The 1990 Season – A Look Back

Preseason … Great Expectations, Colorado Style 

How things looked in August

In 1989, Colorado broke the hold the “Big Two” had maintained over the rest of the Big Eight since 1976. In 1990, there would be plenty of competition for the Big Eight Champions from Boulder, both for conference and national honors. Back in the hunt for the national championship were many of the teams which had vied for the title in 1989. Defending national titleist Miami was the preseason pick by many to finish No. 1, while 1988 champ Notre Dame was the favorite of many others. There was also support for Michigan, Colorado, Florida State, and Auburn.

When the 1990 preseason Associated Press poll was released, Miami carried over its No. 1 ranking from the end of the previous season, but was far from a consensus choice. Miami received 24 first place votes, edging out No. 2 Notre Dame, which garnered the support of 22 voters. Others receiving support as the nation’s top team were preseason No. 3 Auburn (three first place votes), No. 4 Florida State (six votes), and No. 5 Colorado (four votes). The most curious vote for No. 1 went to Michigan State. The Spartans had finished 8-4 in 1989, and were placed in the top ten by only one other voter in the preseason tally. As a result, Michigan State began the 1990 campaign ranked 23rd (the Spartans would go to finish 8-3-1, ranked 16th in the final poll).

Colorado’s opponents for 1990 were sprinkled throughout the preseason poll. Colorado would open against No. 8 Tennessee in the Pigskin Classic. Up later were contests against 11th-ranked Illinois and 20th-rated Washington. The Big Eight would feature only two games against ranked opponents, 22nd-ranked Oklahoma at home and No. 7 Nebraska on the road. As the curtain was raised on the 1990 season, it appeared as if the Buffs could make it through the 1990 non-conference slate unscathed, that a run for the national title was again in the offing.

But that was a pretty large “if”.

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Game One …

August 26th – Pigskin Classic – Anaheim, California            No. 5 Colorado 31, No. 8 Tennessee 31

Colorado and Tennessee utilized contrasting styles in posting 31 points each as the 5th-ranked Buffs and the 8th-ranked Volunteers fought to a 31-31 draw in the opening game of the 1990 season. Colorado overcame five turnovers to put together 368 yards rushing, while Tennessee twice overcame two touchdown deficits in the fourth quarter to salvage the tie. Colorado’s Mike Pritchard, subbing for the suspended Eric Bieniemy, rushed 20 times for 217 yards, the sixth best rushing day in Colorado history, and the best opening day effort ever.

The Buffs committed three first quarter turnovers, including a Pritchard fumble on Colorado’s first play, yet trailed only 7-0. A methodical 19-play, 97-yard drive put the Buffs back in the game, culminated with a one-yard scoring plunge by senior fullback George Hemingway. The teams were knotted 10-10 at halftime.

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Game Two … 

September 6th – Boulder           No. 6 Colorado 21, Stanford 17

Stanford head coach Dennis Green was 3-8 in his first year in Palo Alto in 1989, which may have given CU fans a false sense of security heading into CU’s 1990 home opener.

Instead of being an easy mark, Stanford came to Boulder ready to play.

Stanford raced to a 14-0 first quarter lead before a stunned Folsom Field crowd of 50,669. It took the entire game for Colorado to right the ship, pulling out a 21-17 win as Eric Bieniemy scored from a yard out on fourth down with only 12 seconds remaining to give Colorado the win.

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Game Three … 

September 15th – at Illinois           No. 21 Illinois 23, No. 9 Colorado 22

Howard Griffith scored from a yard out with 1:18 to play to give the Fighting Illini a 23-22 win over Colorado. 21st-ranked Illinois exacted a measure of revenge for the 38-7 pasting the Buffs had put on the Illini in 1989, pulling out the win on a 10-play, 63-yard drive to erase a 22-17 deficit. Quarterback Jason Verduzco did what his famed predecessor, Jeff George, could not – he out-performed the Colorado defense. Verduzco completed 23-of-29 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns in leveling Illinois’ record at 1-1.

Colorado jumped out to a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter. After spotting Illinois a 3-0 lead, Darian Hagan led the Buffs on a nine-play, 80-yard drive, finished off by a two-yard touchdown run by fullback George Hemingway. An interception by safety Tim James led to a 54-yard field goal by junior Jim Harper raised the lead to 10-3. Less than two minutes later, after a 42-yard punt return by Dave McCloughan, Hagan hit wingback Michael Simmons for a 32- yard touchdown pass to give the Buffs a 17-3 cushion.

A touchdown drive late in the second quarter by the Illini changed the course of the game. What was maddening for the Buffs after the game is that the score shouldn’t have come to pass. A third-and-nine pass was bobbled by linebacker Chad Brown, allowing running back Wagner Lester to grab the ball for an 11-yard gain. “It wasn’t a strong pass,” said Brown after the game. “I just couldn’t bring it down.”

Still, things looked good for Colorado, as the defense later forced a fourth-and-15 at the Colorado 36-yard line. Illinois head coach John Mackovic decided to go for it. “I wanted them to go for it,” Bill McCartney said later. Unfortunately for the Buffs, the Illini completed a 17-yard pass, then scored on an eight yard pass from Verduzco to Elbert Turner with 28 seconds left before halftime.

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Game Four … 

 September 22nd – at Texas          No. 20 Colorado 29, No. 22 Texas 22

Colorado returned to the win column with a hard-fought 29-22 victory over Texas. Eric Bieniemy scored three touchdowns on the day, including the go-ahead touchdown with 5:57 to play. For the game, Bieniemy rushed for 99 yards, while his backfield mate, fullback George Hemingway, posted 76 yards rushing on only seven carries.

The game was one of streaks, with neither of the nationally ranked teams able to take complete control.

Two Darian Hagan fumbles in the first quarter led to two Texas scores. The first led to a six-yard touchdown pass from Peter Gardere to Kerry Cash. Then, after Hagan connected with fullback George Hemingway on a 38-yard touchdown to tie the game, a second Hagan fumble led to a 47-yard field goal by Michael Pollak just before the end of the first quarter.

10-7, Texas.

The Buffs took their first lead of the game midway through the second quarter with an 11-play, 75-yard drive capped by an Eric Bieniemy two-yard touchdown run. A second Pollak field goal just before half, this time from 25 yards out, cut the Buffs’ lead to 14-13 at the break.

The third quarter was all Texas. The Longhorns kept possession for 12:17 of the quarter, allowing the Buffs only five offensive plays. Still, Texas could only post one score, a two-yard run by Phil Brown. The score made it 19-14, with the score remaining there a few moments later when a two-point conversion pass fell incomplete.

The Buffs were down only one score, but it may as well have been three scores, considering the momentum of the game.

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Alfred Williams recalls Bieniemy rallying the troops

When, in 2010, linebacker Alfred Williams was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, one of the games which stood out in his mind was the 1990 Texas game. Williams told about the pivotal fourth quarter:

“I remember that fourth quarter of the Texas game my senior year when we took over,” Williams said.  “It had been so long since we were in that kind in situation, trailing on the road in the fourth quarter (22-14) in a hostile environment, I am pretty sure for the first time since my sophomore year.

“EB (Eric Bieniemy) led the offense out on the field between the third and fourth quarter to fire up the defense, what many say was the turning point of the season.  It worked, and we held them to a field goal (to keep the score manageable, at 22-14), the offense came back and I was fortunate to end the game with a sack in the end zone for a safety to seal the deal.  But very rarely did we correspond so-to-speak during the game because EB was offense and I was defense and we were seldom on the sidelines at the same time.”

Darian Hagan looks back at the Texas game … 

Game Five … 

September 29th – Boulder           No. 20 Colorado 20, No.12 Washington 14

In a battle between two ranked teams in search of national recognition, Colorado held off a late Washington drive to defeat the Huskies in Boulder, 20-14. A defensive first half gave way to a flurry of scoring in the third quarter, with the game ending with the Colorado defense backed up against its goalline. Sophomore cornerback Deon Figures intercepted a Mark Brunell pass in the endzone with only :59 left to play to preserve the Colorado win.

The first drive of the contest was all Washington, as the Huskies took the opening kickoff and marched 80 yards in 15 plays to post a 7-0 lead. The Washington drive consumed 8:35 of the first quarter, keeping the football away from the explosive Buff offense until only 6:25 remained in the opening stanza. The Washington score made Colorado opponents in 1990 a perfect five-for-five – in each game the Buffs’ opponent scored first.

All Colorado could muster in the first half on offense was a 47-yard field goal in the second quarter by Jim Harper. Fortunately for the Buffs, the Colorado defense stymied the Husky offense the remainder of the half, limiting Washington to only 21 yards after the impressive opening drive.

The halftime score was 7-3, Washington.

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Game Six … 

The controversial ending no one could see coming – and few got to watch

On October 6, 1990, the 12th-ranked Colorado Buffaloes traveled to Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri, to face the Missouri Tigers.

A top five team in the 1990 preseason poll, the Buffs had completed the non-conference portion of their schedule 3-1-1. Colorado tied No. 5 Tennessee to open the season, beat Stanford at home, and fell on the road to No. 21 Illinois before rebounding to defeat No. 22 Texas in Austin and No. 12 Washington in Boulder (yes, that’s right. Four ranked teams in five non-conference games – and the lone unranked opponent, Stanford, went on to upset No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend a few weeks after falling to Colorado).

Missouri, under third year head coach Bob Stull, entered the contest with a 2-2 record. The Tigers had defeated Utah State and Arizona State, but had fallen to TCU and Indiana. The Tigers and 46,856 faithful fans were anxious to play the 12th-ranked Buffs. Missouri had owned the Buffs for many years, building a 33-13-1 series edge through 1984. Colorado, however, had run off five straight wins in the series heading into the 1990 game.

The big games of the day pitted No. 9 Miami against No. 2 Florida State (a 31-22 Miami victory) and No. 13 Illinois against No. 20 Ohio State (a 31-20 win for the Illini). Two undefeated top ten teams lost that Saturday, with No. 1 Notre Dame falling to Stanford, 36-31, and No. 7 Oklahoma falling to Texas, 14-13.

With such a big day in college football nationwide, there was no national or even regional television coverage of the Colorado/Missouri game. The game was televised locally in Denver on KCNC, though, preserving for posterity one of the most controversial endings in college football history.

October 6th – at Missouri           No. 12 Colorado 33, Missouri 31

Eric Bieniemy rushed for 217 yards against Missouri to become Colorado’s all-time leading ground gainer, but his accomplishment went completely unnoticed as Colorado scored on the last play of the game to pull out a controversial 33-31 win. Soon after the game ended it was confirmed that Charles Johnson’s score from a yard out to give Colorado the victory had actually come on a fifth down play.

The five play sequence went as follows:

1st-down-and-goal – Missouri three-yard line (:31 remaining in the game): quarterback Charles Johnson spikes the ball to stop the clock;

2nd-and-goal – Missouri three-yard line (:28 remaining): running back Eric Bieniemy up the middle for a gain of two yards (final time out, Colorado);

3rd-and-goal – Missouri one-yard line (:18 remaining): Bieniemy up the middle for no gain – referee stops the clock as players unpile;

4th-and-goal – Missouri one-yard line (:08 remaining): Johnson spikes the ball to stop the clock; and

5th-and-goal – Missouri one-yard line (:02 remaining): Johnson sneaks in around right end for the game-winning touchdown.

The game’s final play overshadowed not only Bieniemy’s record performance, but also the efforts of wideout Mike Pritchard, who scored on a 68-yard reverse and a 70-yard pass from Johnson, as well as those of Charles Johnson himself. Johnson, a junior, starting for the first time in his career, completed 10-of-18 passes for 151 yards, and led the Buffs to the fateful touchdown to cap a 15-play, 88-yard drive after Missouri had retaken the lead, 31-27, with only 2:32 to play in the game.

The game should have been remembered as a tight game with multiple momentum swings. The game was tied three times (7-7; 14-14; and 24-24), with the lead changing hands five times. The Buffs’ final drive (shown in its entirety in the video, above) had an 18-yard scramble by Johnson, a 22-yard completion from Johnson to tight end Rico Smith on a third-and-ten, and a 15-yard run by Bieniemy. The drive also shows a number of slips by Colorado players when they were in the open field, including the completion down to the three yard line to set up the final five-play sequence.

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Here is the YouTube video of the Final Drive (note how many times CU ball carriers slip on the turf during this drive alone) …

Game Seven … 

October 13th – Boulder           No. 14 Colorado 28, Iowa State 12

The controversy over the “Fifth Down” game continued to swirl around Boulder during the week after the Missouri game.

Playing as if the distraction had affected the team’s preparation for its next opponent (and who is to say it didn’t?), Colorado fell behind Iowa State 9-0 early in the first quarter, needing to rally to come away with a 28-12 home win over the Cyclones.

The Buffs utilized three quarterbacks on the afternoon, not pulling away from the Cyclones until the third quarter. Despite the early deficit, the win over Iowa State represented the first game of the 1990 season a Colorado game which was not decided in the final minute of play.

Early on, it appeared it would be a long afternoon for Colorado.

Iowa State, which had dropped six straight to Colorado, scored on its opening drive. The Cyclones drove 80 yards in eight plays, with quarterback Chris Pederson hitting fullback Sundiata Patterson with a six-yard pass and a 6-0 lead with only 3:26 gone in the first quarter (the extra point was botched). “I can’t explain why they went through us in the opening drive,” said head coach Bill McCartney. “They didn’t do anything we weren’t expecting.”

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Game Eight … 

October 20th – at Kansas           No. 14 Colorado 41, Kansas 10

Colorado put together a complete game for the first time all season, scoring on its first drive on the way to a 17-0 first quarter lead and a 41-10 win over 1-4-1 Kansas.

Eric Bieniemy rushed for 174 yards on the afternoon, but his three touchdowns were the story of the day. Bieniemy’s second touchdown tied, and his third touchdown broke, Bobby Anderson’s record for career rushing touchdowns. Bieniemy new touchdown total was 35, setting the new standard with five games still to play.

Colorado scored first in a game for the first time in 1990, with a 36-yard field goal by Jim Harper to give the Buffs an early 3-0 lead. A 31-yard touchdown run by Eric Bieniemy, who had 174 yards on just 18 carries on the day, gave Colorado a 10-0 lead midway through the quarter. The rout appeared to be on when Darian Hagan hit Mike Pritchard for a 44-yard touchdown with time still left on the first quarter clock.

Kansas did make a game of it briefly in the second quarter.

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Game Nine … 

October 27th – Boulder           No. 10 Colorado 32, No. 22 Oklahoma 23

Like the Buffs, the Oklahoma entered the 1990 campaign with high hopes.

Five weeks into the season, the Sooners seemed to be well on their way to realizing their dreams. Oklahoma took a 5-0 record and a No. 4 national ranking to play Texas in Dallas, only to be turned away by the unranked Longhorns, 14-13. The loss was hard to take, but not nearly as debilitating as the loss the next week to Iowa State, 33-31. The upset by the Cyclones left the Sooners looking for answers as they headed to Boulder. Now ranked 22nd in the nation, Oklahoma was riding a two game regular season losing streak for the first time in almost a decade. Colorado already had a loss and a tie, but was undefeated in Big Eight play.

With Nebraska still undefeated, the Sooners and the Buffs knew that the loser of their game was likely out of the race for the Big Eight championship.

In a game filled with anxious moments and big plays, the Colorado Buffaloes finally prevailed over the Oklahoma Sooners, 32-23. Each team posted scores in all four quarters as neither team could take control. In fact, the game turned on a controversial call by Oklahoma coach Gary Gibbs early in the fourth quarter which turned the momentum finally in the Buffs’ favor.

The game started poorly in the eyes of most of the sellout Folsom Field crowd of 51,967. Oklahoma scored on its opening drive of the game, going 80 yards on 16 plays to take a 7-0 lead, with the six minute drive capped by a five-yard run by quarterback Cale Gundy. The Buffs responded with two Jim Harper field goals to cut the lead to 7-6 midway through the second.

Oklahoma quickly expanded the edge to 14-6, though, scoring on an 80-yard pass from Mike Gundy to Ted Long on the Sooners’ next play from scrimmage. The Buffs appeared to be reeling, as on Oklahoma’s next possession, the Sooners drove deep into Colorado territory. The Buffs’ defense stiffened, though, and Oklahoma was denied a 17-6 lead when a 37-yard field goal attempt by Oklahoma kicker R.D. Lasher was blocked by Colorado free safety Greg Thomas. “That was a big play,” coach Bill McCartney would say after the game. “It shifted things around.”

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Here is the YouTube video of the game … 

Game Ten … 

High Stakes

The stakes for the 1990 clash between 9th-ranked Colorado and 3rd-ranked Nebraska could not have been higher. For the winner, the Big Eight championship, a spot in the Orange Bowl, and a shot at the national championship awaited. For the loser, a second place finish and a second tier bowl.

Nebraska was 8-0 and playing at home; Colorado was 7-1-1 and had hopes of a shot at redemption in the Orange Bowl.

Against that backdrop, a national television audience witnessed one of the best fourth quarters in Colorado history.

November 3rd – at Nebraska                                No. 9 Colorado 27, No. 3 Nebraska 12

For three quarters, the Nebraska Cornhuskers kept the Colorado offense at bay.  For three quarters, Nebraska looked to be national championship contenders.

For three quarters, Eric Bieniemy, the nation’s leading rusher, played so poorly it appeared he would be the goat of the game.

Unfortunately for the Cornhusker faithful, the fourth quarter was played.

At the end of the third quarter, the scoreboard read: Nebraska 12, Colorado 0.  The Buffs were on the verge of being shutout for the first time since Nebraska turned the trick two years earlier in Lincoln.  Eric Bieniemy had fumbled four times, losing three on the cold and rainy afternoon.  “I was frustrated, disgusted, you name it,” said Bieniemy.  “It was just basically a lack of concentration.”

With the start of the final quarter, though, the Buffs had the wind at their backs; the season on the line.

Down 12-0 after Nebraska scored late in the third quarter on a 46-yard pass from Mickey Joseph to Johnny Mitchell, the Buffs took off on their first extended drive of the game. Marching 71 yards, Bieniemy scored from a yard out to cut the Nebraska lead to 12-7. Biemiemy’s run was just the second rushing touchdown allowed by the Cornhuskers all season.  “It all came down to this play,” said Bill McCartney.  “The offense created a new line of scrimmage, and Bieniemy went over.”

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Here is the YouTube video of the game (feel free to fast forward to the start of the fourth quarter) … 

Game Eleven … 

November 10th – Boulder           No. 4 Colorado 41, Oklahoma State 22

Before November 10, 1990, the record for touchdown passes in a single game at the University of Colorado stood at three, and even that relatively low number had been reached only seven times in the 100-year history of the program.

That mark was finally erased as Darian Hagan passed for four scores and a career high 237 yards in leading the Buffs to a convincing 41-22 win over Oklahoma State. A sell-out crowd of 51,873 was on hand as several Colorado players followed Hagan into the record books.

Joining Hagan in the statistical barrage were Eric Bieniemy and Mike Pritchard. With his 148 yards, Bieniemy, already the all-time rushing leader in Colorado history, continued to mount his assault on 4,000 career yards (he would reach 3,940, not counting bowl game efforts). Pritchard caught six Hagan passes, a career high, for 151 yards and two scores. Pritchard’s effort represented only the fourth occasion in school history that a receiver surpassed the 150-yard barrier receiving.

The game itself was only in doubt for only about a quarter or so.

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Here are YouTube highlights of the game … 

Game Twelve … 

November 17th – Boulder           No. 2 Colorado 64, Kansas State 3

In routing Kansas State, 64-3, the Colorado Buffaloes clinched a second consecutive Big Eight Championship, the only team other than Nebraska and Oklahoma to do so since 1941.

Finishing the season on a nine-game winning streak, the Buffs scored on seven of their first eight possessions in cruising to a 40-3 halftime lead. Darian Hagan ran for two first quarter scores, passing for another in amassing 278 yards of total offense in just over one half of work. The demolition of the Wildcats, who came into the contest with a respectable 5-5 season record, served notice to Notre Dame and the rest of the college football world that the Buffs were ready to play for the national title.

Again joining Hagan in the statistical onslaught were Mike Pritchard and Eric Bieniemy. Pritchard scored on a 48-yard pass from Hagan and on a 70-yard reverse, totaling 152 yards rushing and receiving. Bieniemy, the nation’s leading rusher, ran 22 times for 115 yards. Bieniemy did not score, but his 1,628 yards rushing for the season bested Charlie Davis’ 19-year old school record by 242 yards.

On the afternoon, Colorado posted 634 yards of total offense, the fifth-highest mark in school history. The 64 points scored bested the 62 points scored against Wyoming in 1940 to set a school high at Folsom Field.

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Orange Bowl Preview … 

Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame

Rooting for Notre Dame is hard for any Buff fan.

It was the Irish who had deprived the Buffs of a storybook ending to the 1989 season. Now, in November, 1990, with Notre Dame and Colorado No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation, and Notre Dame having already accepted an invitation to play in the Orange Bowl against the Buffs, Colorado fans had to root for the Irish.

Even though a Notre Dame loss to Penn State or USC would mean Colorado would obtain the No. 1 ranking for the first time in 1990, the Buffs had to cheer, cheer, for ol’ Notre Dame. If Notre Dame maintained its top-ranking, the Orange Bowl would be the national championship game, winner take all.

So Colorado fans had to root for the Irish.

Naturally, they let us down.

While Colorado was completing its regular season 10-1-1 by dismantling Kansas State, the Irish blew a 21-7 halftime lead in succumbing to Penn State, 24-21. The Irish were now No. 7, and the allure of a title game in the Orange Bowl was lost. “I think having Nos. 1 and 2 playing would have eliminated a lot of speculation,” said Buffs’ head coach Bill McCartney. “It would have been a more clear-cut.”

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Game Thirteen – The 1991 Orange Bowl … 

January 1st – at Miami – Orange Bowl           No. 1 Colorado 10, No. 5 Notre Dame 9

In a game largely devoid of offensive highlights, the Colorado Buffaloes overcame the loss of two key starters to defeat Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, 10-9. The hard-fought win enabled Colorado to stake a claim to the Buffs’ first-ever national football championship. An Eric Bieniemy one-yard touchdown run tied the score midway through the third quarter, with Jim Harper’s extra point providing the margin of victory.

Neither the Buffs nor the Irish could dominate their opponent. In the end, the game would come down to the final minute – and one last controversy for Colorado.

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Here is the YouTube video of Rocket Ismail’s punt return in the final minutes … 

Here is the highlight video containing the entire second half …

Or, if you prefer, a seven-minute highlight film of the entire game …

Split Decision

The next day was one of celebration for both Boulder, Colorado, and Atlanta, Georgia. The two major polls, the Associated Press poll of the nation’s sportswriters and the United Press International poll of college coaches, were split. The AP poll gave the national championship to Colorado; the UPI poll gave the nod to Georgia Tech.

The Associated Press poll was the fifth tightest in the 55-year history of the poll. Colorado received 39 of the 60 first place votes, while Georgia Tech received 20 and Miami one. Overall, CU received a total of 1475 poll points; Georgia Tech 1441. In the United Press International poll, the margin was even slimmer. Georgia Tech received 30 first place votes to 27 for Colorado (and two for Miami). In the point totals, though, the Yellow Jackets just edged out the Buffs, 847-846. It was widely reported that the last coach to vote came in at 5:15 Eastern Time on January 2nd. At the time, the vote was dead even. Nebraska’s Tom Osborne refused comment as to whether his vote denied Colorado the consensus national title, but Missouri head coach Bob Stull, whose team had been victimized by the “Fifth Down” controversy, indicated that he had in fact voted for Colorado.

“We would like to have won it (unanimously)”, said Colorado head coach Bill McCartney upon returning home to Colorado, concluding that coming out on top of the majority of all of the polls was “good enough for us”. In all, Colorado finished first in the Associated Press poll, the USA Today/CNN poll, the National poll, and the Scripps Howard power rankings. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, bested the Buffs in the UPI poll and the Scripps Howard writers poll.

“It’s a dream come true”, said McCartney when the AP poll was announced. “I accept this on behalf of all our coaches. They really coached this team. It’s really a gratifying reward for me to be a part of it.” Still, McCartney needed to defend his Buffs. “No one should expect us to defeat (Notre Dame) decisively. They’re just too good; they’re too talented. Just to beat them is enough. That ought to be evidence enough that you should hang on to your ranking.”

The Buffs had claimed their first national sports championship in any sport other than skiing. A split vote quieted the celebration – but only slightly.

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And, finally … 

Here is a 17-minute YouTube video, with highlights from every game of the 1990 national championship season … 

And an hour long look back at the season, including interviews … 



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