September 15th – at Washington State          Cancelled

It was supposed to be a test.

Two teams who had struggled in 2000 were to use the September 15th match-up to make a statement to the rest of the college football world that they were back.  Colorado was 2-1 on the young season, coming off of two dominating performances.  Washington State was 2-0, shaking off the effects of a 4-7 campaign in 2000 with two easy wins over local rivals Idaho and Boise State.

Both teams wanted to use the game as a springboard to the national consciousness and to spark nervousness amongst those teams in the upper echelons of their respective conferences.

Neither would get the chance.

September 11, 2001, intervened.

On that black Tuesday, four American airplanes were hijacked.  Two struck the World Trade Center towers in New York, a third struck the Pentagon, while a fourth came to earth in the fields of western Pennsylvania.  Thousands of innocent lives were sacrificed in the name of a terrorist attack on the United States.  The American way of life had been changed forever.

While all America huddled around their televisions in a vain attempt to understand what had befallen them, it short order a question had to be addressed:

What of the games that Americans played and watched?

Everyone agreed that the significance of athletic competition paled in comparison to the tragedy which was being played out in two of the nation’s most prominent cities.  Everyone also agreed, however, that it was important that terrorism not be allowed to interrupt the American way of life.  It was vital that the nation return to some semblance of normalcy as soon as possible.

But how soon?

Major college football, without a commissioner or other centralized leadership, was split.  Some conferences, including the Big 12, decided to go ahead with the games of September 15th.  Other conferences, such as the Pac-10, postponed conference games.  Teams playing non-conference games were allowed to decide for themselves whether to play. Colorado Athletic Director Dick Tharp, in conversations with his counterpart at Washington State, agreed to play the game as scheduled.

On Thursday, September 13th, the National Football League decided  to postpone its games scheduled for September 16th.  This started an avalanche of cancellations, as baseball, golf, tennis, NASCAR, and all other major sporting events were postponed or cancelled.

Rather than play a partial schedule, all remaining college football games, including Washington State/ Colorado, were scrubbed.

Was it the right move?  In hindsight, the answer has to be “Yes”.

The country was not yet ready to “return to normal”.  Americans needed a chance to catch their collective breaths, to mourn, to recover from the shock of what had been so vividly displayed on their televisions.  For the first time in almost sixty years, America was under attack.  How was that possible?  Worse, we couldn’t readily identify the enemy to fight.  We didn’t know what to do, or where to turn.  In light of the chaos, it would take time to even pretend that sports mattered.

Al Michaels of ABC Sports, who had been there for seemingly every memorable sporting event from the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey “Do you believe in miracles?” win over the Soviet Union to the 1989 World Series interrupted in San Francisco by an earthquake to the Gulf War Super Bowl, best summarized the silence of the weekend of September 15-16, 2001:

“We must stop writing and talking about how something like this ‘puts it all in perspective’.  If someone needs Korey Stringer’s death (a Minnesota Viking lineman who had died of heat stroke during training camp), an earthquake or a terrorist attack for perspective, they’re out of whack.  You shouldn’t need someone to die to be able to say, ‘It’s just a game.’ ”

Many of the college football games of September 15th were ultimately re-scheduled.  The Colorado at Washington State game, though, was cancelled as there were no open dates available to the two teams (the teams would eventually make up the game in 2004).

Washington State went ahead and scheduled Division 1-AA Montana State as a replacement, while Colorado, which would still have an 11-game schedule even without the Cougar game, decided to proceed on to its eight-game conference schedule with a 2-1 non-conference mark.

This left the Buffs with two weeks to prepare for the Kansas Jayhawks.  Kansas was 1-1 on its season, having defeated Southwest Missouri State in its opener before falling 41-17 to UCLA.  The game appeared to be an easy win for the resurgent Buffs, but Kansas had a 3-3 record against Colorado since 1995, and no team coming off of a 3-8 season could afford to look past any opponent.

Game Notes:

– September 11, 2001, was one of those dates in our history where those who lived through it will always remember where they were when they first heard the news. My story: The Gallatin Empire Lions Club of Bozeman, Montana, (I’ve been a member since 1990) meets every Tuesday at 6:30 a.m., and September 11, 2001, was no different. My first hint of a problem came on my drive to work after our meeting. The radio station I listened to, normally filled with music and banter, was instead waiting for CBS news updates. At the time, there was still mass confusion. The second plane had yet to hit the World Trade Center, so the initial speculation centered on a major accident, not a terrorist attack. It was only a few minutes later, as the nation watched on in horror, that it became clear that this was a day which would have long-lasting implications.


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