Dr. Tom

In everyone’s life, there are “remember where you were when” days. For better or worse, you always seem to remember where you were when you heard President Kennedy was shot, when man first walked on the moon, or when the Challenger disaster first crossed the television screen.

For Colorado college football fans – okay, maybe only the Colorado college football fans I know – we can always remember two dates. The first, November 19, 1994, was when Coach Bill McCartney announced, immediately after CU running back Rashaan Salaam had pushed his total rushing yards over the 2,000 mark against Iowa State, that he was retiring. The second is October 25, 1986, the date of the 20-10 CU win over Nebraska.

We could now add December 10, 1997.

I was in a bank drive-thru, waiting my turn in line. I was on my way home in the late afternoon, and I was passing the time listening to a sports talk show on the radio. The announcer came on with a “Sports Flash” to discuss the reaction to Coach Osborne’s announcement, acting as if everyone already knew.

I was flabbergasted. Coach Tom Osborne of the Nebraska Cornhuskers was stepping down after 25 years. There had been some health concerns earlier in the season, but this was quickly dismissed as the reason. “Dr. Tom”, as he was so often referred to, was simply ready to move on.

The legacy was unequaled. 254 wins after claiming the Big 12 Championship against Texas A&M in a 54-15 thrashing. No fewer than nine wins in any of his 25 campaigns. 25 bowl games. A consecutive run in the Associated Press rankings dating back 16 years. Two national championships. Big 8/12 titles and records by the Big Red truckload. And on, and on, and on.

Osborne had his share of detractors. Allowing convicted criminals like Lawrence Phillips and Christian Peters to play during Nebraska’s championship runs in ’94 and ’95 gave rise to “win at all costs” criticism. Osborne himself was perceived as aloof and cold. But you couldn’t ignore the success, both on the field and off (Nebraska annually ranked among the leaders in academic All-Americans).

For me, as a Colorado Buffs fan, it had to be perceived as a blessing. No matter who Nebraska hired (longtime assistant coach Frank Solich proved to be the choice), they certainly could not do any better than Coach Tom had. The perception, then, would be one of a drop off. Perhaps not immediately, but inevitably. This gave new reason to look forward to 1998. The spirited run at Nebraska in the fourth quarter of the ’97 season’s final game seemed to breathe new life into the Colorado players.

Dr. Tom’s announcement seemed to breathe new optimism into the Colorado fans.

O-fer 1997

Just when it seemed that the collapse of 1997 had been put behind us, and focus could be placed on 1998, a second post-season shock hit CU Buff fans. In early March, 1998, after an internal investigation, the University of Colorado athletic department announced that the Buffs would be forfeiting all five of their 1997 wins due to the use of an ineligible player. Due to what athletic director Richard Tharp attributed to an error in record-keeping by registrar office employees, fullback-linebacker Darren Fisk had been allowed to participate in his sixth year of college enrollment, a violation of NCAA rules.

“When errors are discovered, we make every effort to fully investigate and disclose our findings”, Tharp said in a statement. After graduating from high school in Los Gatos, California, in 1992, Fisk first attended Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Fisk did not play in 1992, but did play one game at linebacker in 1993 before transferring to Colorado. Fisk sat out his transfer year (1994), then lettered for the Buffs in 1995, ’96, and ’97. Apparently, the registrar’s office had assumed that Fisk had received a medical hardship waiver for one year while in California, thus making Fisk’s sixth year, 1997, possible. This assumption cost the Buffs five wins.

In the grand scheme of things, the forfeits were of little consequence. No scholarships were lost due to the violation, nor any revenues from television appearances past or future. The CU penalty was merely a paper loss. If the Buffs were to be competitive in 1998, the forfeits could be used as a motivational tool. The current roster of players could move forward.

To statistic junkies such as myself, however, the forfeits were devastating.

Keeping track of where the Buffs rate nationally and in conference is to me one of the intriguing parts of my passion for Colorado football. I had always taken some measure of pride in not having an asterisk next to Colorado’s name in the Official NCAA Record Book. Now there would be an * next to the Buffs’ listing, as there was for Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Tennessee, Washington, and a dozen others. The * sent the reader to the end of the column for the explanation: “Includes games forfeited or changed by action of the NCAA Council and/or Committee on Infractions”. Despite the fact that the Buffs’ infraction was relatively minor, the all-time record was now forever stained.

Colorado, which would have been poised, with seven wins in 1998, to join only 15 other schools which have posted 600 victories, were again stuck at 588. Washington (with 585) and Auburn (583) began 1997 behind the Buffs, but were now ahead in the race to become the 16th team in history to join the elite club. Other similar records, including all-time winning percentage (CU had entered the 1997 campaign ranked 20th nationally) were also to be affected.

1997 was indeed a lost season.

Perhaps the only consolation of the forfeits was the lack of attention it received. Coming in March, with the NCAA basketball tournament about to begin, the five additional losses caused little stir. Had the Buffs gone 13-0 in 1997, the forfeits would have been national news.

As it turned out, they were only of concern to those of us who cared about Colorado football.


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