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Colorado Buffaloes History Through Pocket Schedules: The Early 1980's

Schedule-1984_fball_big8_medium Schedule-1985_fball_big8_medium Schedule-1986_fball_big8_medium Schedule-1989_fball_big8_medium

Part 4 of a multi-part series; we have a retrospective of Colorado Buffaloes football seasons via pocket schedules. This edition covers Buffs Football during the pivotal 1980's. Images courtesy of Matthew Robins @BupsJones, a fellow Buff and avid pocket schedule collector. If you have CU Sports Papergoods, I believe he would like a tweet with you. Story brought to you by the Ralphie Report and the preseason football August Blitz.

The early 80's were dark times indeed. The national "economy" was such that 'stag-flation' was making a comeback, pop stars roamed the streets unchecked, and your Colorado Buffaloes football team was bad, bad, bad.

Le'mme throw some numbers at you. 1980 was Snidely Whiplash Chuck Fairbanks' second season, and his football team won only one game. One. The team opened the season by being down to UCLA 0-56 at the half, LSU 0-20 at the half, and then down 0-35 to Indiana at halftime in the home opener. They lost all those games. Then the buffs lost to Oklahoma, 42-82. A quote from Stuart Whitehair's archives:

All afternoon, Oklahoma ran the triple option right. The Colorado players knew it. The Colorado coaches knew it. Drunken frat boys in the student section knew it. Everyone in the stadium knew the play was coming. The Buffs just could not stop the Sooners’ backs. Oklahoma’s 758 yards rushing attests to the lack of a need for a passing game. Colorado just didn’t have the horses to keep up.

Oklahoma had 758 rushing yards in that game. The next week they lost, again, to Drake -- they're in Des Moines, I checked. October 1980 was truly the bottom of the mountain...

1981 wasn't much better. Fairbanks' last season the Buffs won three games but still were plastered along the way; shutout losses to Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Kansas. This was the 14th straight loss to Nebraska, and though they were unranked, it returned them to the rankings for the next 348 polls, until 2002. The NCAA record mark of 42 first downs that Nebraska set in that game stood for twenty years and a day. The only respectable win that year was an 11-10 victory over 7-5 Oklahoma State, the other victories were against Kansas St (2-9), and Texas Tech (1-9-1).

Worst of all in the 1981 season were the Buffs uniforms, mandated by the CU Board of Regents to align with the new school colors they selected in May of that year: Sky Blue and Gold. The famously unpopular uniforms that are usually attributed (and associated with) the Chuck Fairbanks traveshamockery were only worn by one of Fairbanks' squad, and were actually borne primarily by the early teams of his successor; Bill McCartney. Have a look-see:

Pictured: #16 QB Randy Essington and #48 RB Lee Rouson

Bizarrely, the end of the 1981 football season did not have CU Athletic Director Eddie Crowder throwing out the pro-style menace of a football coach. All the way through the spring (i.e. recruiting season) Fairbanks was still the Buffs' coach until he resigned the post at the end of May, 1982 to return to pro-football as the new coach of the New Jersey Generals.

Again from the archives:

The headline in the Denver Post the next day, June 1, 1982, announced: "The End of An Error".

Fairbanks' leaving, while not met with sorrow, did place Colorado at a tremendous disadvantage. As noted, most coaching slots are filled by January, so all of the coaches who may have been interested in the CU job had already found a position.

Athletic Director Eddie Crowder was going to have to convince a coach to leave their present position to:
1) take over a floundering program;
2) find assistant coaches;
3) be willing to enter into a season with someone else's players facing seven teams on the schedule who had gone to bowl games in 1981; and
4) be prepared to do it in three months.

It took just over a week to select a successor, and on June 9th the relatively unknown Bill McCartney was announced as the new head coach for Colorado from a pool which included the head coaches at BYU and Drake.

At his selection, McCartney had only been head coach of a high school team and his primary credentials were 1)having been defensive coordinator and assistant coach under Bo Schembechler at Michigan for 7 years, 2)a winning personality, apparently.

Since the new coach had only the August drills to become acquainted with his new team, it should not be surprising that the '82 Buffs went 2-8-1 on the season. Tiny rays of hope appeared on the defense, which held CU's opponents to an average of 27 points and a high of 45 (against OU), and posted a shutout in CU's 12-0 victory against Washington St.

Pictured: #87 TE Dave Hestera

The next year was slightly better, as the 'Golden Buffaloes' went 4-7 on the season, and showed improvement in running the pro-style offense, scoring an average 7 points more per game than all of the prior four seasons. Colorado was 2-4 when they traveled to Lincoln to face the #1 Cornhuskers. Colorado was only trailing 12-14 at halftime to the eventual conference champs, but in the third quarter, Nebraska pasted 48 points onto the Buffs, with a final score of 19-69. For the fourth year in a row, Nebraska nearly won a National Championship, this time losing to Miami in the Orange Bowl by a tipped 2-point conversion.

Pictured: No one, We weren't very good.

In 1984 the Buffs slid backwards, barely earning their one win against Iowa State, 23-21. Even that win took CU quarterback Steve Vogel drawing the Cyclones offsides on a long snap count to prevent the Cyclones from having a second-chance attempt at a field goal. That next week Buffalo tight end Ed Reinhardt was ferried back from the Eugene, Oregon hospital where he'd been in a coma since that second week loss to the Ducks. Fighting for their teammate, the Buffaloes put on the black jerseys for the first time in 5 years to face #5 Nebraska. The Buffs led 7-3 all the way to the beginning of the fourth quarter, but couldn't carry through on emotion alone, and ultimately fell to Nebraska, 7-24.

Pictured: Ralphie II "Look at the cute Buffalo! Please don't notice how bad we've been since 1978."

In 1985 Colorado shifted back to wearing Black and Gold full time, but that wasn't the only retro move by the Buffs; Coach Mac also decided to shift to the wishbone offense, a relic of the 1960's and 70's only seen anymore at Oklahoma, the service academies, and now; Colorado.

The move was criticized widely, as the pro-offense of the prior years had set Colorado passing records, and record-setting tight ends Jon Embree and Loy Alexander weren't the only players whose role would drastically change with the new system.

The Buffs started off well, handily beating CSU 23-10 and an exciting win against Oregon on the last play, when CU safety Mickey Pruitt sacked the Oregon quarterback to preserve the Buffs' 21-17 lead. A loss at #7 Ohio St. was bracketed by two more wins at Arizona 14-13 and at home against Missouri 38-7; marking the first time Coach Mac had beat his old Alma Mater.

Colorado lost to the three ranked opponents remaining on the schedule, #5 Nebraska 7-17, #12 Oklahoma St 11-14, and 0-31 against Barry Switzer's eventual national championship Oklahoma team. Along the way however, Colorado beat the two Kansas schools to finish the regular season 7-4, good enough for an invitation to the Freedom Bowl and for Bill McCartney to win the Big 8 Coach of the Year award.

The Buffs traveled to Anaheim for their first bowl game since 1976 to face off against the Washington Huskies who had been ranked 6th at the beginning of the season. Trailing 10-20 in the fourth quarter, sitting at 4th down on the UW 31 yardline, the Buffs lined up to punt; and threw the ball to tight end Jon Embree for a touchdown!

Though Buffs couldn't quite pull together to win, losing to Washington 17-20, things were finally starting to look better in Boulder. Punter Barry Helton was named a consensus All-American, the first for Colorado since 1979.

Part 5 continues the 1980's with the names, faces, and stories you know should already be in a movie...