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Performing Well Under Pressure : Vista's Sal Aunese Has Worked to Put Mistakes Behind at Colorado

October 27, 1988|CURT HOLBREICH | Times Staff Writer

BOULDER, Colo. — Under a high blue sky on a perfect fall day last week, with the front range of the Rocky Mountains at his back and the bustle of noontime in front of the University of Colorado's Norlin Library passing before his eyes, Sal Aunese sat on a concrete bench and talked about freedom.

Not the freedom politicians talk of on the campaign trail. Not an abstract notion that sprung from the head of philosophers. His was a concept of freedom in its rawest form.

"There is nothing better than the freedom to go out and do what you want when you want," said Aunese, the former Vista High School and current Colorado quarterback. "You don't have anyone telling you when to go to sleep, when to get up. You can just do whatever you want."

This might not qualify as a textbook definition. But the words have an authenticity that only Aunese truly comprehends. His perspective comes from the 2 weeks he spent in Boulder County Jail.

This was not a field trip or part of some school project. Aunese was a prisoner. He was not free to come and go. To him, freedom was not just another word for nothing else to lose.

"I counted the days; I counted the hours," Aunese said. "All you do is count how long you have been in there."

Aunese was sentenced to 2 weeks in jail after pleading guilty to misdemeanor menacing in connection with a dormitory scuffle in March. He also received two deferred 2-year suspended sentences after pleading guilty to misdemeanors as part of a plea agreement.

The incident took place March 20. Aunese and some friends were walking outside a Colorado dormitory when one of the residents shouted obscenities at Aunese, accounts of the event said. Aunese responded by entering the dorm, damaging some contents in the student's room and shoving a third student.

Aunese was arrested by campus police in the dorm and spent 2 weekend nights in jail before he was released on personal recognizance bond.

"I thought those 2 days were punishment enough," Aunese said. "They were the longest 2 days of my life. I didn't eat. I just drank water."

He served his remaining time after the spring semester in May. This fall, he is back on the football field, helping lead the Buffaloes to only their second 5-2 start in 10 seasons. A victory over Iowa State Saturday would give them their best start since 1978.

Aunese is a major part of the Buffaloes' resurgence. Since he took over as the starter in the fourth game last season, Colorado is 10-5. He led the team in rushing last season with 612 yards on 122 carries in the Buffaloes' wishbone offense. A switch this season to a power-I formation that has retained some wishbone plays has reduced Aunese's rushing (82 carries for 232 yards), but earlier this season he did set a school record for consecutive attempts without an interception with 92 over two seasons. Passing this year, he is 33 of 74 for 786 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.

Three times this season--in consecutive victories over Iowa, Oregon State and Colorado State--Aunese has led the Buffaloes to a late, clinching touchdown.

"Under those circumstances, whenever the clock is a factor, he has really performed at a high level," Colorado Coach Bill McCartney said. "Whenever the pressure is on, it seems like he is at his best."

Aunese had the chance to lead the Buffaloes to another such victory last Saturday, but a late drive against Oklahoma failed, and the Sooners left with a 17-14 victory. The loss, combined with a 41-21 loss to Oklahoma State two weeks earlier, effectively took the the Buffaloes out of the Big Eight Conference race and a trip to the Orange Bowl. But with a strong finish, and a game remaining at Nebraska, there still is hope for a third bowl berth in the past four seasons.

That is short of the goals Aunese has set for himself and the team but a long way from McCartney's first three seasons at Colorado, when the Buffaloes were 7-25-1. The turnaround began with the installation of the wishbone, a resulting 7-5 record in 1985 and a trip to the Freedom Bowl.

That coincided with Aunese's senior year at Vista, when he led the Panthers to an undefeated season and was named The Times' All-San Diego Section quarterback. The success made it easier for him to select Colorado over Nebraska.

"I wanted to come out here and be part of building Colorado into the top-20 echelon of teams," Aunese said. "Besides, I liked the overall surroundings. I didn't see anything in Lincoln as pretty as these mountains."

Once he made his decision, Aunese faced another hurdle. His was the first freshman class to come under new NCAA eligibility rules. Aunese said he had the necessary grade-point average to play as a freshman, but he failed to obtain the minimum Scholastic Attitude Test score. The result was the loss of his freshman season and exclusion from practice and other team activities during his first year on campus.

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