It’s been interesting to watch the reaction of Buff fans to the Dan Hawkins era over the past four years.
They’re not happy, and with good reason. The Buffs have been bad.
But for those of us who have been around a while — and those of us who don’t erase history as if it never existed – it’s also a little amusing.
Everyone associated with CU football remembers the McCartney era, and with good reason. The man was simply the best football coach in CU history, taking the Buffs to national prominence and winning Colorado’s first — and to date only — national title in the sport.
But what many Buff fans don’t remember (or choose to conveniently forget) is that McCartney was not popular for most of his first five years.
Mac had three horrible seasons to start his tenure, putting up records of 2-8-1, 4-7 and 1-10. He finally broke through with a winning record in his fourth season (1985), when CU went 7-5, losing to Washington in the Freedom Bowl.
That year is generally considered to be Mac’s breakthrough year — but what most folks don’t remember is that he proceeded to go 0-4 to start the following season, including a season-opening loss to CSU. Leon Fuller’s Rams thumped the Buffs that day, 23-7.
Colorado then lost to Oregon, Ohio State and Arizona — all in squeakers — and the good will that Mac had built with his fourth year was quickly disappearing. The drumbeats that were resounding in 1984 were starting again.
Fact is, if you’d taken a poll of Buff fans after that fourth game, odds are the majority would have said McCartney wasn’t going to make it at CU. I remember because I was helping cover the team then. I heard the phone calls, and knew the grief that then-Buff A.D. Bill Marolt was getting.
This was the Marolt, by the way, who caught plenty of flak for giving McCartney a contract extension in the midst of the 1-10 season two years prior. Not a popular decision at the time, and two years later, after an 0-4 start, folks were questioning the choice quite vocally again.
But CU fans who choose only to remember what McCartney did after six long years of building a program won’t admit what those first years were like.
Three weeks after the Buffs’ fourth loss in 1986, Mac saved the season by beating Nebraska, ending a 19-year losing streak to the Huskers. That win produced one of my favorite moments in CU history: Buff linebacker Barry Remington, standing on the field with a grin that wouldn’t quit and pointing to the scoreboard. Remington had turned down offers from some of the nation’s great programs to attend Colorado, and in his senior season, he had a major role in what was truly a crossroads moment for the program.
That win over Nebraska was huge because it ultimately gave the Buffs a 6-5 record — just enough to get into a bowl game (where they lost to Baylor in the Bluebonnet Bowl).
That 1986 season also proved to be a turnaround in the recruiting arena for McCartney. His 1987 recruiting class may go down as one of the best ever — anywhere. It included Eric Bieniemy, Jon Boman, Russ Heasley, George Hemingway, Jay Leewenburg, Kanavis McGhee, Mike Pritchard, Joel Steed and Alfred Williams. Every one of those players played significant roles four seasons later in CU’s march to a national title.
Nobody is going to suggest that Hawkins is going to match what McCartney pulled off. Fact is, it would take another miracle worker to get the Buffs back to that point. The landscape of college football is simply not the same.
But fans who claim Colorado football has never been this bad?
They don’t remember the bad ol’ days.