTube video of the play … 


Now the defense and special teams would rise to the occasion.  After Flannigan’s touchdown, the Colorado defense quickly forced a punt.  Jeff Campbell (with the aid of two blocks which could have been called illegal blocks behind the back) returned the Nebraska punt 47 yards deep into Cornhusker territory.  Three plays later, Darian Hagan scored from a yard out, and Colorado had its first lead, 14-7, with 5:04 to play in the first quarter.

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Here is a YouTube video of the final minutes

Game Ten … 

November 11th – at Oklahoma State          No. 2 Colorado 41, Oklahoma State 17

What was supposed to be a coronation of the new Big Eight champions appeared to be anything but as the Oklahoma State Cowboys came to play against the emotionally drained Buffaloes.

With a 53-yard scoring strike from quarterback Mike Gundy to wide receiver Curtis Mayfield to open the second quarter, Oklahoma State opened up a 10-0 lead against the lethargic Buffs.  This team was not to be denied, however, as Colorado stormed back with 41 unanswered points on their way to a 41-17 victory over the Cowboys.

The Oklahoma State touchdown put the Buffs down two scores for the first time all season.

Two drives and only six minutes of game clock later, though, Colorado was on top to stay, 14-10.  J.J. Flannigan and Darian Hagan each contributed two short runs for scores (one yard and five yards, respectively) to restore order midway through the second quarter.

By halftime, Colorado was up 24-10 thanks to a 26-yard pass from Hagan to M.J. Nelson and a 40-yard Ken Culbertson field goal.  After the touchdown pass from Gundy to Mayfield, the Colorado defense held Oklahoma State to just 11 yards on 12 offensive plays.

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Game Eleven … 

November 18th – at Kansas State          No. 2 Colorado 59, Kansas State 11

Having learned their lesson against Oklahoma State, the Colorado Buffaloes did not allow Kansas State to open up strong.  Instead, the Buffs dominated from beginning to end, rolling up the most points by a Colorado team in 20 years, mauling Kansas State, 59-11.

J.J. Flannigan rushed for a career-high 246 yards and four touchdowns as Colorado rushed for 518 yards.  The defense also contributed, holding Kansas State without a first down and only eight (eight!) yards of total offense in the first half.

Flannigan opened up the contest with a 57-yard run on Colorado’s first play from scrimmage.  On the next play, Flannigan scored from two yards out as Colorado posted a 7-0 lead in the first minute of play.  A few minutes later, quarterback Darian Hagan scored from a yard out, and the outcome was no longer in doubt.  On the day, Hagan rushed for 156 yards while passing for 69 more.  The numbers allowed Hagan to become only the fifth player in NCAA history to rush and pass for over 1,000 yards in the same season.  Hagan’s totals for 1989: 1,002 yards passing; 1,004 yards rushing.  Both totals could have been augmented against the porous Kansas State defense, but Hagan did not play in the fourth quarter as Colorado was already up, 52-8, at the end of the third.

Hagan was modest about his accomplishment, saying after the game that his rare achievement “hadn’t sunk in yet.”  Added Hagan: “I think my offensive line is more excited about it than I am.”  Others were more flattering.  First-year Kansas State head coach Bill Synder gushed, “To me, he seems to have done as much for his team as any football player in the United States.”  While Heisman voters were focusing in on Indiana’s running back Anthony Thompson and Houston quarterback Andre Ware, Hagan was receiving more and more attention on the national stage.  “If not this year, then maybe next year,” said Hagan of the Heisman.  “I think there may be one in my future, but I’m not thinking about that now.”

Six Weeks to History

After a final week of play which saw only a handful of teams compete, Colorado completed its third week as the nation’s No. 1 team with 51 first place votes.  Second-ranked Miami garnered four votes; third-rated Michigan one (apparently four voters took the week off, as only 56 of 60 voters posted their opinions).

On idle since the November 18th win over Kansas State, the Buffs had to content themselves with post-season honors.  Darian Hagan finished fifth in the Heisman race (to Houston’s Andre Ware), but it was still the highest finish of any Buff since Byron “Whizzer” White finished second in the balloting in 1937 (to Clint Frank, a Yale running back).

Hagan did receive the nod, though, as the Player-of-the-Year by The Sporting News.  “What he had meant to this team is immeasurable”, said Bill McCartney of his sophomore signal-caller.  Hagan’s total of 2,006 yards of total offense was the second-highest in school history (to Bobby Anderson’s 2,129 in 1968).  What made Hagan’s numbers more impressive, though, was that he accomplished his feat in only 33 quarters of play.  Colorado was so often ahead by such a large margin that Hagan often sat out the fourth quarter.  In fact, Hagan did not play in the fourth quarter of any game until the Oklahoma contest, Colorado’s eighth game of the season.  In a season which Colorado set 43 school records, including marks for touchdowns (59) and points (452), Hagan was the undisputed leader.

While Hagan was receiving his much deserved praise, his head coach was also finally receiving notoriety.  Bill McCartney, who in his eighth season had finally reached the .500 mark in overall record, was the unanimous choice for Coach-of-the-Year.

There was only one hurdle left for the Buffs and their head coach to overcome.  In the past seven years, seven teams had needed only a bowl win to secure a national title.  Six of those seven teams had lost.

If the title was to come to Boulder, it would take one more win.

Darian Hagan highlight video … 

Here is a YouTube video including highlights from the entire season … Enjoy! … 

Lou Holtz, “St. Sal”, and the media blitz

Colorado was relatively new to the scrutiny of the national media.  Not so Notre Dame, which had its own television network, NBC, to carry its games.  It came as a surprise, then, when Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz was caught on tape making disparaging remarks about his New Year’s Day opponent.  KCNC, a Denver television station, caught Holtz telling his team:

“Let me tell you what, they’re living a lie.  They’ve been living a lie all year …  They ain’t playing no Kansas State.”

Holtz quickly apologized, and both sides downplayed the comments.  Still, it was just another in a long series of criticisms faced by the Buffs all year.  Perhaps the worst came in an editorial in the November 7th edition of the Omaha World-Herald.  Written the week after Colorado defeated Nebraska to earn the right to play for the national championship, the editorial took the Buffs to task for its treatment of the death of Sal Aunese.  In calling Colorado’s dedication of its season, including keeping a plane seat empty for the trip to Oklahoma and sealing Aunese’s locker as a memorial, “an unseemly effort to hype his death.”  The editorial went on:

“What claims to secular canonization – St. Sal, as it were – could be made for Aunese? …  The Buffaloes might be good enough to have earned an Orange Bowl bid without their coaches’ exploiting the Aunese tragedy.  The way coach McCartney has played out this season, however, it will be hard for anyone to really know.”

Nothing had come easy for the 1989 Colorado Buffaloes.  Yet, as the nation looked on, the Buffs took the Orange Bowl field New Year’s night to complete the journey their fallen quarterback had asked them to take.

One more win for a perfect season and a national championship.

Game Twelve … 

Orange Bowl – January 1, 1990       No. 4 Notre Dame 20, No. 1 Colorado 6

It was not meant to be.

After Colorado squandered several excellent scoring opportunities in the scoreless first half, Notre Dame took advantage of its chances in the second half.  The Fighting Irish posted two touchdowns in the third quarter before utilizing a time-draining fourth quarter scoring drive to seal a 21-6 win over the Buffs.  The Colorado offense, which had averaged over 40 points per contest during the regular season, could only muster one touchdown, a 39-yard run by Darian Hagan in the third quarter.

The Buffs had only themselves to blame after a first half which had given Colorado the chance to take an early lead:

– In the first quarter, Eric Bieniemy fumbled at the Notre Dame 15-yard line as he appeared to be on his way to a touchdown.

– In the second quarter, Colorado had a first-and-goal at the Notre Dame one-yard line but failed to score.  On first down, Bieniemy appeared to have dived in for a score, but the officials marked him just short.  On fourth down, Colorado attempted a fake field goal, but holder Jeff Campbell could not find his receiver, freshman linebacker Chad Brown, and the Buffs came up empty.  A missed chip shot field goal only 23 yards out (after Ken Culbertson had set a school-record eight straight field goals during the regular season) added to the Buffs’ frustration.

“I blew it, plan and simple”, said a distraught Bieniemy after the game.  “I blew two scoring opportunities I should’ve converted.  Basically, I blew the game.”

Continue reading story here

Here is a YouTube video of the game:

Opportunity Lost

In the stands, we were celebrating.  In the second tier of the Orange Bowl, we watched as Eric Bieniemy jumped over the pile for a Colorado score.  7-0, Colorado over Notre Dame.

The celebration was short-lived.

The officials didn’t see what Brad, an Orange Bowl crowd of over 81,000, a national television audience, and I all saw.  The officials declared that Bieniemy had not scored.  A botched fake field goal attempt a few plays later left the game in a scoreless tie.  Throw in Bieniemy’s first quarter fumble and a missed 23-yard field goal attempt by the normally reliable Ken Culbertson, and the lengthy halftime show (a staple for Orange Bowl contests) was not a celebratory as the Colorado faithful had envisioned.  When the second half began with two Notre Dame scores, the national championship slipped through the Buffs’ fingers.

It didn’t help that the crowd was fervently in favor of the Irish.

Notre Dame has a strong national following, to be sure, but the Miami residents, who hated the Irish more than any Buff fan, were now cheering every Notre Dame success.  As the game wore on, the game took on a surreal feel, as there would be loud cheers throughout the stadium, even with nothing happening down on the field.  Miami fans had brought radios and portable televisions to the Orange Bowl, but instead of watching the game before them, the Hurricane partisans were listening to and watching the Miami/Alabama Sugar Bowl.  Whenever Miami scored, cheers echoed through the old horseshoe.  For the teams on the field, who may have been in a huddle when the stadium went nuts, the interruptions had to be a distraction.  For the few thousand Buff fans in the stands, the noise only added to the disappointment of what we were witnessing.

After the game, there was little to console the Buff fans.

Colorado was 11-1, had been ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history, and were destined to finish in the top five nationally for only the second time in 100 years of football.  There was much to be proud of, but it was hard to look at the big picture.

The Colorado football program had caught lighting in a bottle in 1989.  How long would Colorado and its fans have to wait for another golden opportunity?  Another 100 years?

Try 365 days.

Final 1989 AP poll – January 2, 1990

1. Miami (39)

2. Notre Dame (19)

3. Florida State (2)

4. Colorado

5. Tennessee

6. Auburn

7. Michigan

8. USC

9. Alabama

10. Illinois

11. Nebraska


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