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Many hard feelings and several generations later, CU Buffs renew football series with AFA

Cadets’ visits during Vietnam War era left lasting scars

Air Force split end Bob Farr nets 15 yards on third-down catch between CU's Rick Cleveland (20), and Randy Geist (15 on Oct. 13, 1973.
The Denver Post
Air Force split end Bob Farr nets 15 yards on third-down catch between CU’s Rick Cleveland (20), and Randy Geist (15 on Oct. 13, 1973.

A glance at almost any major daily newspaper across the country, and certainly a quick scroll through the cable news networks, would support the idea the country has changed little since Colorado and Air Force last collided on a football field 45 years ago.

It is perhaps fitting, however, that when the Falcons hit Folsom Field Saturday for the first matchup between the Front Range programs since 1974, and the first in Boulder since 1973, they will do so just days after the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that, albeit briefly, galvanized the nation.

That certainly wasn’t the case in 1974. And even more so in 1973, when the Cadets were showered with beer and disrespectful ire from the anti-Vietnam War faction in Boulder. Saturday’s game (11 a.m., Pac-12 Networks), plus CU’s return trip to AFA in 2022, will at least allow an opportunity to write new, more memorable chapters to a once-popular rivalry that was discontinued under extremely ugly circumstances.

“Times have changed. Times are different,” CU athletic director Rick George said. “Playing a game against the Air Force Academy I think makes sense today.”

The scars from those angst-fueled showdowns were slow, and in some cases impossible, to heal from the AFA perspective.

When Mike Bohn took over as CU’s athletic director in 2005, he immediately reached out to AFA about possibly rekindling the rivalry. Despite previously serving as an associate AD at AFA for eight years, Bohn was emphatically rebuffed. By that time Hans Mueh had taken over as AFA’s athletic director, and he made it clear revisiting the rivalry was beyond the lowest of priorities for the Academy. AFA’s athletic director from 2004 through 2015, Mueh played football at AFA in the 1960s and remained bitter over how the Cadets were treated in Boulder, an experience he recounted this week to the Colorado Springs Gazette.

“You weren’t there, but I was and I know how ugly it was when I was a cadet,” Mueh told the Gazette. “I hope that I’m wrong. I hope that CU fans accept Air Force the way Michigan, Oklahoma and Tennessee fans have accepted us. I hope CU has turned that page and that they are as welcoming. I am skeptical.”

The ugly end to a once-proud rivalry ultimately overshadowed a number of memorable moments for both programs.

In 1962 the Buffs topped AFA in former coach Bud Davis’ final game at CU. A year later the matchup was delayed two weeks following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, with the Dec. 7 contest marking the latest regular-season game for CU since 1918. In 1970 a group of Cadets managed to steal Ralphie and run her around Falcon Stadium between two oversized burger buns (A buffalo burger. Get it?) The stunt backfired, as days later CU thrashed a 10th-ranked, Sugar Bowl-bound Air Force squad 49-19. Ever since, the location of Ralphie’s ranch has been shrouded in the sort of deep secrecy that would make any military institution proud.

That last meeting in 1974 wasn’t without drama either, as Air Force’s All-American kicker Dave Lawson booted a 60-yard field goal only to miss a potential game-winning 50-yard attempt later. Yet given the ugliness surrounding the games, the hope is the new home-and-home set — the Buffs return to Falcon Stadium in 2022 — creates lasting memories via the football action, and not some embarrassing circus surrounding the gridiron.

“I think it was a combination of us wanting to play a game on the Front Range, and playing Air Force down in Colorado Springs to bring our fans down there had some value,” George said. “And for Air Force I think there was some value for them coming up to Colorado and playing up there too in Boulder. I don’t think there was anything magical about it. We both had a need. That also filled a void for us on the Front Range, not having the CSU game (in the future).”