As is typically the case with any lengthy feature, the folks who were gracious enough to chat with me for the story on the revival of the Colorado-Nebraska football rivalry gave me far more information and interesting stories than there was space in the narrative. Here are some interesting thoughts from longtime CU radio voice Larry Zimmer, former head coach Gary Barnett, and former defensive lineman Matt McChesney that didn’t make the cut.
One year Zimmer and his wife, Brigitte, were checking into a Lincoln hotel on the eve of a CU-Nebraska showdown when they found themselves within earshot of a Cornhuskers assistant chatting with a recruit in town for his official visit.
The weather was unusually balmy for Thanksgiving weekend in Lincoln, a fact the coach was attempting to highlight to the recruit. With CU assistant Brian Cabral standing nearby, the Zimmers subtly made sure the young man understood the stark reality of late fall weather in Nebraska.
“We heard what he was saying. It was beautiful weather,” Zimmer said. “So Brigitte turns to me and says, ‘Boy, it’s nice to have great weather. The last three times it was snow and rain and ice.’ Cabral is just sitting over there and he’s just laughing. And I don’t think we were lying, either.”
Zimmer also recalls the unwavering confidence Barnett displayed in the week leading up to the Buffs’ memorable 62-36 win in 2001.
“There was never a doubt in his mind, in the team’s mind, they were going to win that game,” Zimmer said. “I was around them quite a bit and they had all kinds of confidence. I went on a talk show with a station in either Omaha or Lincoln, and they were going on about how the Huskers can do this or the Huskers can do that. And I’ve never done this in my career, and I was afraid I messed up, but I said, ‘Not only is it going to be close, Colorado is going to win the game.’ They sort of got my goat, and I knew we were pretty good.”
The veteran coach was on the sideline for most of CU’s biggest wins against Nebraska, serving as an assistant under Bill McCartney before leading the Buffs as the head coach from 1999 through 2005. The 62-36 demolishing of Nebraska in 2001, followed by a thrilling two-point win against Texas in the Big 12 Conference title game a week later, counts as the high-water mark of Barnett’s tenure.
“Any time you sit down with someone, that’s the game that comes to mind and the one they want to talk about,” Barnett said. “Everybody says they know where they were that day.”
Barnett originally left CU after the 1991 season to take the head coach job at Northwestern. When he returned he immediately noted Nebraska week had gained an added fervor.
“When I came back as head coach it felt like it was a legitimate rivalry,” Barnett said. “Up until then, I just think they felt like we were biting at their ankles. And we probably were. It got legitimized I think from the ’89, ’90 and ’91 seasons.”
The Longmont native still bleeds black and gold. He was fortunate enough to be on the field for the 2001 rout of Nebraska, but as a fifth-year senior on a 2004 team that weathered more than its share of adversity, the 26-20 win that season that officially ended Nebraska’s record run of 35 consecutive bowl appearances remains a treasured triumph. The win also gave the Buffs a third Big 12 North Division crown in four seasons.
“Coach Barnett was getting run through the wringer and we were all criminals and we weren’t any good,” McChesney said. “We were playing for the North in Lincoln, and if they lose they don’t get into a bowl game for the first time in forever. That was one (expletive) sweet win.
“To sit in the locker room in Lincoln and sing the fight song and know that that group across the hallway in Lincoln, they were the first group to not lead the team to a bowl game in a long time. That (stuff) was satisfying.”