Back from the store

In Bozeman, I received updates from ABC and ESPN throughout the afternoon (concerning the 41-20 romp by 7th-ranked Colorado over Iowa State). Frustration with the Buffs’ inability to put away ISU was quickly forgotten when the highlight of Rashaan Salaam’s touchdown run flashed across the screen. The play made for perfect theater. Salaam reached the 2,000 mark at home, running right in front of the CU bench, on a 67-yard touchdown run to clinch the win.

If Salaam had not already clinched the Heisman, that highlight alone may have sealed the deal. It would be replayed numerous times in subsequent weeks as college football analysts debated the issue.

Content with the afternoon’s events, I went to the store with my wife, Lee. Some time later, we returned to find the answering machine blinking. It was Charlie B., my college roommate, calling from Nashville, Tennessee. “What is McCartney thinking?”, Charlie asked me by way of tape. “What is going on?”

Not understanding the message, and assuming Charlie was merely upset about Bill McCartney’s play-calling on the day, I returned the call. It was then that I learned the reason for the tone in Charlie’s voice. I quickly clicked on the television, turned to ESPN, and quickly had confirmed for me what Charlie was telling me.

Colorado head football coach Bill McCartney was resigning.

Press Conference

Shortly after the Iowa State game had come to an end Bill McCartney came to the post-game press conference, something he had done 162 times before. His opening remarks were standard fare: “I want to celebrate all of these things that happened out there today …. Rashaan’s tremendous abilities and the support he had was just extraordinary …. And I felt really good about Kordell getting that record in the Big Eight (Stewart became the all-time total offense leader on the day – Stewart would finish his college career with 7,770 yards in total offense) because he hasn’t really received his due in my opinion.”

Then Coach Mac dropped his bombshell.

”I have an announcement to make. Lindi (McCartney’s wife), would you come up here? I have a lot of family here, and I’m resigning effective this year. I’m going to see us through the bowl game, if I’m permitted, and through the school year. But, we really need to get a new coach named prior to going out and recruiting.”

The questions from the astounded and unprepared press were predictable:

Why? “It’s time. I’ve been here 13 years and I just feel it’s time.”

Going to another school? The NFL? “There’s going to be rumors, or whatever. I’m not going anywhere.”

When did you decide? “Recently. Recently. I didn’t know how it would work out today, but I knew that today was the day to announce this.”

Colorado fans and players were shell-shocked. McCartney had been given a “lifetime” 15 year contract after the 1989 season. As it turned out, though, the contract was for five years with extensions. The first term of the contract expired January 1, 1995, and that was when Bill McCartney was to step down.

In his book, “From Ashes to Glory“, McCartney explains his decision:

“On the field I had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. But on the home front, as a husband and father, I often felt like a failure. I was so busy pursuing my career goals that I was missing out on the Spirit-filled life that God wanted me have.”

McCartney caught a great deal of flak from the media because of the timing of the announcement. Rashaan Salaam had just a few minutes earlier capped perhaps the greatest single season in Buff history; Kordell Stewart perhaps the best-ever career. But the headlines the morning after the Iowa State game were all about McCartney and his announcement. McCartney’s explanation: “I’d already told so many people that I knew the news would get out soon, and I wanted to be the one to tell the players.”

Marolt’s Bold Move

Colorado Athletic Director Bill Marolt was now faced with a difficult decision.

Replacing a head coach is always difficult, but in most instances the team needing new leadership is one in disarray, suffering from a string of losing seasons. McCartney was going out on top, with ten wins already posted with a bowl game still to play. Marolt received letters and faxes from “too many applicants to count”, and while several former CU assistants who were now head coaches (Illinois’ Lou Tepper, Northwestern’s Gary Barnett, and Vanderbilt’s Gerry DiNardo included) were considered, there were only four official candidates for the job. All four were in-house.

Four existing CU assistants were considered, each bringing different assets to the table. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz had seniority, with ten seasons in Boulder. Offensive coordinator and guards and centers coach Elliot Uzelac had the distinction of being the only candidate with head coaching experience (Western Michigan, 1975-80 and Navy, 1987-89). Assistant head coach and defensive line coach Bob Simmons already had the title of assistant head coach on his resume. Only Rick Neuheisel, the 33-year old quarterback and receivers coach, did not possess at least the title of coordinator.But Marolt chose Neuheisel.

“The thing I like about him is that he’s got a tremendous competitive background,” said Marolt of the 21st head coach in Colorado football history. “He’s been very successful at every level, but the thing that impressed me is that he didn’t accomplish those things as a celebrated athlete coming out of high school. He was somebody that walked on, somebody that took the challenge.”

Marolt’s reference to Neuheisel’s upbringing would become a familiar story to Buff fans. After leading his Tempe, Arizona, high school team to the state championship, Neuheisel walked on at UCLA, only to lead the Bruins to a Rose Bowl win his senior year (with Neuheisel being named MVP of the game). Brief stints in the USFL and NFL led to a job as an assistant at UCLA before being named to the CU staff February 28, 1994. Nine months later, Neuheisel was the Buffs’ head coach.

Head coach Bill McCartney, who had endorsed Bob Simmons for the post, was nonetheless was supportive of the choice: “He’s a very gifted young man who is equipped to do what is necessary.” All that was left was for Neuheisel to head out on the recruiting trail, convince 18 year olds that the winning tradition established by Bill McCartney would continue.

No small task.

Picking up the Hardware

Oh, by the way …

After the nine-day whirlwind which struck Boulder on November 19th with McCartney’s announcement and ended with Neuheisel’s hiring, CU players and fans had the opportunity to turn their attention to matters more immediate, like the awarding of the Heisman and other year-end awards.Salaam’s 2,055 yards rushing seemingly guaranteed the Heisman, but there were other candidates. Penn State’s tailback Ki-Jana Carter and quarterback Kerry Collins led the undefeated and second-ranked Nittany Lions, while quarterback Steve McNair was putting up gaudy numbers for Division 1-AA Alcorn State. In the week leading up to the presentation, the media was convinced the race would be close.

When the announcement was made, however, it was a landslide. Salaam tallied 400 of 792 first-place votes, totaling 1,743 points. Carter was a distant second with 115 first-place votes, 901 points overall. Salaam, media-shy from his first days at Colorado, tried to down-play the honor. “Everybody is always singling me out. I don’t like that. I just want to be part of the group.” Salaam, though, was no longer part of a group. In addition to becoming the first-ever Buff to be awarded the Doak Walker Award (to the nation’s top running back) and the Walter Camp Award (to the national player of the year), Salaam was now to be forever linked to the Heisman. From his performance in the Fiesta Bowl to his position in the NFL draft, he would forevermore be referred to as: “Rashaan Salaam, Heisman Trophy Winner”.

Speaking of the NFL draft, speculation immediately began as to whether Salaam would return for his senior year. Only Archie Griffin of Ohio State had ever won two Heisman trophies. Would Salaam attempt to become the second? Fans would have to wait, as all Salaam would say was that he would announce his intentions on January 6th, after CU’s battle with Notre Dame in the Feista Bowl.

Meanwhile, as Salaam was recording frequent-flyer miles receiving numerous national awards, the Buffs were again honored when senior defensive back Chris Hudson was presented with the Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back. Winning out over Auburn’s Chris Shelling and Colorado State’s Greg Myers, Hudson followed former teammate Deon Figures as the second Buff to win the Thorpe in three years.

“He’s the best I’ve ever coached,” said secondary coach Chuck Heater. “He’s the best production guy, the best overall player, one with real smarts for the game.” Still, Hudson could not believe he had won. “I really couldn’t believe I won it”, said a choked up Hudson. “But it’s a dream come true.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *