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Looking back: Rick Neuheisel triumphant in CU Buffs debut

Buffs new coach opens season with rout of No. 21 Wisconson on way to 10-2 record

(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, 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. 31-Sept 6.)

Rick Neuheisel went 33-14 in four years as Colorado head coach, from 1995-98.

Heading into his first game as a head coach, Rick Neuheisel made sure he was ready for anything.

“I think I was more prepared for that game than anything I’ve ever been prepared for in my life,” Neuheisel said this week in looking back at his debut as Colorado’s head football coach, Sept. 2, 1995, at Wisconsin. “I had every eventuality down on paper – what I was going to do, what could happen – because I just wanted so desperately to start well. I didn’t want there to be a snafu. I even had a halftime speech prepared without even having seen the first half.”

There was no snafu in Madison, Wisc., that night a quarter century ago when the then-34-year-old Neuheisel began a new era of CU football by leading the 14th-ranked Buffaloes to a stunning 43-7 rout of No. 21 Wisconsin.

Less than 10 months earlier, legendary CU head coach Bill McCartney retired after going 93-55-5 in 13 seasons (1982-94). Taking over a dismal program in 1982, McCartney turned CU into a power and won the program’s only national title, in 1990. McCartney’s final team, in 1994, may have been his best, but a mid-season loss at Nebraska cost them a shot at the national title.

Athletic director Bill Marolt kept the search for a replacement mostly internal and surprised many when he went with the least experienced of the bunch. Neuheisel was 33 years old at the time and been at CU for just one season, coaching the quarterbacks and receivers in 1994. He had no head coaching or coordinator experience.

CU wasn’t the only school to see Neuheisel as head coach material, though. In November of 1994, before McCartney retired, Michigan State talked to Neuheisel about its vacancy. The Spartans eventually hired Nick Saban.

On Nov. 28, 1994, the CU regents approved the hiring of Neuheisel, who brought youth and energy and tried to make it fun, playing his guitar and taking the team on ski trips. He was nervous about replacing a legend and countered that nervousness with some fun.

“I think when you’re nervous about something, what you try hard as heck to do is to not look nervous,” he said. “That’s why I was willing to be a little bit flamboyant, because I didn’t want anybody to think that I was second guessing myself, no question about that.”

Neuheisel wasn’t just filling the shoes of McCartney, though. The Buffs lost 10 players to the 1995 NFL draft, including receiver Michael Westbrook (No. 4 overall pick), Heisman Trophy-winning running back Rashaan Salaam (No. 21), tight end Christian Fauria (No. 39) and quarterback Kordell Stewart (No. 60).

Despite all of that, Neuheisel led the Buffaloes into Madison – where Neuheisel was born – and dominated his parents’ alma mater.

“They were there at the game and they had probably 20 former classmates that they went to school with at Wisconsin that were all at the game,” he said. “They were in hog heaven being back in Mad Town, watching their son coach his first game and having that kind of result.”

Colorado’s Koy Detmer was sensational against Wisconsin on Sept. 2, 1995. He threw for 267 yards and three touchdowns in the Buffaloes’ 43-7 victory.

Neuheisel lived in Madison for less than a year, but said he grew up a Green Bay Packers fan and knew the Badgers’ fight song, “On Wisconsin!” before any other song.

“Wisconsin was a part of who we were,” he said.

On that night, he and the rest of the Buffs seemed right at home. Koy Detmer threw for 267 yards and three touchdowns, Rae Carruth caught two touchdown passes, Steve Rosga had two sacks and returned a Badgers fumble 75 yards for a touchdown and Matt Russell racked up 16 tackles.

The victory at Wisconsin sparked a 10-2 season for the Buffs, who finished No. 5 in the final Associated Press poll.

For Neuheisel it was a successful start to four-year run in which he went 33-14 at CU. He took them to three bowls – winning all three – but also had CU’s first losing season (5-6 in 1997) since 1984.

For the most part, Neuheisel was well-liked among his players, but his departure left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Buffs and their fans. In early January of 1999, Neuheisel accepted a lucrative offer from Washington, which gave him a hefty raise and a seven-year contract.

Athletic director Dick Tharp and CU players were stunned by some felt betrayed. A little salt was poured on the wound eight months later when Neuheisel’s Huskies beat the Buffs in Seattle. He beat them again in Boulder the next year.

More than two decades later, however, Neuheisel has fond memories of his time at CU and what the Buffs accomplished in his four seasons as head coach.

“I was very proud of what we did,” said Neuheisel, who compiled an 87-59 career record at CU, Washington and UCLA. “The biggest hurdle was that year three (1997), where we had a lot of things go against us. But, I probably learned more about coaching in that year than I did and the other three.

“It was a fantastic experience (at CU).”

Rick Neuheisel led Colorado to three bowl victories in four seasons before leaving to become the head coach at Washington in 1999.