Remembering ’90: A season on the brink

Anybody out there old enough to remember the weekend sports show on ABC, “The Wide World of Sports?” I sure hope so because your knucklehead scribe sure does. The opening for the show always ended with: “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

That statement would accurately describe the drastically different moods present for the Colorado Buffaloes football teams separated by 25 years of blood, sweat and toil on the gridiron.

Saturday evening, before a raucous crowd of more than 66,000 at Sports Authority Field in Denver, the 2015 edition of Buffs football overcome an early 14-point deficit and fought off the Colorado State Rams to win in overtime. As Hall of Fame coach Bill McCartney might say, “it was a gritty win” for head coach Mike MacIntyre’s team. Honestly, it was a critical win for a squad that could not afford a loss to its in-state rival in its quest to win seven games and appear in the program’s first bowl game in almost a decade. It was “do-or-die” and the Buffs rose to the challenge. Bravo for job well done.

An emotional MacIntyre exalted Buffs Nation afterward. It was a huge win, a tremendous confidence booster in game three of the season and exuded the “thrill of victory.”

Meanwhile, a quarter century ago, in a cramped and odorous locker room in the bowels of a stadium on the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign, the talented Buffaloes were downtrodden and saddled with the “agony of defeat.”

It was the low point of a very disappointing start in what was supposed to be a national title-contending season. For the second time in three games Colorado blew a 14-point lead, bowing to Illinois 23-22. Future Broncos fullback Howard Griffith scored the game-winner for the Fighting Illini, who would go on to finish the season in the nation’s top 25. The loss plummeted the Buffs from ninth in the country to 20th and seemingly, ended any chance of winning a national championship.

I’ll never forget working the CU locker room afterward as the “Buff Guy” for KCNC-TV in Denver, the “Home of the Buffs” at the time. It was a somber dungeon of defeated and disgruntled warriors who understood the ramifications of letting another winnable game slip from their grasp. To a player, each muttered, “We gotta forget about all this national championship talk and focus on winning the Big 8.” Even McCartney conceded such, saying afterward in somber tones, “I think this loss takes us out of consideration for anything like that.”

Longtime Boulder Daily Camera sports writer Barney Hutchinson summed up the mood of the Buffs quite well with this gem: “Funeral services were formally held for such words as ‘University of Colorado, 1990 National Champion’ on Saturday afternoon.” Ouch.

It was a long flight home from the Midwestern plains of central Illinois. Since I traveled with the team on its plane, it was always interesting to observe how it handled victory and defeat. The Buffs were 1-1-1 after three games and had been written off as contenders for a national championship. Back then, before the current playoff system, it was about rankings and perceptions, in each Colorado was in free fall.

It’s strange how life works sometimes. What’s the ol’ saying? “Sometimes you gotta hit rock bottom before you begin to climb.” While disappointed in their efforts through three games, the players, coaches and staff of the 1990 Colorado Buffaloes had to refocus and get ready for two more challenging non-conference games and the pending Big 8 season. There was a title to defend.

Character is most often revealed by how we react to disappointment, right? Whenever blessed to stand before an audience and deliver a peak performance Pep Talk, when talking about effectively dealing with adversity, your scribe and their speaker encourages those gathered to make a choice, “Are we going to be victims of the circumstances or students of the experiences?”

As the Buffs’ charter plane landed at Denver’s Stapleton airport and a humbled herd of Buffaloes lumbered onto buses for a return trip to the Boulder campus, I’ll never forget the look on their faces. Each was etched with disappointment. This talent-rich squad had struggled through the season’s first three contests.

“The pride and tradition of the Colorado Buffaloes football team will not be entrusted to the timid or the weak.” It’s been the mantra of CU football for decades. The 2015 edition honored that spirit with an impressive come-from-behind win over Colorado State. The Buffs found a way to win.

25 years ago, a trio of contests were in the books and it was not unfolding according to the game plan. A veteran team with outstanding senior leadership and future NFL stars was just trying to find its way beyond the disdain of underachievement. A road tussle with the nationally-ranked University of Texas Longhorns was next on the schedule. Again, stealing one of Billy Mac from Hackensack’s lines, “Tough sledding ahead.”

As the 1990 squad prepared to venture deep into the heart of Texas for an evening collision with the ‘Horns, not even the most devout Buffaloes faithful envisioned a miraculous campaign that would produce the school’s only national championship.

It was a season on the brink.