The 1989 Colorado football team opened the season with the cloud of tragedy hanging over them off the field and an inferiority complex within their conference on it. They ended the season coming within one half of a national championship and providing inspiration to the country.
It had been 1976 since Colorado had represented the old Big Eight Conference in the Orange Bowl, where the league had an automatic bid. That in of itself wasn’t the source of the problem, but the Buffs had mostly fallen off the map. Bill Mallory, the coach of that ‘76 team had left for Indiana. A high-profile hire of Chuck Fairbanks away from the New England Patriots was a colossal bust and ended after three years.
Bill McCartney took over the program in 1982 and for three years his records were 2-8-1, 4-7 and 1-10. In the meantime, Oklahoma and Nebraska completely owned the Big Eight. Not only was the season finale between the Sooners and Cornhuskers always for the Orange Bowl bid, but everyone pretty much knew prior to the season that would be the case. Colorado joined the rest of the Big Eight as an afterthought.
The Buffaloes began their slow rise in 1985 when they reached a bowl game. In 1986 they sprung a shocking upset on Nebraska. In 1987 and 1988 they went a combined 15-7. They hadn’t stopped the Oklahoma-Nebraska game from settling the Orange Bowl spot, but Colorado was a program that was coming.
Prior to the 1989 season was when tragedy hit. Starting quarterback Sal Aunese was diagnosed with stomach cancer and he would not make it. Aunese had dated Kristin McCartney, the daughter of the head coach and she became pregnant. Coach McCartney was a member of Promise Keepers, a group of Christian evangelicals. His daughter chose life and the entire story—that of sin and mercy, and of a football team trying to move forward without its leader, became a national story and inspiration.
On the field, the Buffs still had talent. The offensive line was anchored by All-American guard Joe Gartner and included All-Big Eight performers in Mark Vander Poel and Darren Mullenberg. The defensive front seven had All-Conference players with lineman Arthur Walker on the interior, along with Kanvais McGhee and Alfred Williams controlling the edge.
The secondary didn’t have the same level of talent, but in the 1980s Big Eight that didn’t really matter. The option was what offenses were built on and Colorado was typical. Darian Hagan had the task of stepping for Aunese and Hagan only threw 85 passes for the entire season. Mike Pritchard was the leading receiver and he had twelve catches for the year. Yes, the old Big Eight was a lot different from the Big 12 it evolved into and not just in terms of membership and alignment.
Hagan was exceptional at running the option and went for over 1,000 yards on the ground and got honorable-mention All-American by season’s end. In the backfield, J.J. Flannigan cleared the 1,0000-yard threshold and future NFL talent Eric Bienemy chipped in over 500 yards .
Colorado opened the season ranked #14 and quickly set to work moving up the polls. They started with Texas on Labor Day. The Longhorns were a mediocre team, but one whose talent level still needed to be respected. The Buffs won 27-6. Five days later they hosted Colorado State, another average team, but this was a rivalry game on an extremely short week. No matter—Colorado won it 45-20.
It set up a big home game with 10th-ranked Illinois, who end the season as the Big Ten’s second-best team. The Buffs blasted the Illini 38-7 and were now ranked fifth in the nation.
There was a bye week following, and it was here that Aunese passed away. If Colorado wasn’t already a sentimental favorite across the country, they were now.
And they didn’t let up on the field, going to #21 Washington and delivering another easy win over a ranked opponent, this one 45-28. The pollsters nudged Colorado to #3 as the Big Eight schedule began.
The offense put up big numbers in the first three conference games, scoring 150 points combined and blasting Missouri, Iowa State and Kansas. The Cyclones were the only opponent of the group even remotely decent though. The real test was ahead the next two weeks, October 28 and November 4, when Colorado took on Oklahoma and Nebraska.
Oklahoma had already fallen from grace after a tumultuous offseason resulted in the firing of head coach Barry Switzer. These Sooners were not a national title contender, having already lost to Arizona and Texas. But OU still controlled their destiny in the Big Eight and as any team who has challenged a dynasty can tell you, the Old Guard rarely gives up its hold easily.
This game in Norman stayed scoreless for a quarter. Hagan made the first big play in the second quarter when he ripped off a 40-yard run that set up a touchdown. Colorado took a 10-0 lead into the fourth quarter, but an Oklahoma field goal kept them in striking distance with over fourteen minutes left.
It was the Buffs who finally got the big break, when they recovered a fumble inside the Oklahoma 10-yard line and turned it into a gift touchdown. Colorado closed out a 20-3 win. The first half of the Big Eight lock had been broken.
But the hard part would come the following week in Boulder. The national championship picture had taken on clarity—the Colorado-Nebraska winner was all but assured of going to the Orange Bowl and was all but certain to play top-ranked Notre Dame. A de facto national semifinal took place in Colorado on the first Saturday of November.
Nebraska’s offense was as run-oriented as Colorado’s but Cornhusker quarterback Gerry Gdowski made some big plays and one of them was a 51-yard touchdown strike to Bryan Carpenter for the game’s first score. Flannigan responded by bolting 70 yards to the house to tie it and a few minutes later Hagan ran in from a yard out.
Gdowski threw another touchdown pass in the second quarter, and Colorado got a 49-yard field goal just before the half to take a 17-14 lead. The Buffs started a good drive in the third quarter ,one that appeared to be snuffed out when Hagan threw an interception in the end zone. But pass interference nullified the pick, Colorado marched it in and took a 24-14 lead.
Before the third quarter was out, Gdowski struck again. For the day, he only completed 11/27 passes, but they went for 211 yards and he threw a third touchdown pass from 26 yards out. The game went to the fourth quarter at 24-21.
Colorado got a field goal with a little less than nine minutes to go and was still leading 27-21 when Nebraska got the ball at their own 12-yard line with 1:40 left. Gdowski made it interesting, driving the Cornhuskers to the Buffalo 42 and being able to toss one desperation pass into the end zone. Colorado defended it and the party could start in Boulder.
The Orange Bowl bid was sealed the following week with a 41-17 rout of subpar Oklahoma State and a 59-11 blasting of lowly Kansas State wrapped up the undefeated season. By the time New Year’s Night came around ,Colorado had moved to the top of the polls. Notre Dame lost in Miami on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The Irish had already accepted the Orange Bow bid though, so they were still the last hurdle Colorado had to clear.
There was still skepticism over whether Colorado was in the class of teams like Notre Dame, Miami or Florida State. That was best summed up when news cameras caught Irish coach Lou Holtz talking to his team about the Buffs and using none of the usual coach-speak–”They’re living a lie” was the quote that came out of it.
For thirty minutes of football, Colorado looked ready to make believers out of the country. They had a 6-0 lead on Notre Dame, but had also missed opportunities. Those came back to haunt when the Irish offensive line took over the second half and churned out a 21-6 win.
The Colorado dream season was over, but this program had provided inspiration thanks to their coach’s compassionate response to his daughter’s pregnancy and his team’s courageous response to the loss of their quarterback. And on the football field they set the stage for even bigger things—in 1990, they made it back to the Orange Bowl, got a rematch with Notre Dame and this time they finished the deal and won a share of the national championship.