Colorado Football National Champions

by Jim Harrington

The casket was closed when the service was open to the public. It was over twenty five years ago but the greyness of the day in a town with over 300 days of sunshine a year will never be forgotten. Nearly the entire University of Colorado at Boulder campus community came out to say a final goodbye to the beaming light of twenty one year old Sal Aunese. His radiant smile melted the hearts of many.  It seemed impossible that such an exuberance of life could be gone so soon. Just an hour earlier his casket was open and the service was closed to just family, including his newly born son, coach, friends and CU teammates. To Bill McCartney, a very religious man and the Head Coach of the CU Buffs football team, Sal Aunese was not just a star Colorado University quarterback he recruited; Sal was family. Sal’s playful bountiful life and promising football career was tragically cut short by inoperable stomach and lung cancer. His spirit lived on in the team he led.1991 cu buffs 7

Sal wrote a parting letter to University of Colorado Football Team and it was shared on this grey day with all the university. The team wanted the campus to know what they would be doing on Sal’s behalf.

My dearest teammates, coaches, friends and brothers, whom apart from my family I do hold so close,

I come to you all with love and encouragement to continue to do what you, we all, have been doing since our season first started, only to excel and better ourselves mentally, physically and spiritually. Unity is our strength and love is our guide from here on in. Don’t be saddened that you will no longer see me in the flesh, because I assure you I will always be with you in spirit. Hold me dear to your hearts as you know I do all of you. Strive only for victory each time we play, and trust in the Lord for He truly is the way! I love you all, ‘go get ’em’, and bring home the Orange Bowl.

Love, Sal

The entire campus was in mourning for the loss of a fellow Buff at the start of the 1989 football season. CU football players were seen on campus, in class and in practice with a new focused determination. The time to mess around with youthful play things was over. Now was the time to get serious. And serious they were. It was palatable. You could see it in their walk. There was little talk. They were on a mission for Sal. With missionary zeal in remembrance for their fallen leader and friend they held back their personal grief and had a perfect regular season with eleven wins averaging 27 points in their favor and no losses. It was an amazing accomplishment to steamroll through the regular season but it was not enough. It could never be enough.

To be truly perfect they needed one more win. Do it for Sal. Do it for the redemption of CU’s collective sorrow. But for their last game they had to wait from November 18th until January 1st and in that time they lost a little bit of their motivational oomph. They had too much time to reflect on feelings and not enough time to just be playing hard. They were determined it was going to be the storybook perfect ending as they entered the Orange Bowl ranked for the first time ever as the nation’s number one college football team. In the true end zones of life football is only a game and in all games there are many wins and even more learning opportunities both on the field and off. After their 21-6 loss to Notre Dame CU’s dream 1989 season ended and the Buffs finished fourth in the national polls. Grief, like life, does not follow perfect seasons. Life is messy. CU Buffs had to let go of the perfect before grace could shine through their cracks of sorrow. But still what a year it was to roar to an 11-0 regular season record with the first ever short lived number one national ranking in CU’s football history. The fourth place final ranking was still the second best ever for the Buffaloes at that time. But there was still an ache to be even more.

1991 cu buffs 6The next year, 1990, the CU Buffs would not be perfect and even at times they looked like a mess but they would be, with the help of a little grace, National champions.

CU football began in 1890 with a 103-0 loss on their first home game. It took one hundred years of learning experiences on the field for CU to become national champions.1989 was just one more year in the long journey to being the 1990 National Champions. The team that would stand shoulder to shoulder for each other first stood on the shoulders of others. CU’s legacy of champions included two of the school’s most famous football alumnus whose jersey numbers had been retired. Byron White played for the “Thundering Herd” in the 1930s, and led the Buffs to their first bowl appearance – the 1938 Cotton Bowl. He was also a Rhodes Scholar and played in the NFL briefly. In 1990 he was still serving as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court where he had previously voted in such landmark rights cases as Miranda vs. Arizona in 1966 and Roe vs. Wade in 1973. Joe Romig was a two-time first-team All-American short stocky lineman, Rhodes Scholar, Astrophysicist that worked on the Voyager missions and explosion expert witness who taught astronomy classes on campus. Many football players from the 1990 team took classes from Joe who could challenge the aspiring astronomy doctoral student and inspire the freshmen music student into learning about the beauty and wonder of the stars.

1991 cu buffs 5Team work won the 1990 national championship but it really first began with dream work in in the winter of 1983 when Bill McCartney asked all the in-state players not to make a decision until they visited CU. He wanted them to come in the last weekend before signing day. They gave their word and most of them held to it. The CU buffs stuck together, and they helped recruit a great class in 1987 that made up the core of the national championship team. Raw high school superstar talent would become seeds in the fertile Boulder campus landscape that CU College coaching staff would water to grow strongly linked Buff team roots. Roots than continue to grow as friendships today. The growth of these roots you could not always see back then but one day under an Orange Bowl sun in 1991 they would shoot upward for the privilege to shine on as national champions.

Recruitment was the key to the Buffs success. The best teams are made up of the best players, and those players live primarily in Texas, California, and Florida. “There’s this misconception out there that guys outcoach each other,” Coach McCartney said. “Coaching is overrated, and recruiting is underrated. The reason we won is that we had the best players.” Those players, hit harder, ran farther, passed better, kicked better etc. Coach McCartney did not just pitch to the kids he met with their moms and promised to look over them and help guide them not only into outstanding athletes but also into men of character and integrity. The tactic worked and it was a promise kept. When a kid accepted a visit to CU, the coach knew he had his opening. “I would pick them up at the airport,” McCartney says, “and as we got to the top of that hill on U.S. 36 that overlooks Boulder, I’d pull over. I’d have them get out of the car, and I’d ask them, ‘Have you ever seen anyplace this beautiful?’ ”It wasn’t just a line. McCartney thought Boulder was a little slice of heaven. And because he believed there was no better college town in America, he could promote it. Fortunately Boulder is just the right size, not too big, not too small and has access to a major city in Denver. The populace and all that goes with that, the professional teams, the arts, a major airport providing access to wherever you’d want to go. The aesthetic beauty of Boulder, Colorado is that it has no parallel, and offers what Coach McCarthy called the ‘maximum experience. “You look at its extraordinary beauty, when every day you wake up and say, ‘All right, let’s get up and get it on.’ When you look at the academic experience, there’s none better. We have more winter sunshine than Phoenix, Miami or L.A. You look at the whole experience and not just focus on football and say, ‘What do you want out of life?’ When you add all those things up, Boulder and CU can’t be matched. I’ve been looking around all these years, and nobody else can match what Colorado can offer—the premier college experience in America.” Coach McCarthy continues on: “When I was recruiting, I would say there are other schools that have won more games, others that have better academics, others that might have a better campus. But not all three in a package like the University of Colorado. I personally believed I had the greatest product to offer, and I truly believed what I was saying. I never had a kid say to me even once, ‘Coach, you oversold me on Boulder.’” McCartney’s captivating personality probably had much to do with the team’s success. Recruits responded to his enthusiasm, his vigor, and his ability to inspire. He coined phrases such as, “Big dreams create the magic that stirs men’s souls to greatness.” Dream big and with a little grace a team can become great. Coach McCartney was building something special and he brought exceptional talent to Boulder which often came with large personalities. Coach McCartney’s steadiness brought them together as a team.  A team with many great players that would encourage each individual to rev up their game, to fight for each other, to care for each other, and share in the glory.

Sal Aunese was one of those with such tremendous raw talent he was considered by others a “Born Leader”. He was fearless running the ball, could throw well enough and had the ability to inspire a team to be its best. At age ten when others were eating pop tarts he was doing push-ups getting ready for the game. He started playing quarterback at an early age and that gave him a view of the game thinking about what other people were doing on the team and how that effected moving the ball down the field. Sal had a genuine caring and affection for his teammates. And most importantly he had the ability to teach people to have a caring affection for others as well. Coach McCarthy recruited amazing talented players that were superstars in high school. When they got to college they learned that alone they were not the super stars that they thought they were. Darian Hagan was a start quarterback in college at CU he was second string. He was a little intimidated by the talent around him. Sal pulled him aside and let him know he saw him as being even better at the job than he was he just had to stay with it. When Sal got sick Darian had to step up so much earlier than anticipated. Sal loved the game. If he could not play, he was on the sidelines cheering on his team, and when he could not be on the sidelines he was in the box seats watching. Knowing what Sal was going through in his treatments pulled the team together. When they scored they pointed to the stand to let Sal know this was for you. Sal always pointed back to them. The team and the game were his motivation. Too sick to play but not too sick to provide some peer coaching he would come to the quarterback meetings. Over time teammates saw Darian pick up the mannerism of Sal, his cadence his knack for talking to the team in a huddle, moving down the field. Sal may have been “Born to Lead” but he shared what he knew freely for the betterment of all his team. When Sal passed the team kept pointing just higher in the sky now. For the senior players 1989 was the championship year fueled by the emotion of giving it all on the field of play for Sal. It was then that the small “I” of each player died and truly a ‘team’ was formed. It was for Sal. The players needed little coaching. It was perfect until the championship. 1990 would be different they would need all the coaching and grace they could get because everybody was gunning to take them down.

1991 cu buffs 41990 was not a perfect season. Senior team leaders graduated and moved on. Life is messy and awkward. It was awkward in previous seasons when Sal told Coach McCartney he would not marry the coach’s daughter but he would be the father to the coach’s grandson. Even in the awkward and messy moments of life there is no excuse to stop learning and get better. Grief is not linear. Winning a championship game could never make up for losing a friend no matter how hard one tried. Grief needed it’s time to winter in solace, shed some tears begin to bloom in spring enjoying the emergence of tender delights and have time to play with other friends and family just for fun in the summer. The CU Buffs would play in the fall of 1990 still in remembrance of their teammate Sal but also for themselves and all the seasons of their lives that they shared on the field and outside of the game. They were still focused and determined to win but even more dangerous to their opponents they became playful once again. It was a playfulness that Sal would have appreciated. The playfulness showed their joy in life returning and a depth of talent in the team to begin to shine on with help from coaching staff.

In 1990 the CU Buffaloes played the nation’s toughest schedule and scored a total of 338 points while defense only allowed 160 points to earn a 11-1-1 record overall, with a rematch and win 10-9 over Notre Dame’s fighting Irish in the Orange Bowl cementing the school’s first national championship. For the second straight year, CU logged a 7-0 record in league play, marking the first time that the Buffs had claimed the Big Eight Conference title in back-to-back years. That was really all that Coach Bill McCarthy was shooting for. Trying to win the national championship just had too many variables that were outside the team’s control. The 1990 season was very difficult. Bill McCartney said “The schedule is particularly tough…We’re going to have to look at 1990 as two different seasons, the non-conference and the conference. We’ll have to regroup and take inventory after the non-conference schedule to see how we’ve come through it and re-identify our goals.” When the coach says he wants to ‘re-identify our goals’ mid-season; you know it’s going to be a rough year. Six of CU’s regular season opponents ended the regular season ranked in the Top-20, and four of them won their conferences.(Tennessee, Illinois, Texas, Washington). Because CU was so successful last year each opponent showed up to give their best effort to defeat CU and put them in their rightful place. For CU each game would be a grind often with nail biter endings but with each game CU would gain a little momentum and get even a little bit better.

1991 cu buffs 2In the 1990 Associated Press preseason poll, the Buffs were ranked No. 5; their first opponent, Tennessee in the Disneyland Pigskin Classic, was ranked No. 8. CU was missing several key players who McCarthy suspended even if it hurt the game for violating team rules in the off season. This included Eric Bieniemy who was on his way to becoming CU’s all-time leading rusher. It was a game that would foreshadow the entire season with a bumpy start, a smoother patch in the middle and a frenzied ending. Colorado overcame three first-quarter turnovers against the Volunteers (that was almost one-fourth of the entire turnover total of the season before) to lead 24-10 early in the fourth quarter. The Buffs couldn’t sustain the lead, and Tennessee caught CU with the game ending in a 31-31 tie.

In game two, Eric Bieniemy scored on fourth-and-goal from the one with 12 seconds remaining to give CU a 21-17 win over Stanford. This was alarming in that Stanford had the worst record in 1989 of the five non-league teams on CU’s schedule, along with the fact that the Cardinal led 14-0 at halftime and had stifled the high-powered CU offense.

It had been 22 months and three days since CU lost a regular season game. Illinois dealt CU what proved to be its only loss of the season but at the time was interpreted as the beginning of more losses to come on Sept. 15 as the 23-22 defeat to the Illini sent the Buffs reeling to No. 20 in the polls. A game that Colorado should have won (CU led 17-3 in the second quarter) turned into a loss and gave CU a 1-1-1 start. Talk of 1989 being a fluke started to surface, that CU had won only because of the collective team emotion in response to the loss of quarterback Sal Aunese.

The next two games put the Buffaloes back on track and ended talk that Colorado was not for real. Colorado’s 29-22 win at No. 22 Texas, with CU rallying from a 22-14 deficit early in the fourth quarter, was the game that McCartney and the team pointed to as the turning point of the season. The game began with the coaching staff packing the team into a small room and telling them they did not like what they were seeing. In their eyes they saw doubt and fear. Last year they saw confidence and resolve. Last year everything kinda clicked and there was great leadership within the team. This year the team faced a more daunting schedule and needed coaching to drive them to success. Now Coach McCartney is a good motivational speaker but his inspirational message does not work if it does not come from within the player first. The buffs were trailing the Texas Longhorns in the second half when during a timeout members of the Buffs offense came out onto the field and implored the CU defense to stop the Longhorns from scoring again. The team regrouped because they knew deep inside of themselves they had what it took to be champions. All the ingredients were mixed together and now a fire was lit and it would not go out. Defense stopped the Longhorns from scoring and the CU offense felt obliged to return the favor by driving to a touchdown when it got the ball back. CU Buffs scored 16 points in the fourth quarter and won the game by a touchdown. Buffalo mojo was back.

A 20-14 win over No. 12 Washington a week later reinforced the national opinion of the Buffaloes, as CU took over the No. 12 spot in the polls after its defeat of the Huskies.

Colorado came through the fierce non-league portion of its schedule with a 3-1-1 record and prepared to defend its Big Eight crown earned the season before. Charles Johnson would make his first career start as quarterback stepping in for the injured Darian Hagan. The field of play was awful with players skidding and falling all over the place. CU suffered 17 unassisted tackles due to the turf conditions. The football field was so bad it was worth complaining about but no one remembers how bad it was now. The Colorado Buffs topped the Missouri Tigers, 33-31, in their league opener amid controversy of the now famous “fifth down.” CU’s Charles Johnson scored the game-winning touchdown as time expired on the last play of the game that should have never happened. The last play of the game was a fifth down. Fifth downs are not supposed to occur in normal play but sometimes grace shines through officiating cracks on the field of play. This fifth down play, created through an incredible mistake by the officiating crew, and unnoticed by Missouri game administration and virtually everyone in the stadium, tainted the CU win and hurt the Buffs image. Fifty years earlier another college team had played for the national championship and won on a rare fifth down only later to forfeit the game and the national title in a gesture of true sportsmanship. Twice in college football history fifth down and goal plays have resulted in controversial triumphs as the clock expired in games that directly impacted the national title. Exactly fifty years separates the two games. In that half century times have changed. Missourians and college football historians still argue about if modern college football lost its soul? or do Coloradans just lack integrity and honor? Those of us in Colorado just accept this gift of grace and move on while Missourians named a bar the Fifth Down Bar and Grill and still drink their sorrows in remembrance of the gift they gave to Colorado. No Colorado brews are allowed. CU’s fifth down play is one of the top memorable moments and blunders in college football history. It was messy but it was a win. And CU buffs took it.

To fire up the team that had been only winning games in the fourth quarter and now had all this noise about winning on an unprecedented fifth down Coach McCarthy decided it was time to stop playing the hunted and to show fans CU was in the hunt. A uniform change was announced. CU would go black at the next home game. The players loved the idea and won the game in an earlier quarter wearing for the first time all black uniforms. Even though the Buffs defeated Iowa State, 28-12, Colorado had dropped back to No. 14 in the rankings though it sported a 5-1-1 record. CU players started to have swagger but some ranking judges just would not let a 5th down win go.

Still, the Buffaloes were off to a 2-0 start in league play, and improved to 3-0 with a 41-10 drubbing of Kansas at Lawrence in week three of the Big Eight season. The win pushed CU back into the top 10 (No. 10), with the Big Reds next up on the schedule.

Colorado knocked off Oklahoma, ranked No. 22 nationally, 32-23, to deal the one-time fourth-ranked Sooners their third straight defeat. The Buffs trailed, 14-6, late in the first half, with OU in position to kick a field goal. Greg Thomas skied to block the attempt, and quarterback Darian Hagan took over to lead the Buffs to a touchdown right before the halftime gun. Bieniemy broke free for a 69-yard TD run in the third quarter, and the Buffs pulled away in the final 15 minutes to dispose of the first of the Big Reds.

A week later, Colorado, now No. 9, traveled to Lincoln and defeated No. 3 Nebraska, 27-12, in rainy, cold and windy conditions. Bieniemy overcame five fumbles to score four touchdowns in the fourth quarter to rally the Buffaloes to the win. It was the first time CU had won in Lincoln for 23 years. The end result was that Colorado had defeated both Oklahoma and Nebraska for the second straight year, and won in th first time in history back-to-back weeks, no less. The Buffs were again undefeated in the Big eight Conference. The Buffs, with an 8-1-1 record, zoomed to No. 4 in the national polls, and needed just one win in their last two games to get back to the Orange Bowl.

The Buffs steamrolled both Oklahoma State (41-22), with Hagen throwing 237 yards for four touchdowns and Kansas State (64-3) to finish the regular season at 10-1-1. The wins also marked the second straight year that CU took the Big Eight title with an undefeated 7-0 record in league play.

When Penn State knocked off Notre Dame hours after CU’s win over K-State, the Buffs became the nation’s new No. 1 team. Thus, as was the case in 1989, the Buffaloes entered the Orange Bowl to defend the nation’s top ranking against Notre Dame, the team that had lost to hand CU the No. 1 claim.

Colorado had the rare chance to play for the national championship a second straight year, and this time around, the Buffs made the most of their opportunity. And with opportunity came some challenges. Gerry DiNardo the offensive coordinator was hired by Vanderbilt as head coach before the big game. With CU’s schedule who thought they would be back in the big game the next year? Coach McCarthy asked Gary Barnett, the quarterback coach, to attend a high school game in Longmont with him to watch a recruit they were courting. At least that is what Barnett was told. During the high school game McCarthy matter of factly told Barnett he was the new team’s offensive coordinator. Oh and by the way your first game in the new job will be in the Orange Bowl with the national championship on the line. Barnett couldn’t speak. Coach McCartney had nothing more to say. Barnett later recalled “from that point on life was a blur”.

In the depth of night on the eve of the 1991 Orange Bowl Darian Hagan was awoken by a dream. He told CJ, Charles Johnson, “hey man I had a dream. I had a dream… that I was going to get hurt in the game and you are going to have to come in and win the national championship for us.” It was a freaky dream and Darian wanted CJ to be ready just in case there was more to it. Even freakier is that Darian’s dream came true. He injured his knee and watched the unbelieving CJ lead the Buffs in the second half of the Orange Bowl. CJ just planned to carry around a clip board and cheer on his teammates now he was Mr Cool under pressure leading his team to victory. Colorado overcame the loss of Hagan and Kanavis McGhee to injuries in the first half, taking the lead for good in the third quarter. Late in the fourth quarter McCarthy decided to punt the ball from his 47th yard line knowing there was a chance the all American return man Raghib “Rocket” Ismail might get his hands on it and run it back. McCarthy told his punter Tom Ruen to kick it through the uprights away from Ismail. The play, like life, did not go as planned. Ismail picked up the ball at the 9-yard line and ran it back 91 yards for a touchdown and most likely a win for Norte Dame. McCarthy kept his cool and looked for saving grace which he found in an officials flag against Norte dame for clipping. The Buffs went on to defeat the Fighting Irish 10-9. The win kicked off a wild celebration by some 20,000-plus CU fans in Miami and hundreds of thousands back home in Colorado. The toughest part of that night for Darian Hagan was that his injury prevented him from jumping around and celebrating with teammates.

1991 cu buffs 3Colorado’s 10-9 win over Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl paved the way for the Associated Press to select the Buffaloes as the 1990 national champion. McCartney’s ninth Colorado team attained its goal of claiming the Big Eight title in back-to-back years, and surpassed it by winning the national championship. In the process, CU established itself among the elite in college football. Nine members of the 1990 team were drafted into the NFL, and three players earned Colorado’s first ever unanimous All-America honors (Eric Bieniemy, Joe Garten and Alfred Williams). With wins over Stanford, Texas, Washington, Oklahoma and Nebraska among others, CU played the nation’s toughest schedule and joined the 1982 Penn State team as the only schools at the time to win the national championship while doing so. Sal would have been proud.

In 1990 coach McCartney signed a unheard of 15-year deal, one of the longest contracts ever in college football history. It would have expired in the year 2005, but he had the option after five years of stepping down. While at the top of his coaching career he did just that on November 19, 1994, deciding to retire to spend more time with his wife after that team’s final game, a New Year’s appearance in the Fiesta Bowl. The Buffs were of course inspired to send him off a winner. He was also one of the co-founders of “Promise Keepers,” one of the nation’s fastest-growing Christian organizations in the late 1990s and whom he worked and represented for almost a decade after retiring from coaching. One of the things he shared to stadiums full of largely white Promise Keepers is the difficulty of being a black man in America today. Lessons he learned from his own players adapting to life in lily white Boulder. His greatest accomplishments though were off the field of play and away from fame. In 2004 he stepped away from the limelight of even Promise Keepers. Some of his greatest pleasures were the simple times often over looked in today’s society. Time spent sharing smiles with family and friends.

One of the greatest legacies of the 1990 team was friendship. Being friends was not a requirement for young men recruited to play for CU Boulder. They were the best talent plucked from diverse high school programs all over the country. “When we first went to Colorado we were just young guys looking to find our way,” safety Tim James said. “When we left, we were more established, so we kind of grew up together. We relied on each other on and off the field and it carried on into our adult lives.” “Guys who were on that team, they were groomsmen in my wedding, they were there when my kids were born,” linebacker Chad Brown said. “It’s not just something that we talk about. It’s something that’s actually real and profound and lifelong.” This life long bond is not a reminiscence of having won the 1990 championship as great as a memory as that is. It is because they had this bond that they were able to become champions. “You had a team that would fight for each other; you had a team that cared about each other; you had a team that would play for each other; and you had a team that was unselfish,” receiver Mike Pritchard said. “That’s special. You don’t often find that much talent and that many great players being unselfish.” For some, the bond began to take shape upon their arrival as freshmen in 1986 or 1987. They may have come to Boulder from different walks of life, but they quickly learned the value of being friends. “People always say blood, sweat and tears,” quarterback Darian Hagan said. “That has a lot to do with it, but I think genuinely we had the same heart, the same mental makeup and we all were forging ahead for the same goals.” What sealed this team together though was Sal Aunese . “You have all these young men that are having to deal with mortality and just things that are so much bigger than football,” center Jay Leeuwenburg said. “That really brought us together as men.” Quarterback Charles Johnson said the camaraderie that the 1990 team has is unique. Whether those players were fifth-year seniors or redshirt freshmen, to this day they simply view each as Buffs, and as friends. “There’s something special about that team, and there’s definitely some special friendships that still continue to this day,” tight end Sean Embree said. It is friendship enduring through the sorrows and messes of all our lives that keeps us smiling radiantly. And in the end it is those smiles we will remember forever. Thanks Sal for sharing yours.