CU-Boulder football caught some lucky breaks on the way to a national title 25 years ago. It didn’t hurt that the 1990 Buffs were also great at the game.
Like everyone else watching the Orange Bowl the night of Jan. 1, 1991, Colorado defensive back Tim James (A&S ex’91) expected punter Tom Rouen’s (Mktg’91) kick to fly high into the night and far out of bounds, sealing CU’s first national football championship.
The Buffs, up 10-9 over Notre Dame, were 65 seconds from victory.
“They just can’t kick it to the Rocket,’’ intoned game analyst Bill Walsh.
As James looked up from his spot on the left side of the punt formation, though, he saw the kick float high and straight — and fall directly into the hands of Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, Notre Dame’s aptly nicknamed kick return assassin.
Almost 25 years later, the YouTube videos still give CU fans a chill.
What happened next was, in retrospect, a fitting climax to CU’s dramatic, triumphant 1990 football season.
Rocket — a blur in gold and white — veers to his left, away from James, then swerves back to the middle of the field. He sheds the tackle of CU’s Chad Brown (Soc ex’94), a future NFL star, and slides back to his right, toward James.
“I had him outflanked,” James, now 47, recalls by phone from his Monterey, Calif., home. “He had his eyes on the punter and didn’t see me. I reached my arm back to punch the ball out of his arms. Then I got hit from behind.”
James landed hard. Sand from the Orange Bowl turf stuck to his face.
“When I rubbed it off,” he says, “I saw him in the end zone.”
It seemed the Buffs, on glory’s doorstep, had suffered a crushing loss.
But the despair didn’t last long: James had been clipped and a referee noticed.
“The flag was laying there right beside me,” says James.
Notre Dame’s touchdown was nullified — and the Buffs were Orange Bowl victors.
That season — now 25 years ago — was filled with lucky breaks and timely surges of inspiration.
There was an effective impromptu full-team pep rally late in the game at Texas. There was a collective moment of amnesia by game officials in Missouri. At Nebraska there was a blunder by the opponent’s Hall of Fame coach. And — long before the penalty flag floated to the Orange Bowl turf beside Tim James — Notre Dame failed to convert an extra point for the first time all season.
Fortune smiled on the Buffs in 1990, and for a good reason.
“We were stacked,” says the team’s head coach, Bill McCartney, now 75, retired and living in Westminster, Colo.
Still among CU’s biggest cheerleaders, he adds: “The year before, the team went undefeated and lost to Notre Dame in the championship game, and the next year has to battle every week, wins at Texas and Nebraska and then beats the same Notre Dame team. That isn’t luck.”
Six years earlier, in 1984, McCartney’s second Buffs team had won just a single game. Since then he’d been scouring football-rich states like California and Texas for talent — and successfully selling Boulder, CU and his program.
Eighteen players from the 1990 team would be drafted into the NFL, and many — including Chad Brown, Tom Rouen, Greg Biekert (Mktg’92), Deon Figures (Soc’93), Ronnie Bradford (Comm’95), Eric Bieniemy(Soc’01), Mike Pritchard (A&S ex’91), Jay Leeuwenburg (Engl’91) and Alfred Williams (Soc ex’91) — would enjoy long pro careers.
Besides the new recruits, great players from the ’89 team returned: Option wizard Darian Hagan (Soc’01) at quarterback and explosive receiver Pritchard, who was team MVP and would be the 13th player taken in the NFL draft the next year. The offensive line was rock solid and Alfred Williams, who would win the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker, led the defense.
Also, several CU assistant coaches would go on to successful head coaching careers, including Gary Barnett, Bob Simmons and Gerry DiNardo.
McCartney assembled a team fit to win and worked them hard.
“Coach Mac always told us that talent puts you in a position to win games,” says James. “Preparation wins them.”
Even loaded with talent, the 1990 season looked to be tough. The Buffs’ schedule matched them against seven ranked teams, including powerhouses Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma.
CU got off to a slow start, managing a 1-1-1 record after three games — tying Tennessee, eking out a win against a weak Stanford team and losing to Illinois.
But the team came alive in the fourth game, down 19-14 to Texas on the road. The fourth quarter had just begun when Eric Bieniemy stepped forward.
The 5-foot-6-inch running back led the entire offense onto the field as the exhausted defense changed sides. Bieniemy exhorted the defenders to stop the Longhorns, who were marching to a game-clinching touchdown.
“That revitalized us,” says James.
The Buffs held Texas to a field goal, Bieniemy scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns and CU added a safety for a 29-22 win. Colorado would not lose the rest of the year.
“Eric was a leader and one of the most competitive individuals I have ever known,” McCartney says.
A week after Bieniemy’s Austin speech, a late-game Deon Figures interception saved a victory over Washington. Then came the trip to Missouri — a team CU was supposed to dispatch easily.
What happened in the Show Me State defies easy explanations.
With 40 seconds left in the game, tight end Jon Boman (Soc’91), on his way to a game-winning touchdown reception, slipped on Faurot Field’s aging artificial turf at the three-yard line, setting the stage for the surreal events that followed.
CU sports information director Dave Plati, renowned for his statistical fastidiousness, recorded the details on four lines of his play-by-play in the KOA radio booth:
Speedie. (Code word for spiking the football and stopping the clock) EB +2. (Eric Bieniemy carries the ball to the one) EB 0. (No gain for Bieniemy.)
Then — inexplicably — Speedie again: Quarterback Charles Johnson (A&S ex’94) had spiked the ball on fourth down.
Plati let loose a profanity, partially audible to Buff announcer Larry Zimmer’s hundred thousand listeners. Zimmer looked at him quizzically.
Football teams get four downs to gain 10 yards or score, not five.
Plati glanced at the scoreboard. It still said fourth down. So did the marker on the yardstick.
Yet the Buffs’ offense lined up again with no protest from Missouri. The Missouri defense lined up, too.
Someone must have called timeout before one of the plays, Plati figured.
CU’s Johnson, a sub at quarterback, played most of the game for the injured Hagan. Engineering the final drive, he took the snap and dove into Mizzou’s defensive line, extending the ball goalward.
Bieniemy remembers thinking: “Let’s get up and get out of here.”
He didn’t know the Buffs had just a run a fifth play and wouldn’t know until watching ESPN later. But he wasn’t sure Johnson had reached the end zone.
“We had no idea,” says Bieniemy. “I don’t recall anyone on Missouri yelling about an extra down either.”
Later, it was noted that the head linesman did not see the chain crew’s failure to flip the down marker from second to third on an earlier play, a tenuous explanation for officials’ failure to keep track.
The “fifth down game” became an albatross for the Buffs, whose image suffered in polls and public opinion.
Still, the team kept winning. One by one, despite some Buff lapses, opponents fell — Iowa State, Kansas, mighty Oklahoma.
On a cold rainy day in Lincoln, Neb., Bieniemy fumbled five times in three quarters.
“I almost single-handedly lost that game,” he says.
With Nebraska up 12-0, linebacker Williams told Bieniemy, “Hold on to the ball, and the defense will take care of this.”
Aided by a failed fake punt called by Huskers coach Tom Osborne, CU roared back with four Bieniemy touchdowns. CU beat Nebraska 27-12. Two more wins assured a trip to the Orange Bowl.
The National Championship game itself was filled with magical moments. Defensive back Ronnie Bradford blocked an extra point, providing the margin of victory. Charles Johnson, subbing for injured starter Hagen, directed the Buffs to a winning score, as he had at Missouri.
Perhaps with the “tainted wins” at Missouri and the Orange Bowl in mind, college coaches picked, by one point, Georgia Tech as the nation’s top team. But the Buffs’ tough regular-season schedule and bowl victory over Notre Dame led voters to rank Colorado No. 1 in the more important AP poll.
Within months, eight seniors would be drafted by the NFL. All but James — who was drafted but suffered a career-ending hamstring injury — would play pro ball.
Chance favors the prepared mind, it’s sometimes said of great discoveries in science. In 1990, chance favored the prepared team.
Many key plays — the punt return, blocked extra point, the crucial fake-punt stop against Nebraska — came on special teams plays, which McCartney always loaded with his best players.
“Our practices were harder than the games,” James recalls.
James has no regrets about the injury that kept him from the pros. Today he’s married to the 1986 Homecoming Queen of Watsonville (Calif.) High School, works as a packaging broker and plays a lot of golf.
Bieniemy, now running backs coach for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, had a disappointing two years as the Buffs offensive coordinator and laughs that his son’s football loyalties remain in Colorado with the Denver Broncos.
McCartney retired from CU and football after the 1994 season. He started a Christian men’s group and spent years supporting evangelical movements. He still keeps close tabs on CU football, and on one player especially — a sophomore defensive end named Derek McCartney (IntPhys’16), his grandson.
Photography by Ed Kosmicki (coach and fans, CU catch); CU Athletics (Notre Dame catch); CU Heritage Center (memorabilia)