To say the cupboard was bare at the University of Colorado when Bill McCartney arrived in Boulder doesn't quite do justice to the sorry state of the football program in 1982.
Between 1979 and 1981 the Buffaloes won all of seven games. There was little confidence in the idea of a quick turnaround and interest in the program was waning, with the average attendance at Folsom Field reaching a 16-year low in 1981. The need to replenish the enthusiasm surrounding the Buffaloes program was as essential to the success McCartney envisioned as replenishing the level of talent on the roster.
McCartney believed players and fans alike needed a foe to conquer as the program strove for the top of the mountain, a rallying point upon which to focus the passion and intensity that comes with being a feisty up-and-coming underdog. The idea that all games on a schedule count equally is a popular coaching mantra, yet McCartney summarily dismissed it. He arrived at CU after serving as an assistant for the legendary Bo Schembechler at Michigan, where the refrain, "Oh how I hate Ohio State," far exceeded the ire the Wolverines faithful showered upon any other foe.
To identify this rallying point, this Goliath to vanquish, McCartney looked to the east. Within a few years, an annual border war with Nebraska that had been painfully tilted toward the Cornhuskers took on a new ferocity. Soon it was the Buffaloes who were winning national championships, and McCartney could be credited for turning a lopsided regional rivalry into a bitterly contested feud with massive national implications pretty much through the force of his will.
Eight years after last meeting as conference foes, the Buffs and Nebraska square off once again Saturday afternoon in Lincoln (1:30 p.m. MT, ABC). It will be the rivals' 70th meeting, and the renewal of the showdown has rekindled memories and hibernating emotions out of fans, former players, and even McCartney himself.
"When I got here I said, 'Who's our Ohio State?' Who's the team we've got to beat?" McCartney said. "There was no rival. There was no game to point to. When you get kids between the ages of 18 and 22, you've got to give them targets to shoot at. You can't just give them a big picture. You've got to say, 'We're going to keep getting better and better, and when we get to Lincoln we're going to hit them in the mouth until we take over the place. And when we shut them all up, then we'll leave.'
"You have to project things like that. And when I came here, there wasn't anything like that... and one of the reasons we chose (Nebraska) and not Oklahoma or others was because they're a neighboring state. They're next door. They can get loud. You've got to shut them up. That's how we approached it, anyway."
McCartney wouldn't lead the Buffs past the hurdle of that red-letter game he highlighted for a few years yet. Yet the stage was set for some of the most memorable games in CU football history.
Before McCartney's arrival, the rivalry wasn't much of a rivalry at all. Going into McCartney's first season in 1982, Nebraska has won 19 of the past 20 meetings, including the previous 14 in a row. Those streaks would reach 18 losses in a row for the Buffs and 23 in 24 games before they finally toppled the mighty Cornhuskers in 1986.
Up to that point, however, the roiling emotions of a neighborly rivalry far surpassed the tepid level of drama on the field. Kimbirly Orr is as true a Buffaloes fan as there is, an alumnus who serves as chair of marketing and communications on CU's board of advisors. In the fall of 1983 — Orr's final semester at CU and McCartney's second season at the helm — she worked in the football office and had a front-row seat as the red-letter date against Nebraska highlighted on the CU schedule by McCartney almost immediately morphed into a permanent banning of all things red across the entire CU athletics department.
Since her days as a student Orr says she can count on two hands the number of home games she has missed, and she has traveled to dozens of away games as well. Orr is returning to Lincoln this weekend alongside a small caravan of CU fan friends to a stadium where she admits she never has felt welcome. Nevertheless, she immediately inked this trip on her calendar when the game was announced in early 2013.
"It's a stadium I don't relish going to," said Orr, who proudly admits there isn't a single trace of red in her entire wardrobe. "But the rivalry is fierce. And I think having a fierce rivalry is a great thing in college sports. I always loved the Thanksgiving tradition of having Colorado play Nebraska. I respect their fervent passion for their team because I feel the same way about mine."
The rivalry McCartney essentially demanded only intensified over the next two and a half decades. A generation of aspiring Buffs watched the landmark back-to-back wins against Nebraska in 1989 and 1990, the latter occurring on the road with the Buffs' national title hopes on the line, and built on the tradition. Former Buff Matt McChesney, a Longmont native and owner of the Six Zero Strength training facility in Centennial, is in an unusual position this weekend as a rivalry that still burns his blood is renewed.
As a coach, McChesney remains dedicated to helping young athletes procure opportunities, even if those opportunities emanate from Lincoln. Six prospects with ties to Six Zero Strength will be on the Cornhuskers' sideline this weekend making official visits. And while those players are free to bring home whatever gear they want, there is a standing rule at the gym: No Nebraska gear allowed unless you've officially committed to the Cornhuskers, like current Nebraska freshman defensive lineman Tate Wildeman from Parker.
"I took it personal when I was growing up, and I took it more personal when I was there, and I take it more personal now I think. It's fun and I'm glad we're playing again," McChesney said. "I really hope that all these young men sitting up there in Boulder really understands what this means to the community and to this fan base. It's not just a game. It's not CSU. I know that's a big game and that's great, but it's not CSU.
"You're going to Lincoln, Nebraska, and this is the same fan base that put a sign out on the (freaking) highway, 'Sal (Aunese) is dead, go Big Red.' So let's not get it twisted. There's some real hatred here. I hope they feel that way."
Sal Aunese is a former CU quarterback who passed away on Sept. 23, 1989, from inoperable stomach cancer.
The wins in 1989 and 1990 signaled the Buffs finally were playing on the same level as the nationally-renowned Cornhuskers. Yet it was the win in 1986 that delivered on McCartney's belief the moribund CU program could compete with the Big Red machine to the east. While the Buffs were coming off a 7-5 season in 1985 with an appearance in the Freedom Bowl, the 20-10 win in 1986 at Folsom Field against the nation's 3rd-ranked team spurred a 6-1 finish in the Big 8 Conference and served notice the Buffs were taking this whole rivalry thing seriously.
In 1989 a No. 2-ranked CU squad topped No. 3 Nebraska 27-21 at Folsom. A year later the Buffs' road to the national championship almost was denied amid showers of rain and Eric Bieniemy fumbles on a dreary night in Lincoln, yet CU kept the dream alive with a 27-12 comeback victory.
"That was such a big game (in 1986)," said Barnett, an assistant in those days who says his wife was denied the right to wear red by McCartney. "We hadn't beat them in 19 years when that happened. That was a huge game for us. Then we beat them again in '89 when we were on that run. And that was not an easy game. And then we got them again in '90 in that unbelievable rain storm there. It just seemed like it was one game after another that everybody got so jacked up for. It was just one great battle after another.
"Once 1986 happened, we always felt like we had a chance against them."
Those great battles will occur sporadically now. Barnett and McChesney are of the belief CU and Nebraska should play more frequently, and any polling of Buffs fans is likely to arrive at the same conclusion. The Cornhuskers make a return visit to Folsom next year, and the rivals are scheduled to play another home-and-home set in 2023 (in Boulder) and 2024 (in Lincoln). Given the home-and-home agreements already in place beyond 2024 — Georgia Tech in 2025 and 2026, Northwestern in 2026 and 2027, Kansas State in 2027 and 2028 — and it seems unlikely the programs will meet again until 2029 at the earliest, outside a fortuitous pairing in a bowl game.
In short, for Buffs fans Saturday's showdown will be one to savor.
"Florida and Florida State aren't in the same conference and they play every year," McChesney said. "I know this isn't a state rivalry, but it might as well be. Because they're the only Power 5 school in their state, and we're the only Power 5 school in ours. I'd like to see it become something normal."