The 2001 Colorado football team is returning to town this week to be honored at the home opener against California on Saturday afternoon at Folsom Field. Coach Gary Barnett and most of the roster that put a historic whooping on Nebraska and upset Texas to claim the title will reunite just as the 1990 national championship team did last fall.
A handful of players still under contracts in the National Football League and most of the coaching staff from that season won't be able to attend because they will be competing in games elsewhere this weekend, but many familiar faces such as quarterback Bobby Pesavento, running back Bobby Purify, linebacker Sean Tufts and offensive lineman Victor Rogers will be on hand to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a 10-3 season that many believe should have ended with the Buffs playing for the national title.
"It had tremendous resilience," Barnett said of the 2001 team.
The Buffs overcame the loss of two team captains (Jon Minardi and Jashon Sykes) and its starting quarterback (Craig Ochs) to injuries and also the cancellation of a game against Washington State in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Washington State won the Pac-10 that season and a victory over the Cougars might have been enough to vault the Buffs into the national title game.
"It was just one of those teams that was very resilient with sort of a singleness of purpose," Barnett said. "The other theme we had was
'90-10' meaning we would spend 90 percent of our time chasing our dreams and 10 percent of our time on internal issues. We never let internal issues ever be an issue for that football team."
Barnett, who remains a strong advocate of the program even though he was ultimately fired in 2005, said he has remained in contact with many members of the 2001 team and sees a lot of his former players each year when he participates in the annual Buffs4Life weekend. Yet he still expects this reunion to be memorable.
"We just had some good times and some tough times and it creates a bond that you never lose," he said.
Barnett said Pesavento embodied the spirit of the team and was another huge factor in the title run. He was able to come off the bench when Ochs was hurt and play at an equally effective level. In some ways, he might have been more effective.
"We had a bunch of seniors and a good group of seniors who were just determined to go out at the end of their career on top or as close to being on top as possible," Pesavento said. "And lastly, we just had really damn good football players. We had a bunch of guys who were just really good and jelled well together and cheered for one another. It was one of those situations where we would do anything for the guy next to us."
This season's team could learn many lessons from the old Buffs who will be in the locker room with them prior to the Cal game, including how to overcome a loss in the season opener. Jon Embree's team lost its first game at Hawaii just as the 2001 team dropped its opener at home to Fresno State.
The 2001 Buffs then reeled off five straight victories before their next loss at Texas. Some might believe that 41-7 humbling was the key moment that set up the run to the title at the end of the year, but Barnett and his players agree it was a raucous halftime locker room at Oklahoma State when the team truly found itself.
The Buffs were trailing 16-7 when they entered the locker room. Offensive line coach Steve Marshall suggested the coaching staff should allow the players to talk among themselves. Senior Victor Rogers took the lead and coaches never said a word until the team was back on the field.
"I think that was the moment when we realized, 'Hey, we're really in the mix and can do something special this year, but this game matters,' " Pesavento said. "I remember to this day Victor Rogers being one the biggest catalysts of that halftime with guys yelling and screaming and challenging one another to show up in the second half."
The Buffs won the game 22-19 to start another five-game winning streak. The span included two of the most historic victories for the Colorado program.
While the Buffs ultimately won the conference championship in Dallas against Texas, avenging their earlier loss to the Longhorns, it is the regular-season finale many Buffs fans still treasure most in scrapbooks and memories.
The Buffs demolished No. 1-ranked Nebraska at Folsom Field. The score of the game, 62-36, has become iconic in CU lore. The Buffs ran for eight touchdowns and 380 yards against the Cornhuskers, with tailback Chris Brown scoring six times.
Asked what allowed the 2001 team to accomplish all that it did, former linebacker Sean Tufts said, "The offensive line."
"I think we had a core group of seniors that were fantastic leaders," he said. "After that, we just had a lot of really talented, driven guys. I think most of that team (starters) was drafted or played in the NFL. I think the summation of that was those seniors who were really, really strong. They taught us the way that Buff football should be played."
The Buffs were crowned champions a week later in Dallas after beating the Longhorns 39-37 behind another strong outing from Brown buoyed by an opportunistic defense.
However, they were forced to watch Nebraska advance to the national title game against Miami in one of the greatest blunders ever produced by the Bowl Championship Series system. It allowed a team that finished second in its division and lost its final regular-season game by 26 points to play for the title.
Meanwhile, the Buffs fell flat in the Fiesta Bowl having had the wind taken out of their sails and lost to Oregon 38-16.
"It bothered me more at the time than it does now because I've seen other inequities occur and I've realized that it's just part of life," Barnett said of being left out of the national title game. "I don't think that sort of thing could happen again, even though they didn't make a rule against it. But I don't think that would be acceptable procedure now. So in a way, maybe we changed something in that process, but it really bothered me at the time."