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THE BOWL GAMES : Freedom's Just Another Word for Leftovers : Washington, Colorado Take Circuitous Path Through Selection Process

December 28, 1985|MIKE PENNER | Times Staff Writer

And you may ask yourself Well . . . how did I get here? --David Byrne, Talking Heads For entirely different reasons, neither the Colorado Buffaloes nor the Washington Huskies began the 1985 football season with any idea that they'd be spending the final days of the year shaking hands with Mickey Mouse, sampling Knott's Berry preserves and preparing for a certain postseason function known as the Freedom Bowl.

In fact, mention the word bowl to a Colorado player in August and he'd probably tell you, no, thanks, my hobby is billiards. The Buffaloes went 1-10 in 1984, two points shy of 0-11. Back then, Dec. 30 sure seemed like a good time to wax the skis and hit the slopes.

Washington, meanwhile, was being featured as Sports Illustrated's preseason choice as No. 1 in the nation. The Huskies were coming off an 11-1 finish, including an Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma. In Seattle, it was Rose Bowl-Or-Bust as the Huskies kicked off the 1985 season.

Freedom was just another word for another bowl to be played by other teams.

So, four months later, how did the Buffs and the Huskies wind up here?

It wasn't by any grand design of Tom Starr, the executive director of the Freedom Bowl. Starr went into the Nov. 16 weekend--the Super Bowl for college bowl recruiters--with one game plan in mind. He wanted to sew up a matchup between a Pac-10 team and a WAC team, a Freedom Bowl with the Western-most in flavor.

In that scheme, Washington was a possibility, although USC was more attractive from, at the very least, a ticket-sales standpoint. From the WAC, Starr liked BYU and Air Force. For a while, Starr thought he had Air Force.

Colorado, at that point, was an afterthought.

What happened the next two days affected a lot of lives--particularly Starr's. As the results and the phones calls poured in, he saw the potential Freedom Bowl scenario change from USC-Air Force to Washington-Air Force to Washington-Tennessee to Washington versus probably Colorado.

What happened, in order, was:

--Washington beat USC, giving the Huskies a 6-4 record with only lowly Washington State left on the schedule. USC dropped to 4-5 with UCLA and Oregon remaining. "The USC-Washington game was very crucial to us," Starr said. "We decided that the winner was probably the way we'd go."

Starr sought a verbal commitment from the Huskies. "NCAA rules say bowl bids must go to 'a winning, deserving team.' " Starr said. "Washington was guaranteed a winning season then. We couldn't gamble and wait to see what USC would do."

--BYU beat previously undefeated Air Force. That accomplished two things--upgrading BYU's value and knocking Air Force out of the picture for a New Year's Day bowl. That figured to eliminate the Freedom Bowl from the competition for BYU (the Cougars wanted the Florida-Citrus, their eventual destination) while thrusting Starr into a 13-bowl scramble for Air Force.

--Starr talked with Air Force Athletic Director Fisher DeBerry on Sunday and liked what he heard. "I certainly felt we had a good chance," Starr said. "I thought we had them. I wish we hadn't found out so late that we didn't."

--At 5 p.m. Sunday, DeBerry told Starr his players had voted to accept a Bluebonnet Bowl invitation. By that time, six teams that had earlier expressed interest in the Freedom Bowl were committed elsewhere.

"I'm totally guilty for that," Starr said. "I waited too long. Looking back, I made a mistake."

Starr had to hustle to salvage something and used an old connection to strike a conditional deal with Tennessee.

Starr is a longtime friend of Volunteer Coach Johnny Majors, a relationship dating back to their days at Iowa State where Majors was football coach and Starr was a graduate assistant in the sports information office. Majors agreed to come to Anaheim if his team failed to win the Southeastern Conference championship and the Sugar Bowl berth that goes with it.

Starr's problem: Tennessee had to lose to either Kentucky (5-6) or Vanderbilt (3-7-1). The Volunteers won by scores of 42-0 and 30-0.

That left Starr with Washington and the top name from the Freedom Bowl's backup list, Colorado. Starr was disappointed at losing Air Force and missing out on Tennessee, but spoke with enthusiasm about his eventual matchup.

"Washington can do a lot of things for us," Starr said. "They beat all four California Pac-10 teams (USC, UCLA, Stanford, California) and they've been to seven straight bowl games. They're a proven bowl team.

"And Colorado is a Cinderella. They're kind of a Western team, which means good ticket sales, and they're a Big 8 team. We really wanted to get into the Big 8."

Well, OK. Initially, it wasn't a bad pitch. The veteran Huskies versus the comeback stories of the year, the Colorado Buffaloes, the team that used the wishbone to go from 1-10 to 7-4.

Not exactly Penn State-Oklahoma, but you have to make the best of what's still around.

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