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Looking back: CU Buffs’ 1990 title run off to slow start

Coach Bill McCartney’s group opens season with tie against No. 8 Tennessee

Daily Camera file
Quarterback Darian Hagan overcame three early interceptions to help Colorado tie Tennessee, 31-31, on Aug. 26, 1990, in Anaheim, Calif.

(Note: The coronavirus pandemic has postponed the fall sports season in the Pac-12 Conference until at least January and that means no Colorado Buffaloes football this season. Instead, BuffZone.com will feature memorable games and players from the past as we look back at each week in CU football history. In this installment, we look back at the week of Aug. 24-30.)

Mickey Mouse was all smiles – as always – when he donned a football helmet, held a ball and stood next to a pair of coaching legends.

The announcement of the first Disneyland Pigskin Classic featured one of the world’s most lovable characters, as well as Colorado’s Bill McCartney and Tennessee’s Johnny Majors, on Feb. 21, 1990.

There were plenty of reasons to smile, as Disney was to host two of the premier programs in the country in the first game of the 1990 season and each school would collect at least $550,000 for playing the game.

Coming off a remarkable 1989 season (11-1, No. 4 final ranking) that left them one win shy of a national title, McCartney’s Buffaloes harbored championship hopes again, but a gauntlet of a schedule. Seven months before beginning that journey, CU made it even tougher.

Adding Tennessee (11-1, No. 5 in 1989) to the slate gave CU five preseason Top-25 opponents for the regular season. It also set up the only season opener in CU history to feature two top-10 teams.

CU came into the Aug. 26, 1990, matchup ranked No. 5, while Tennessee was No. 8.

“This game has big stakes,” McCartney said a few days before the game at Anaheim Stadium. “The winner will be in great shape nationally. The loser will have to pick up the pieces.”

McCartney didn’t mention the third possibility, but it came into play when his Buffaloes ran out of steam in the fourth quarter, settling for a 31-31 tie.

“We’re going to look back on it with a lot of frustration because we put ourselves in a position to win a game,” McCartney said afterward.

A remarkable left-handed flip from Buffs’ sensational quarterback Darian Hagan to speedy receiver-turned-running back Mike Pritchard resulted in a 78-yard touchdown run that gave the Buffs a 31-17 lead with 7 minutes, 11 seconds to play in the fourth quarter.

In the next five minutes, Tennessee quarterback Andy Kelly led the Vols on two scoring drives – a touchdown pass to Carl Pickens and Chuck Webb’s 4-yard touchdown run – to tie the game at 31-31 with 2:25 to go.

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Colorado’s Darian Hagan rushed for 77 yards in the tie against Tennessee o Aug. 26, 1990.

Kelly threw for a career-high 368 yards, including going 18-for-27 for 241 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

After a second consecutive CU punt, Tennessee got the ball back with 30 seconds remaining. Webb’s 25-yard run to the Colorado 16-yard line put one final scare into the Buffs, but time expired on the run and the Buffs walked off the field with a disappointing tie.

“Collectively as a team, if we would have kept our foot on the gas and continued to play like we did (early) offensively, it wouldn’t have been a tie,” Hagan told BuffZone in 2015. “We tied them and we weren’t too happy.”

It certainly wasn’t the smoothest start to CU’s season.

Star tailback Eric Bieniemy was suspended by McCartney for the game because of an off-the-field incident. In the weeks leading up to the game, McCartney mentioned several players being in the mix to start in Bieniemy’s place, including Chuck Snowden from Fairview High School. It was Michael Simmons who got the starting nod, but it was Pritchard who filled the starring role.

CU’s leading receiver in 1989 and 1990, Pritchard moved to tailback for the Tennessee game. He fumbled on his first carry and even bobbled a punt return. But, he racked up 217 yards and scored on runs of 55 and 78 yards.

CU got another big play from Dave McCloughan, who returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown and a 24-10 lead early in the fourth.

Outside of the big plays, though, it was a sloppy game for the Buffs. They had five turnovers, six penalties for 59 yards and missed a field goal.

The Buffs, in fact, had three turnovers on their first seven offensive snaps. Hagan, who grew up in nearby Los Angeles, had a disastrous first half with three interceptions. For the day, he was 5-for-19 for 68 yards.

“I was one of those guys that just wanted to try to show out in front of my family and I played a horrible game,” Hagan, who also rushed for 77 yards, said in 2015. “I had some great highlights and things like that, but if I would have played within myself and played like I was coached to do, I think we would have won that game.

“When it came to me throwing the ball, I was trying to be too perfect. I was trying to show out and I was trying to be big time. At one point, I begged (quarterbacks coach Gary) Barnett not to throw the ball anymore.”

On the bright side, it wasn’t a loss, but the matchup with the Vols – who wound up 9-2-2 and ranked No. 8 that season – signaled that a run to the title wasn’t going to be easy.

CU waltzed through competition during the 1989 regular season before falling to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. The 1990 season would be more of a test, including a 1-1-1 start and each of the first six games decided by a touchdown or less.

Disney got what it wanted, with two great teams playing a close game. And the matchup featured 38 eventual NFL draft picks, including 10 first-rounders.

CU didn’t get exactly what it wanted out of  the trip, but did go on to win a share of the national title, finishing 11-1-1 and claiming No. 1 in the final Associated Press poll, while Georgia Tech finished No.1 in the coaches’ poll.

A tie, rather than a win, however, may have cost the Buffs an undisputed title, and it didn’t feel good that day.

“I don’t know how to size this one up,” McCartney said. “I’m sure both teams are disappointed.”