1990 Colorado Football: A Wild Ride To A Disputed National Title

The Colorado Buffaloes had a breakthrough season in 1989. They picked the Nebraska-Oklahoma lock on the old Big Eight. The Buffs had an undefeated regular season and played for a national championship before losing to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. The 1990 Colorado football team was back for more. And in spite of one of the wildest rides a national champion has ever gone on, by season’s end that’s exactly what the ’90 Buffs were—national champions.

A run-heavy option offense was built around the excellence of running back Eric Bienemy. The future offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, Bienemy had a brilliant year in 1990. He ran for over 1,600 yards, made All-American and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting.

Darian Hagan was the quarterback who ran the option. Hagan only threw 163 passes on the season and only completed 46 percent of his throws. But he did get a healthy 9.4 yards-per-attempt, thanks to a big-play receiver in Mike Pritchard. Pritchard’s 28 catches produced an astonishing 26 yards a pop.

Running was essential for a quarterback in this offense and Hagan’s 442 yards were third on the team, narrowly trailing Pritchard’s 445. George Hemingway added 325 yards to round out the attack.

If you assumed that an offense that could run the ball like this had a good offensive line, you assumed correctly. Joe Garten was an All-American at the guard position. Mark VanderPoel got honorable mention All-American at tackle and Jay Leeuwenberg was the All-Big Eight center.

There were more all-conference performers on the defensive side of the ball, starting with Kanavis McGhee and Gary Howe up front. Tim James was All-Big Eight in the defensive backfield and intercepted six passes. Deon Figures was in the secondary and while he wasn’t decorated with honors in 1990, he had a good NFL future ahead of him.

They had talent and after 1989, they had national respect. Colorado opened the season ranked #5. And would the first six weeks of the season be interesting.

The Buffaloes opened the season against eighth-ranked Tennessee in a neutral site game at Anaheim. The Vols would live up to expectations and end the season in the Top 10. Colorado and Tennessee played to a 31-31 tie (overtime was not used in college football until 1996).

The tie only dropped Colorado to #6, but a narrow 21-17 home escape over Stanford on a Thursday night didn’t impress the pollsters, who moved the Buffs down to #9. The reaction was understandable in the moment and this Cardinal team would finish the season 5-6. But one of those five wins would come at Notre Dame and Stanford coach Dennis Green would go on to a nice NFL career in Minnesota. Had voters known then what we know now, the reaction might not have been as strong.

A year earlier, Colorado’s signature non-conference win had been a home blowout of Illinois, then a contender in the Big Ten. The Illini were ranked #21 coming into this season’s rematch in Champaign and the Buffs suffered a tough 23-22 loss.

Colorado went plummeting to #20 in the polls. A second blemish on a record that now stood at 1-1-1 made it appear that the national championship was already gone as a possibility. But 1990 would prove to be a chaotic year in college football and the Buffaloes had more big games ahead.

They went to Texas, ranked #22 on their way to a 10-1 season. In a game that would loom large in national championship scenarios at the end of the season, Colorado trailed 22-14 in the fourth quarter. Bienemy came through with a couple rushing touchdowns and the Buffs pulled out a 29-22 win.

There was no rest in sight as Washington, on their way to a Pac-10 title and eventual Rose Bowl victory, came to Boulder a week later. Colorado trailed 7-3 at the half and 14-10 in the third quarter. Hagan sprained his shoulder and was forced to the sideline.

Backup Charles Johnson led Colorado to ten unanswered points. The defense came up with two red zone stops in the fourth quarter, the last one an interception by Figures with under a minute to play. The 20-14 win was preserved and Colorado was back up to #12 in the polls.

A road trip to Missouri to open Big Eight play didn’t seem to be a concern. But Hagan would miss this game. Colorado had been playing nationally significant games and would not have a bye week this entire season. Furthermore, even though the Tigers only won four games in 1990, they had the conference’s best passing quarterback in Kent Kiefer and two big-play receivers in Linzy Mays and Damon Collins.

In short, everything was in place for a letdown and that’s what happened. Colorado trailed 31-27 in the fourth quarter when they began a last-ditch drive. Johnson came through with a big completion to tight end Jon Bowman to get inside the five-yard line. There was less than a minute to play and the Buffs had one timeout left. And a series of plays that lives in college football infamy came next.

In short order, Johnson spiked the ball, Bienemy was stopped and Colorado took its final timeout. Bienemy was stopped again. Johnson spiked the ball to stop the clock. Then the quarterback ran it in for the winning touchdown.

Do we see a problem here? That’s five plays. At the point the Buffs took their final timeout, the officials forgot to change the down marker. After the touchdown, officials conferred for twenty minutes. They let the touchdown stand. Colorado had a 33-31 win. And even in an era prior to social media and a 24/7 news cycle, the outrage came pouring out, with calls for head coach Bill McCartney to forfeit the win and pollsters to treat Colorado as though they had lost.

If nothing else, the Buffs had a couple of easier games ahead of them and they easily handled bad teams from Iowa State and Kansas at home. The pollsters did not respond to the calls for punishment and the wins put Colorado back in the Top 10. They went on to knock off 22nd-ranked Oklahoma 32-23 at home.

Now it was time for the game everyone in the Big Eight was waiting for. A visit to third-ranked Nebraska with the winner all but locking up the Orange Bowl bid that always awaited the winner of this league up until 1995.

On a windy and rainy day, Nebraska seemed in control for three quarters. Colorado had an early mishap when Bienemy fumbled on the Cornhusker 3-yard line. The Cornhuskers led 12-0 late in the third quarter. Bienemy had been held to 62 yards. Not a bad showing with a quarter-plus to play, but not what the Buffalo offense needed to win a game like this.

Then the stunning turnabout came. Colorado simply whipped Nebraska up front. Bienemy added 75 more rushing yards to his total. He scored four touchdowns in the final quarter alone. Colorado won 27-12.

With upsets knocking off top teams left and right, Colorado was now ranked #4 nationally. Notre Dame was at the top of the polls, so the stars were aligned for an Orange Bowl rematch. And the final two weeks saw the Buffs position get even stronger.

They took care of business against Oklahoma State 41-22 to move to #2. Now Colorado controlled their national championship destiny. And in the November 17 finale, they hammered mediocre Kansas State 64-3, while Notre Dame was upset at home by Penn State.

Unbelievably, after the 1-1-1 start, Colorado not only had a chance at the national title going into New Year’s Day, they were ranked #1 in the country. Notre Dame’s loss had dropped the Irish to #5. Texas was #3, but a Cotton Bowl humiliation at the hands of Miami ended the Longhorn bid. By the time the Orange Bowl kicked off in prime-time on January 1, the national championship picture was narrowed to Colorado and second-ranked Georgia Tech, the nation’s only unbeaten team at 11-0-1.

The Buffalo offense struggled. Hagen went out just before halftime with a ruptured tendon and the hopes for a title were on the shoulders of Johnson. He was mistake-free and in a game like this that would loom very large. Colorado’s defense was playing well and they were only down 9-3 in the third quarter when the Irish made the game’s key mistake. They fumbled on their own 40. The Buffs recovered. Johnson led a grinding eight-play drive that ended in a touchdown putting Colorado ahead 10-9.

Late in the game Colorado still held that lead when they had to punt it away. Going back to return was Notre Dame’s explosive Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, who’d finished second in the Heisman voting due primarily to his special teams’ prowess. Most observers assumed the ball would be punted away from him and out of bounds.

It wasn’t. Rocket fielded it on his own 9-yard line, made a quick move to the right and got the sideline. 91 yards later he was in the end zone, the biggest punt return in the history of bowl competition. Or so it seemed. A flag was on the ground. Clipping. The play was called back. Colorado hung on and won.

More controversy seemed a fitting end to this Buffalo season, as fans debated whether or not the block by Notre Dame’s Greg Davis was really a clip. There were reminders to the pollsters about the fifth-down. Georgia Tech certainly had public opinion on their side as the writers and coaches went to the polls.

When the final ballots came out, it was a split poll. Colorado won the AP writers’ poll, but the coaches had nudged Georgia Tech into the top spot by a single vote.

There are so many areas to unpack in this vote, so I’ll try and keep it brief…

*I’m a Notre Dame fan and the block by Davis—while very close—was a clip, and it was consequential enough to be called. The Colorado victory in the Orange Bowl was “legitimate” so to speak.

*Even had it been a bad call, how far do you go in letting pollsters take matters into their own hands. This is a good segway into my feelings about the officiating debacle in Missouri. It was a massive screwup, but it happened. Once you decide to have pollsters (or in our own day, College Football Playoff committee members) start effectively overturning results, you have chaos. How far do you go in reviewing officiating mistakes after the fact.

So for anyone who used those reasons to punish Colorado, I would have to strongly disagree. But…I would have still voted for Georgia Tech. The reason being simple—they were a full game better than Colorado in the final record. While the Buffs’ schedule was clearly stronger, the Yellow Jackets did blow out Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl and did win at then-#1 Virginia in November. The schedule strength issue wasn’t enough, in my view, to overturn the record differential.

But whatever your view on the final vote, this much is clear—Colorado had arrived as a national power. Back-to-back trips to the Orange Bowl, consecutive top 5 finishes and now, at long last, a national championship.