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20 years later, ‘Tear gas game’ reigns supreme in CU-CSU Denver memories

Gary Barnett’s CU head coach debut a fiasco on and off field

Gary Barnett's first game as the coach of the Buffs was a loss to Colorado State.
The Denver Post
Gary Barnett’s first game as the coach of the Buffs was a loss to Colorado State.
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Surely the metaphor was hovering there subconsciously. Hovering like the haze of tear gas adding insult to injury at the end of a debut not at all in sync with the norm throughout Gary Barnett’s coaching career.

Still, there it was. Twenty years ago this week tear gas rained down at Mile High Stadium as Colorado State put the finishing touches on a wholly unexpected 41-14 beat-down of the 14th-ranked Colorado Buffaloes. The fervor that accompanied the move of the Rocky Mountain Showdown to Mile High Stadium, home of the Denver Broncos, one year earlier reached a fever pitch late in the affair, with the Denver Police unleashing tear gas upon the unruly only to have, in several cases, the tear gas grenades hurled back, causing a mess of epic proportions.

It was Barnett’s first game as CU’s new head coach. A roundly respected assistant from the Bill McCartney glory years a decade earlier, Barnett felt like a riot had just been unleashed upon the black and gold by an inspired CSU squad. And while the ugly scene at Mile High wasn’t exactly a riot, that’s the correlation that sprung to mind as Barnett, who will be inducted to the CU athletics Hall of Fame in November, reminisced about the 20-year anniversary of a chaotic debut that did absolutely nothing to signal the run of four Big 12 Conference championship game appearances in five years that began two years later.

“What I remember was that I overworked our team, and I had them mentally and physically tired for that game,” Barnett said. “And CSU played really well. A combination of us being mentally tired and not playing well, and CSU playing well it produced a riot…I don’t want to say riot, but it produced a riot. That’s what I really remember. It’s one of those things as a coach I brought my solutions to the problems I had at the school I had before (Northwestern) and thought they would be solutions at the new place. And it wasn’t.”

The Denver chapter of the Rocky Mountain Showdown ends for the foreseeable future Friday night when the Buffs take on CSU in the season opener at Broncos Stadium at Mile High. Memorable moments abound from the Denver games of the rivalry, yet for better and certainly for worse it’s difficult to top a ridiculous 1999 students-versus-police showdown as the most unforgettable moment in the CU-CSU saga staged in Denver.

“The tear gas came out…I was embarrassed about the way we played and then I was embarrassed by the way the tear gas happened. It was a tough start for me,” said Barnett, who had to explain his rough debut in a postgame press conference moved on the fly due to the fumes. “Hopefully nobody ever has to go through that. It was very surreal. The reality, both sets of students get out of control for that game. You’re doing it at 8 o’clock at night (on Friday). I can throw my two cents in here that that’s ridiculous. But it’s the way it is.”

BuffZone.com beat writer Brian Howell contributed to this report.

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