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CU football’s 1979 opener a historical moment in sports media world

Chuck Fairbanks debut was first college football broadcast by ESPN

Chuck Fairbanks , the football coach at the University of Colorado from 1979-81 runs onto the field with the team wearing the infamous blue uniforms. Photo courtesy the University of Colorado

Often the historical impact of a moment is lost to those just trying to do their jobs in the middle of another day at the office. In other instances, historical relevance of a moment cannot be properly evaluated until the passage of time.

Both stances are applicable to the University of Colorado’s football season opener on Sept. 8, 1979.

The game is most notable as the debut of coach Chuck Fairbanks, who endured a legal hassle from his former employers with the New England Patriots before finally taking over in Boulder. Yet the contest proved to be a game-changer in the sports world. Not because of the Buffs’ 33-19 loss to Oregon, or because of the debut of a coach who went 7-26 in three forgettable seasons.

Instead, it was the very first college football game broadcast by the brand-new all-sports network ESPN, which launched just one day earlier.

 

It wasn’t the first live college football broadcast by ESPN — that didn’t occur until three years later for the 1982 Independence Bowl — yet the tape-delayed broadcast that aired later that day was the small stone cast into the ocean of the sports media world whose ripple effects eventually caused a tidal wave of media upheaval.

That night, however, it was business as usual in the Folsom Field press box.

“There really wasn’t anything special about it, because it was so new,” said Tim Simmons, the CU football sports information director at the time. “It was not like a typical game is now with Dave (Plati) and the network comes in and does something, he’s jumping through hoops. At that time, the fanfare was around Chuck Fairbanks. It was my first game as SID in place of the late Mike Moran, and I was just making sure everything was going good.

“From my standpoint, did they come in with outrageous demands, asking for this and that? No. They just set up and did their job.”

On the call that night was Jerry Gross and Irv Brown, the Denver legend who passed away early last year. Simmons said that helped for a smooth broadcast as Brown, who served nine seasons as CU’s baseball coach and also was a former football assistant, was quite familiar with the Buffs.

Forty-one years later, it is difficult to picture college football, even in a pandemic world, without ESPN. Even with the Pac-12 Conference and the Big Ten on the sidelines, the ESPN family of networks is set to broadcast six college football games live on Saturday, with three more airing on the ESPN-backed ACC Network. Next week, 15 games are set to air live on ESPN networks on Friday and Saturday.

While ESPN cannot be solely blamed for the decline of print media, the network’s rise coincided with the more wide-ranging broadcast opportunities offered by cable networks. And as the internet dawned in the 1990s as the preferred method of news consumption, the media world Simmons recalls from that game in 1979 slowly faded further into history.

In 1979, a typical CU game featured writers from the Daily Camera, Denver Post, the defunct Rocky Mountain News, Longmont Times-Call having regular seats in the Folsom press box, as did sports reporters ranging from Wyoming to Colorado Springs. These days, the Camera is the only print publication on hand for every game, though online outlets like 247Sports.com also provide regular CU coverage.

As to whether the idea of an all-sports cable network seemed like a feasible one in 1979, Simmons was an enthusiastic backer even if he, like the rest of the world, had no chance of envisioning the media juggernaut ESPN would become.

“I was all for it. I’m a sports junkie,” Simmons said. “Back then on the news, we probably had four minutes on (channels) 7, 9 and 4 in the evening and afternoon. I was all for it. I still have ESPN on when I’m working around the house. I was tickled to death. But at that time, ESPN wasn’t ESPN, but everything ran smoothly.”