Welcome to CU History Week. From Monday until Friday, we will have a miniseries of five articles that celebrate the Colorado Buffaloes’ proud history.
To kick off the series, we’re looking at the most iconic uniform numbers, which will be power ranked from 10 to 1. These rankings are semi-qualitative, meaning the author went through historical rosters and Hall of Fame lists and wrote down names for each number, then each player was assigned 5 points for being a Hall of Famer, 3 points for being a great and 1 point for being a really good player. These qualifications are loose, as you can see that Phillip Lindsay is considered a HOFer while Bill Brundige (a real HOFer) is considered a good player.
Honorable Mentions Part I
These are the five best ever single-player numbers. They are the iconic numbers you may think of when you think of CU football, but they couldn’t crack the top 10 because they only had one iconic player wear them. (These are in descending order of iconography.)
81 - Michael Westbrook
11 - Bobby Anderson
24 - Whizzer White
10 - Kordell Stewart
94 - Alfred Williams
It’s worth mentioning that this is unfair to Bobby Anderson and Whizzer White because those two are so historically important that they had their numbers retired. If Chidobe Awuzie got to wear #24 — which he wears on the Dallas Cowboys — then Whizzer would be on the top 10 list.
Honorable Mentions Part II
These are the normal honorable mentions. They are the jersey numbers with multiple all-timers, but they either didn’t have the star power or the sheer quantity of other numbers. Sincere apologies to Chris Naeole and Andre Gurode, who I tried to get onto the list but their #65 has been turned into a long snapper number.
17 - Lawrence Vickers, Tim James
14 - Joel Klatt, Boyd Dowler, Koy Detmer
44 - Jordon Dizon, Mark Haynes
7 - Jashon Sykes, Bernard Jackson
88 - Herb Orvis, Bill Brundige, Dave Logan, Matt Lepsis, D.J. Hackett
15 - Chad Brown, Jeremy Bloom, Ryan Walters, Jason Espinoza
65 - Chris Naeole, Andre Gurode
8 - Sal Aunese, T.J. Cunningham, Darragh O’Neill, Demetrius Sumler, Anthony Julmisse
The Top 10
The best player to ever wear #16 was Matt Russell, the 1996 Butkus Award winner, arguably the best ever linebacker in CU history. Additionally, All-American defensive back Cullen Bryant, Mason Crosby, the late Drew Wahlroos and CU Hall of Famer Eddie Crowder all wore it.
Michael Lewis seems to be overlooked in CU history, but is likely the second best defensive back in program history and certainly the best ever safety. There’s also Dick Anderson, an old Hall of Famer who played safety as well. The number has been given to middle linebackers recently, such as Jon Major, Kenneth Olugbode and the promising Jonathan Van Diest.
When talking about Laviska Shenault, Jr., his name comes up in comparison to a great history of CU receivers. Michael Westbrook (#81) won the Bilitnekoff Award, but it’s Mike Pritchard who is the most naturally gifted receiver in history, unless the answer is Viska. Also wearing #9 is Charles E. Johnson, another iconic receiver who starred alongside Kordell Stewart and Westbrook. The number has good depth, as Tedric Thompson (the best safety since Lewis), Tyler Hansen and Javier Edwards wore it. Juwann Winfree and Chidera Uzo-Diribe also deserve shoutouts.
If there is any iconic number since the McCartney era, it would have to be #22. That image invokes Chris Brown running through Nebraska, Lorenzo Sims shutting down receivers, Arthur Jaffee embodying the Embree era, and Nelson Spruce putting up stats in shootout losses. It has some 90s nostalgia too, as the great George Hemingway wore #22 on the National Championship team.
Colorado has not had any great tight ends in a long time, and that makes it easy to forget how many all-timers they have at the position. Four of them wore #89: Daniel Graham, J.V. Cain, Don Hasselbeck and Joel Klopfenstein. Graham was unstoppable in the early 2000s and won the John Mackey Award. Cain is an underrated all-timer whose legacy was cut short by his tragic death at age 28. Hasselbeck was an All-American in the mid-70s. Klopfenstein was just a damn good blocker paving the way for Bobby Purify (#42), Hugh Charles (#2) and Lawrence Vickers (#17).
Eric Bieniemy is possibly the best ever running back in program history, whose tiny legs powered CU to the 1991 National Championship. His #1 is low on star power, but that shows how great he was. After him, the best #1 is Ben Kelly, the great cornerback and kick returner of the early 2000s. Then you have Shay Fields and Afolabi Laguda, plus some other guys I’m sure I forgot about.
CU really did win a National Championship with an option offense led by a 5’7 running back and a 5’10 quarterback. If Bieniemy carried that team on his short legs, Darian Hagan was the little magician making things go. He’s also extended his legacy as a running backs coach who has developed Rodney Stewart (#5), Phillip Lindsay (#23), Travon McMillian (#34) and Christian Powell (#46). Also wearing #3 is Jimmy Smith, who only allowed one touchdown in his senior year and it was to A.J. fucking Green on a one-handed catch, as well as cult heroes K.D. Nixon and D.D. Goodson.
There is an argument that #23 has the best one-two punch of any number on here. Phillip Lindsay is the biggest badass pound-for-pound in Buffs history; he and Sefo Liufau (#13) carried that 2016 offense on sheer will power. Then there’s Cliff Branch, the Hall of Fame receiver whose track star speed was instant death in the early 1970s. After those two, Jalil Brown and Ahkello Witherspoon are both lockdown corners who were overshadowed by superstar teammates (Jimmy and Chido).
If there is one player who can make a number iconic on his own, it would be Rashaan Salaam’s #19. The only Heisman winner in program history was also an outstanding person off the field and in the Boulder community. CU retired his number after his tragic death in 2016. Greg Biekert also wore the number, but #19 was going to be this high regardless.
If you argue against Lindsay-Branch as the best one-two in CU history, it would be because Deon Figures and Laviska Shenault are better. Figures won the Jim Thorpe Award in 1992 and is probably the best defensive back in CU history. With good health, Viska could overtake Westbrook and Pritchard to be the best ever receiver. They are truly dominant players whose presence either closed off one half of the field, or they are such a gifted playmaker that all eyes are on them every second they’re on the field. There is also J.J. Flannigan, the underrated running back who rushed for nearly 1200 yards and 18 TDs in 1989. After those three, #2 has some solid depth, most notably Hugh Charles, Ken Crawley and Devin Ross, as well as the ghost of Darrell Scott.