If you are going to win only one game …

Bill McCartney and I have at least one thing in common.

Both of us came to Boulder in the early 1980’s wondering, “Who is Colorado’s rival?”.

McCartney came to Colorado from Michigan, where the Wolverines had multiple rivals, including Michigan State, Notre Dame, and, of course, Ohio State. The Buffs, when McCartney came to Boulder in 1982, were lacking in that department. Colorado had not played Colorado State since 1958, and was still a year removed from the state legislature mandated renewal of the rivalry. Colorado had beaten Nebraska only once in 20 years, and was on a 14-game losing streak to the Cornhuskers (with exactly zero of those games being within two scores at the final gun). The Buffs final game of the season was usually against hapless Kansas State. Colorado had a successful college football history – but no rival.

I was in a similar quandry when I arrived in Boulder. Growing up in Bozeman, Montana, home of Montana State, there was no question who was the rival – Montana. The Bobcat/Grizzly game was always a war, and for the better part of my formative years, the Bobcats were on the winning side. MSU won seven of ten games in the 1970’s, and the most successful decade in school history included a Division II national champioship in 1976. To the winner of the “Brawl of the Wild” (a more recent moniker which has yet to really catch on) got the spoils. Some of my favorite early sports memories involve calling out “Pooooooor Griz-zlies! Poooooooor Griz-zlies!” at football and basketball games when the results were no longer in doubt.

So it was surprising to me that Colorado did not really have a rival.

Of course, Bill McCartney changed all that, nominating Nebraska as Colorado’s rival, and spending the better part of his 13-year stint as the Buffs’ head coach trying to raise the bar in Boulder to the level seen for decades in Lincoln. It is safe to say that, if it were not for McCartney’s challenge, Colorado would not be playing Nebraska the last regular game of every season, which has been the case since the Big 12 was formed in 1996.

Which brings us back to 2009. Nebraska and its fans, taking the lead of former head coach Tom Osborne, refuse to acknowledge Colorado as its rival. Still, the Buffs have won four games against the Cornhuskers this decade, the best ten year span for the program since the Buffs went 6-3-1 against the Cornhuskers in the 1950’s. Colorado fans see red when Nebraska comes to Boulder, and the Buffs would like nothing more than to derail the Cornhuskers’ season with a victory next week.

Would a win over hated Nebraska be enough to save Dan Hawkins’ job. Now 16-32, Hawkins is setting all kinds of records at Colorado – all bad. Over the past two seasons, Colorado has lost more consecutive road games – and more consecutive conference road games – than any other team in Colorado history. The Buffs are awful against teams in the Big 12 North (1-2 against Kansas; 1-2 against Kansas State; 0-3 against Missouri; 1-2 against Iowa State; 1-1 against Nebraska) – in an era when the Big 12 North is down. (Anyone want to pit the Buff teams from the late 80’s to mid-90’s against the North teams of today? No question: Colorado would be a regular in the title game).

When Colorado was ahead of Oklahoma State – a ranked team, on the road – there were signs of what could be. The defense (granted, it was against backup quarterbacks) was playing well, while the offense showed glimmers of possibility. Then penalties, missed opportunities, and poor play calling shook us back into reality.

Another loss. 3-8.

Would a win over Nebraska mean that all is forgiven? ESPN’s Chris Fowler, a CU alumnus who was calling the Oklahoma State game said, both at the beginning and at the end of the game, that “the money is there” for a Dan Hawkins’ buyout. With the loss to the Cowboys, even the defenders of the program are growing silent.

But ….

Never underestimate the power of a win over a hated rival.

Back to Montana State/Montana. By the time Sonny Lubick left (yes, that Sonny Lubick) after the 1981 season, the Bobcats had fallen on hard times. Doug Graber lasted a year as head coach, with assistant Dave Arnold taking over in 1983.

Dave Arnold went 1-10 as Montana State’s head coach in 1983, the worst record for the Bobcats since the 1969 team went 1-8.

But Arnold kept his job.

His one win? You guessed it. Over Montana. The Bobcats, who were held under 20 points by every other team on the 1983 schedule (and who didn’t score a touchdown in five of those games, averaging less than ten points per game on the season), beat the Grizzlies, 28-8.

Dave Arnold kept his job.

And, for you Dan Hawkins’ loyalists still out there, I give you this happy ending …

In 1984, a year after going 1-10, head coach Dave Arnold led the Bobcats to a 12-2 record – and the Division 1-AA national championship.

So, coach Hawkins, if you are going to win only one game …

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