Deon Figures Factored Large In Buffs’ 1990 Success

The third of nine CU Athletic Hall of Fame profiles as CUBuffs.com celebrates this year's class which was inducted at the Coors Events Center's George Boedecker, Jr., Court, on Oct. 30.

BOULDER – The Colorado Buffaloes’ fabled 1990 run to the Orange Bowl and the right to play for that year’s national championship was defined by a number of timely individual performances in big moments, but it could be argued that it really all came down to one decisive play.

CU was clinging to a 20-14 lead early that year against a game Washington Huskies team that would reach college football’s mountaintop and win the national championship just one year later. Washington had driven inside the CU 10-yard line in the game’s final minutes and was on the brink of a win that would most assuredly relieve a two-loss Buffs team of its national title aspirations.

Three straight incompletions by UW quarterback and future NFL star Mark Brunell brought up a fourth down and the season for the Buffs. Brunell dropped back and, for a fleeting moment, saw an open Mario Bailey waiting in the left corner of the end zone for what would be the game-winner.

Then, from out of nowhere, Buffs cornerback Deon Figures closed quickly, stepped in front and snatched the ball out of the sky just before Bailey could bring it in. The play helped to secure a win that, for all intents and purposes, would save the Buffs’ season and ultimately help guide them towards a national title.

“Basically, on the play before that, they tried to run a quick slant and, (safety) Tim James almost took (Mario Bailey’s) head off,” remembers Figures. “So, I guess they wanted to come back and test me and try to run that fade route. I was automatically taking the inside away from him and I made him throw the fade. I just turned around at the last minute and there it was.”

The play was one of many Figures made throughout his four-year career at CU, and it was this comprehensive body of work that became the basis for his induction into the university’s athletic Hall of Fame at a ceremony held last weekend.

“I just want to enjoy this moment,” said Figures upon his induction. “I’m honored. When I first heard about it, I thought somebody was joking with me. It didn’t set in until (the morning of the induction). It’s an honor and a privilege. I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m everything all in one right now. I’m a Buff for life.”

Figures’ journey toward this moment began on the hardened streets of Compton, Calif., a place where many a youth has lost his life at the hands of Compton’s negative influences.  There eventually came a time when Figures too would come face-to-face with the same potential fate.

“I kind of strayed away for a while,” said Figures. “Then, my high school coach told me, ‘You have a chance to go to college, get a degree and forget about football. But you have a chance to do both.’ So, I started to believe him and I started to concentrate on going to college.”

Then-head coach Bill McCartney and recruiting coordinator Rick George, now CU’s athletic director, lured Figures to Boulder in the spring of 1988. The payoff became an immediate one for the program as the cornerback made a significant impact in his freshman year. The team won eight regular-season games, its most since 1976, and gained a berth in the Freedom Bowl. Figures finished his inaugural campaign tied for second on the team in interceptions (two) and by season’s end had become the recipient of the program’s Lee Willard Award, handed out annually to its most outstanding freshman.

Deon Figures was the 1992 Jim Thorpe Award winner for the nation's best defensive back.

BUT JUST AS HE WAS BEGINNING to develop into one of the nation’s bright young talents at any position, Figures’ was dragged back down to earth. It was discovered that he had failed to meet academic requirements and thus would be forced to sit out the entire 1989 season.

As the Buffs completed an historic 11-0 regular season that set up a meeting with Notre Dame for the national championship, Figures stood as a bystander. He witnessed firsthand as Fighting Irish quarterback Tony Rice completed a pass to a receiver on what would have been his side of the field for 27 yards on a 3rd-and-11 play. It eventually led to a touchdown and a 7-0 third-quarter Notre Dame lead.

For a team that had relied heavily on the running game and thus was never designed to come from behind, a very winnable game suddenly became an uphill-struggle for the Buffs as they tried feverishly to generate a passing game that had been mostly nonexistent all season.

The Irish would tack on 14 more points and win going away, 21-6, ending CU’s hopes at a first-ever national title.

“That was tough to watch,” said Figures. “That whole season was difficult for me because I knew I could have made an impact. It made me all the more ready to return the next year."

Figures finally did return the following spring and spent the next few months prior to the 1990 season making up for lost time.

He improved his tackling technique and worked on becoming an even bigger factor in defending the running game. A player that had been strictly a cover corner was now emerging into a well-rounded talent.

Figures became the team’s sixth-leading tackler, tops among all defensive backs, and pulled down two interceptions including that game-saver against Washington. The Buffs completed a 11-1-1 regular season and once again earned the right to play Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl for the national championship.

A year older and wiser, this Buffs team arrived in Miami a complete unit without a significant weakness. The team now had a solid passing game that could perfectly compliment what was one of the best rushing attacks in the country. And the defense, headlined by eventual Butkus Award winning linebacker Alfred Williams and Figures, had made a season out of consistently stifling opposing offenses. The Buffs held opponents to under 400 yards total offense on 11 different occasions that year.

 By the time New Year’s Day finally rolled around, the Buffs entered the Orange Bowl perched on the precipice of greatness and poised to make that final step that had so thoroughly eluded them the year prior.

“Our game plan was just to be physical for the simple fact that we had lost to them the year before and we knew what we could and couldn’t do,” said Figures. “We went back and said, ‘You know what, we’re going to be physical and we’re going to go out and play our game.’ And that’s what we did.”

Figures played a key role that night in befuddling a gifted Irish passing game led by future NFL No. 2 overall draft pick, Rick Mirer, and wide receiver and Heisman Trophy candidate Raghib “Rocket” Ismail.

The CU secondary forced Mirer into two interceptions on 13-of-31 passing and held Ismail to just 57 yards receiving as the Buffs clung to a 10-9 lead in the game’s final minutes. The Fighting Irish offense drove to near mid-field with less than a minute to play before Figures sealed the win by darting in front of a receiver and picking off Mirer’s final pass of the game. CU’s long-awaited ascent to college football’s summit was finally complete.

“That was a special memory for me,” said Figures. “We gave (their quarterback) problems that whole game and to be the one to actually cap off the game and the national championship was pretty special.”

A YEAR AFTER EXPERIENCING the peak of team excellence, a change in the coaching staff would serve as the stepping stone toward Figures’ own individual ascent towards excellence. 

New defensive backs coach Greg Brown was hired in the spring of 1991 to relieve defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz of some of his responsibilities with the team’s secondary. Brown brought with him a unique coaching philosophy that became the catalyst for an even higher level of performance for a unit that would soon develop into one littered with future NFL talent.

Over the next three seasons, the secondary would produce two Thorpe Award winners and four NFL first-round draft picks under the tutelage of Brown.

“We had myself, Greg Thomas, Chris Hudson, Ronnie Bradford, Eric Hamilton, Dwayne Davis,” Figures remembered. “I mean, we were so good that you could put the corners at safety and the safeties at corner because we didn’t just know our positions, we knew everybody’s positions. We just vibed off each other.”

Figures quickly became the epitome of that unprecedented growth period by molding himself, through his own maturation and the coaching of Brown, into the best cornerback in the country by the time his senior year began.

Figures headlined a pass defense that led the nation in 1992 pass completion percentage allowed by limiting receivers he lined up against to an astounding six completions in over 400 defensive snaps. Figures also pulled down six interceptions that season, meaning quarterbacks completed as many passes to him as they did to their own receivers.

“That season was all coach Brown,” Figures said. “He came in as the (secondary) coach, and not taking anything away from coach Hankwitz, but he was a linebackers coach who was coaching defensive backs. But, coach Brown came in and basically everybody in the secondary took like three steps up. Things that you did in practice started to carry over into the games. We were like, ‘This guy knows what he’s doing.’ I was happy when coach Brown came in, most definitely.”

That season would eventually culminate with Figures winning the 1992 Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back.

The following spring, he became the ninth defensive player taken in the 1993 NFL draft when the Pittsburgh Steelers selected him 23rd overall.

Figures would play six seasons in the NFL, four with the Steelers and two with the Jacksonville Jaguars, until a variety of injuries forced him to retire in 1999.

“(My NFL career) didn’t go like I wanted it to go,” said Figures. “I played hurt a lot. It didn’t last as long as I felt it should have, but you’ve got to take the good with the bad and the bitter with the sweet. I played on broken and fractured ankles and with headaches and migraines, it didn’t matter. I don’t have any regrets. I did what I did.”

Now, Figures stands at the proverbial peak of all-time athletic achievement at CU, the latest recipient of the university’s greatest honor.

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