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Buffaloes No Longer Extinct : McCartney's Wishbone Has Colorado on the Run Again

December 26, 1985|MIKE PENNER | Times Staff Writer

When members of the University of Colorado football team woke up in strange beds this morning, they may have been tempted to look out the hotel window just to make sure. Yep, this really is Orange County, home of Anaheim Stadium and the Freedom Bowl, where the Golden Buffaloes are set to meet the University of Washington Monday night.

Colorado in a bowl game. Imagine.

Eight years have passed since the Golden Buffs last appeared in a postseason bowl--the 1977 Orange Bowl, in which Colorado was a 27-10 loser to Ohio State.

Seven years have passed since Colorado had a winning record.

Four years have passed since the final chapter of the Chuck Fairbanks Fiasco, in which the coach, whose lack of charisma turned off the populace, finally skipped town after leaving the football program in total ruin while helping plunge the Colorado athletic program into $1-million debt.

And one year has passed since the Buffaloes nose-dived to 1-10, a season marred by personal tragedy and off-the-field controversy--a season that boosters and officials most kindly describe as an ordeal.

What a long, strange trip it's been.

And serving as tour guide every step of the way since June 9, 1982, has been Bill McCartney, 45, who has gone from miscast as head coach to messiah in less than 12 months. A 7-4 record, fashioned largely due to a radical change in offensive philosophy, earned McCartney UPI's Big Eight coach-of-the-year award in 1985.

"It's a fickle game," McCartney says.

The coach of the year shrugs. Memories in this game may indeed be short--caused by a form of amnesia heightened by the condition alumni dissatisfactus --but McCartney remembers.

He remembers, only five months ago, when he was ridiculed for scrapping his pass-crazy offense ("The BYU of the Big Eight"), moving his freshman tailback to quarterback and adopting, of all things, the wishbone. This was the same Colorado team that finished dead last in the NCAA in rushing yardage in 1984. Critics laughed. "Make-A-Wishbone," they called it.

But McCartney went out anyway and grounded the Buffaloes' attack. Mark Hatcher, the new quarterback, attempted only 51 passes in all of 1985. In 1982, Colorado threw more times in one game--52 against Kansas State.

But land travel was apparently the way to go for the Buffaloes. Colorado grabbed ahold of the wishbone and went from 1-10 to 7-4, from last place in the Big Eight to a tie for third, from last in the NCAA in rushing to ninth (260 yards per game).

"We were 1-10," McCartney offers by way of explanation. "At that point, we were ready to sink our teeth into something new."

Kind of like how the Colorado athletic department was ready for something new in 1982, after Fairbanks had taken all the teeth out of the Buffalo football program.

McCartney remembers when he was hired off Bo Schembechler's coaching staff at Michigan four years ago to salvage what he could from the awful mess left in Fairbanks' wake. He remembers how dire the straits were at Colorado then.

"The cupboard wasn't bare when Mac took over," one Colorado official said. "It wasn't even built."

McCartney inherited a team that had won but five games in three seasons under Fairbanks. What's more, the football program had lost money (due mainly to Fairbanks' bills: $50,000 for a new office, $650,000 for a remodeled team house), players (only 73 left on scholarship because of academic ineligibilities) and the support of the community.

When Fairbanks jumped at the lure offered by the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League, Colorado sought more than a head coach as a replacement. A salvage specialist was more like it--someone who could sell Buffalo football, who could re-open lines of communication with an alienated press and a turned-off public, who could recruit student athletes who passed all their classes and didn't get suspended for stealing textbooks or shooting BB guns at classmates.

The Buffaloes came up with the name McCartney, a former All-Big Eight linebacker at Missouri who spent five seasons (1977-81) as defensive coordinator at Michigan. His background was defense and Colorado, which had allowed 451 points in 1980 and 322 in 1981, liked that a lot.

McCartney is also an outgoing personality, good with the press, and a staunch churchgoer who believes in traditional values, such as college athletes graduating from college. Colorado liked that a lot, too.

Most of all, McCartney could recruit. The man who got Anthony Carter and Stefan Humphries to leave the warm Florida sunshine for the snow drifts of Ann Arbor, McCartney was named one of the top five college football recruiters in the nation by Inside Sports magazine in 1981.

Colorado really liked that. The decision came down during the spring of 1982: The Fairbanks Error was out, McCartney Era was in.

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