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Plati-'Tudes Story Time: The Wishbone

Sep 27, 2020
Mark Hatcher running the wishbone in 1986.

Here's edition number two in: "Plati-'Tudes Story Time." With CU sports still on "hiatus" due to the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, we're all trying to create some unique content to keep fans engaged until we can return to the fields, courts and slopes.  Earlier this summer, I did a review of what I thought were our best three games each week where they fell on the schedule; if you missed those, go to the Plati-'Tudes archives. 

CU was the host school for the NCAA's Men's Basketball West Regional, March 22 & 24, 1985.  St. John's beat Kentucky, 86-80 and North Carolina State edged Alabama, 61-55, in the regional semifinals.  St. John's then beat N.C. State, 69-60 to advance to the Final Four (where it lost to Georgetown, who subsequently lost to Villanova).  The all-tournament team was Chris Mullin and Walter Berry from St. John's; Lorenzo Charles and Spud Webb from N. C. State; and Kenny Walker from Kentucky.

There were plenty of national media in town, as the final game was on Sunday afternoon, and many didn't have flights out until sometime Monday.  The teams all had left town by Sunday night, but we had a major announcement Monday morning and decided to hold a press conference in Denver and get a few of those media members still in town to attend to pop over to the Denver Athletic Club, where we held the soiree.

The major announcement?  Spring football was starting at CU the following Monday after spring break, and coach Bill McCartney took the opportunity to announce to the world that he Buffaloes were going to switch to the wishbone on offense.  Say what?

Say wishbone.  He also announced the final two new additions to the coaching staff, Steve Logan as running backs coach and Oliver Lucas as receiver coach.  McCartney previously had hired Mike Hankwitz as outside linebackers coach and Steve Bernstein as defensive backs coach, as he revamped his coaching staff with four new hires: Ron Dickerson had moved on to Penn State, Jim Caldwell to Louisville and Mike McNeely to the NCAA; one other was let go.

Several national scribes joined the local media at the press conference, and the story got national coverage.  What was written aside, most viewed it as a desperate attempt by McCartney to reverse his fortunes at CU, despite receiving a contract extension three-fourths of the way through a 1-10 season in 1984 and an overall 7-25-1 mark in three years at the reins of the program.  

He pointed out that several teams were running the option on offense, and all had a history of winning records and always presented problems to opponents as they had to really alter their practices on defense to prepare for it.  And the Buffs more or less needed a "reboot" after a topsy-turvy, emotional 1984 campaign.  So let's revisit that year, my first season as CU's sports information director, having replaced John Clagett in July.  To say the least, it would be baptism by fire … 

CU lost the opener to Michigan State, 24-21, after the Denver Post revealed the team's new offense for that season (the two-tight end offense), giving MSU time to prepare and adjust for it from Wednesday on.  The Spartans took a 24-0 lead into the fourth quarter, but the Buffs furious rally would fall just short.  The offense displayed promise: CU had 25 first downs (to 10 by MSU), and won the total offense battle, 358-293.  Ed Reinhardt would lead the nation in receiving after week one, catching 10 balls for 141 yards and two touchdowns, with Jon Embree hauling in seven for 112 yards.  It was just the second time in CU history two players had 100-plus yards receiving in a game, and to this day, the only time in 17 such occasions both players were tight ends.

(It took a while for Mac to trust the media again, though we did not close practices, we did update what could be and what couldn't be reported.  We had no written policies up until that time, it was old school "handshake" understandings.)

Of course the next week, CU dropped a 27-20 decision at Oregon, but the story that day was that Reinhardt was injured late in the game, came to the sideline where trainer Andy Pruitt immediately recognized from his dilated eyes that something was very wrong, and they rushed him to a nearby hospital.  Working stats for KOA, I was packing up to head to the locker room when Gerry DiNardo rushed into the booth and asked if I still had my rental car; I did and asked him why?  I can still hear him say, "It's Reinhardt.  He may not live.  Let's go."  

Ed was in surgery for hours; the team went to the airport, eventually boarded the plane, but athletic director Bill Marolt was at the hospital with Mac and several others, so we sat at the gate until near midnight.  That's when Marolt and the team doctors boarded and informed us that Ed had made it through surgery but it was going to be day-to-day.  He had suffered a blood clot on the brain and would be in a coma for 33 days.  His family joined him bedside in Oregon, and some might not recall that Ed's older brother, John, was playing for Nebraska and the Huskers, in a first class move, arranged to have him flown to Eugene on a private plane after their game against Minnesota that day.

The 1984 season was never the same after that.  There was little motivation the following week in a blowout loss at Notre Dame, but after losses to UCLA and at Missouri, the Buffs recorded their lone win, a 23-21 verdict over Iowa State that saw Steve Vogel connect with Ron Brown on two long TD passes, with Jon Embree on a third and get a 52-yard field goal from Dave DeLine.  Still, CU had to hold on for the win after ISU rallied from down 23-12 in the fourth.  

The following week, an inspired CU team took a 7-3 lead against No. 5 Nebraska into the fourth quarter before falling, 24-7, the 17th straight loss to NU; but there were two significant occurrences that day: in-game, it was the first time since a 21-16 win in 1967 that the Buffs led the Huskers going into the fourth quarter.   Prior to the game, McCartney had a surprise for the team: the Buffs came out and warmed up in their blue jerseys they had been saddled with dating back to 1980, when a Regent suggested the athletic teams wear "Colorado sky blue at 9,000-feet."  The Board actually voted 6-3 to do it, even though at the time CU was in a budget crisis, but what they hey, let's make them order new uniforms for all their sports.  When the team went back in, they changed into the black uniforms the team had donned back into the 1940s (the only players that knew was the linemen; the black uniforms were so tight, they had them on underneath the blue ones, otherwise they never could have changed in time).  The Folsom Field crowd went bananas when the team ran out behind Ralphie II adorned in the fan-favorite black jerseys.

Two close losses followed, 20-14 at No. 10 Oklahoma State and 28-27 at home to Kansas in a game CU led 27-16 only to fall behind early in the fourth quarter, but then come up short on two field goal tries, one wide from 43 yards out and the second not even having a chance as the center snap was fumbled.  CU wore the black jerseys again in a 42-17 loss to No. 9 Oklahoma, a game that had Sooners ahead by just 14-10 with three minutes left in the first half until a pair of touchdowns 66 seconds apart by future Denver Bronco Steve Sewell broke open the game right before the half.

The '84 season ended in a near ironic fashion, the finale on the road against Kansas State, which owned a 2-7-1 record.  The Wildcats led 14-0 entering the fourth quarter and extended the lead to 24-0.  CU averted the shutout with 2:58 left in the game when Chuck Page hit Lee Rouson on a 3-yard TD pass.  CU tried an onside kick, but alas, K-State did not only recover, but Kent Dean returned it 47 yards for a touchdown.  The final salt on the wound for the season was a 39-yard interception return 37 seconds later and a 38-6 loss.

The Buffs were criticized unfairly for having one of the worst rushing games in history, averaging just 59.7 yards per game.  But Rouson led the team with 725 yards, so how could that be?  Remember, the NCAA deducts sack yardage off rushing totals; that year, CU quarterbacks were sacked 54 times for 476 yards, playing a huge role in the low average for the season.  Still, the running game could be improved.  Fast-forward back to 1985 … 

You could have 20 spring practices back then (just 15 now, many with restrictions), and the transitional pains were obvious.  Lots of fumbles as the offense learned the new formations.  But something else was going on that wouldn't come clear until the fall.  The Varsity beat the Alumni, 24-0, in the spring game, with 4,211 in attendance, about the average over the last several seasons.  

Fall rolled around and you could still have two-a-day practices back then and most in pads.  The fumbles decreased, the players were starting to figure things out (think back to how excited Gene Hackman was in Hoosiers when his players were "really starting to get it").  The offense would roll up 300-plus rushing yards in scrimmages.  But the true test would be a real game and CSU was on the schedule for just the second time in 27 years.  The wishbone passed the test: CU had 358 yards rushing against the Rams in a 23-10 win, its most in a game since 1978.  Next up: Oregon, 6-5 the previous season and a Heisman candidate in quarterback Chris Miller.

Brown, converting from receiver, rushed for 104 yards against CSU to lead the offense, while Mark Hatcher, who moved from halfback to quarterback scored twice.  Against the Ducks, Hatcher rushed for 114 yards and two more scores, including the game-winner, while Anthony Weatherspoon had 101 yards and a TD.  It was also the first time since 1978 that two backs reached the 100-yard plateau.  CU won, 21-17, thanks to a defensive stand after Oregon had a first-and-goal at the CU 5 with 1:55 remaining that ended with Mickey Pruitt sacking Miller on fourth down as time ran out.

Back to that something else that was happening.  The funny thing about the wishbone was that the offensive numbers from 1984 to 1985 improved only slightly: from 293.5 yards per game to 302.3 and from 15.6 points to 19.2.  But defensively, those same numbers went from 395.2 to 296.8 and from 33.1 to 14.0 (or from 88th to 17th in total defense in the NCAA, and from 101st to 15th).  Practicing daily against the running game saw the opponent average 104 fewer yards on the ground in '85 than the season before (102nd to 37th nationally), and CU would also average over three minutes more in time of possession.

Another reason that very few likely remember also attributed to the turn-around.  In 1984, Mac "reactivated" the junior varsity team, which had last competed in 1979.  The program's numbers had improved and despite a year of eligibility would be lost for those who appeared in games, the junior Buffs played a three-game schedule.  After two recruiting classes, McCartney had reloaded the program from his '82 team, which had 77 players on the opening day roster (73 on scholarship).  At the start of the '84 season, there were eight quarterbacks on the roster and Mac wanted get some of them some real-time game action so rust wouldn't accumulate.  Thus, several players got some badly needed playing time in the J.V. games, including familiar names like Mark Hatcher, Lance Carl, Sam Smith, Dion Dyson, Keith English, Barry Helton, Tom Stone, Don DeLuzio, David Tate and Anthony Weatherspoon.  A few would even play in those games on Friday and then dress for Saturday (and on two occasions, a handful of players caught a late flight and joined the team on the road).  

(That was the last year CU had a junior varsity team and schedule; had it continued, McCartney was planning to approach Nebraska to begin a J.V. series.)

So the wishbone not only changed CU's fortunes on offense, it did so on defense and the result was a 7-4 regular season record, the NCAA's Most Improved Team honor, and the Buffs' first bowl invitation since being Big Eight tri-champions in 1976, also the last time CU had a winning record in conference play.

THIS WEEK'S OBSCURE HISTORICAL NOTE

Football schedules are set years in advance – often as many as 15 or 16 years, which is a bit crazy.  That does and has led to some games being canceled for all kinds of assorted reasons.  In 1977,  New Mexico replaced Villanova on the schedule about 18 months prior.  When Colorado State reappeared back on the schedule in 1983, it knocked out a home game against Tulsa that year and one against New Mexico in 1989.  A home-and-home with Duke went by the wayside; as did one with North Carolina and Florida State, in Boulder and in Jacksonville.  Wisconsin was moved to 1994-95 to accommodate Baylor and Texas in 1992-93 and '93-94, which also eliminated a home game against Arkansas State and a home-and-home with Texas Tech.  Games in the 2000s that were nixed were a home-and-home with Penn State, another attempt at one with North Carolina, and a road trip to San Diego State.  One series that has remained on the schedule after multiple delays is a home-and-home with Minnesota, which is now set for 2022 in Minneapolis and 2023 in Boulder.