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Looking back: 1985 shift to wishbone changed CU Buffs

Option offense turned Colorado from a losing program into one of the country’s best

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Colorado fullback Anthony Weatherspoon runs the ball against Colorado State at Folsom Field on Sept. 7, 1985. CU debuted its wishbone offense in that game, a 23-10 victory over the Rams.

(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 Sept 7-13.)

During the Colorado Buffaloes’ first spring scrimmage in 1985, the offense fumbled 18 times.

“I can remember coming into the old locker room that was there and (defensive coordinator) Lou Tepper says, ‘There will be better days,’” said Gary Barnett, CU’s quarterbacks/fullbacks coach in 1985.

There were eight fumbles in the second scrimmage and four in the third, Barnett said.

The days got better, but it wasn’t until Sept. 7 of that year that the Buffaloes truly felt confident in their switch to a wishbone offense.

Coming off a miserable 1-10 season in 1984, CU debuted its new offense in the 1985 opener at Folsom Field by smacking Colorado State, 23-10, and changing the trajectory of the program.

One of the worst rushing teams in the country the year before, CU gained 358 yards on the ground against the Rams. Halfback Ron Brown rushed for 104 yards, quarterback Mark Hatcher ran for two touchdowns and the Buffs won their opener for the first time in head coach Bill McCartney’s four seasons.

“We had not been physical the year before in a way, shape or form,” Barnett, who later became CU’s head coach (1999-2005) and color commentator for radio broadcasts, said this week. “We were physical in that game. I think the physicality that we displayed that day was new to us, it was new to the fans and probably new to CSU. They hadn’t seen us do that.”

Going into 1985, nobody had seen much good out of CU in years.

Chuck Fairbanks was a dreadful 7-26 during his three-year tenure, from 1979-81. McCartney’s first three years (1982-84) were almost identical, at 7-25-1.

The 1984 season was a disaster. Even bad teams in the Big 8 routed the Buffs and players pointed the fingers at coaches.

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Quarterback Mark Hatcher, center, was a big reason for Colorado’s success with the wishbone in 1985. Hatcher ran for two touchdowns in the 1985 opener against Colorado State and finished the season with 539 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing and 325 passing yards.

“We we didn’t have a lot of confidence after ’84,” said Barnett, a CU assistant from 1984-91. “We were shattered.”

Although backed by a new contract extension, McCartney was desperate for a positive result and decided to ditch CU’s passing offense for the wishbone, a triple-option offense that wasn’t utilized by many teams in college football. The ones who did use it, however, were successful.

“After last season, I sat down with myself and said, ‘Mac, you’re up against it and you better make the right decision or you’re history,’” McCartney told reporters prior to the 1985 season. “I believe (the wishbone) is the answer for Colorado. You can’t escape the fact that all eight teams who ran the wishbone last year were successful.”

There was skepticism, even within the program, however, that CU would find success with it.

“I don’t think we were convinced right away,” Barnett said. “Nobody was. Especially as we were going through spring ball. You fumble 18 times in a scrimmage … that’s not real convincing that you’re doing the right thing.”

In making the switch, McCartney consulted almost anyone he could find with a background in the option, including Arkansas head coach Ken Hatfield and Air Force head coach Fisher DeBerry.

The Buffs hired Tulsa offensive coordinator Steve Logan to coach running backs and brought in former Wyoming option quarterback Brad Baumberger – who led the Cowboys to a win against CU in 1982 – as a graduate assistant.

Ultimately, CU relied on the dedication of offensive coordinator Gerry DiNardo, offensive line coach Les Miles and Barnett to learn the offense.

“I went to the Air Force every single day,” Barnett said. “Les went to the Air Force; Gerry went to Arkansas, Army and Air Force. We spent the spring and all summer going to those places learning the ins and outs of it. Fisher’s staff (at Air Force), they were wonderful. They were really amazing.”

Barnett had coached the option at Air Academy High School and Fort Lewis College, but some of the concepts of the wishbone were new. He credits Air Force assistant coach Charlie Weatherbie for getting him comfortable with teaching the wishbone to quarterbacks and fullbacks.

The adjustment wasn’t easy. CU was more of a finesse offense before 1985, but had to get tough to run the wishbone. The Buffs also had to get used to the idea that three potential plays – fullback run, quarterback run or a pitch – could happen on almost any play.

“What we had to go through (to prepare for 1985) was amazing, but one of the reasons that we went to it was that it was the ultimate team offense,” Barnett said. “When the ball is snapped, nobody knows where the ball is going to go. You’re going to have to block your butt off, you have to execute. … That’s one of the things that really appealed to Mac is that it was the ultimate team offense.”

Eventually, the team bought in.

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While the Colorado offense made a big change in 1985, safety Mickey Pruitt was one of the leaders of the defense. He had 63 tackles and earned first-team All-Big 8 honors in 1985.

The Buffs shifted Hatcher from halfback to quarterback and Brown from receiver to halfback. Fullbacks Anthony Weatherspoon and Eric McCarty became featured ball carriers. Receivers and tight ends had to embrace blocking more than catching the ball.

CU threw the ball 396 times in 1984, with tight end Jon Embree (51 catches) and split end Loy Alexander (35 catches) leading the team in receptions. In 1985, the Buffs threw 90 passes. Embree led the team with nine catches, while Alexander’s four tied for second.

Barnett said Embree, who caught 17 passes in his last two years after 63 in his first two, made “the ultimate, unselfish decision” to stay at CU and embrace a new role.

The wishbone wasn’t a flashy offense. In fact, Barnett  said the philosophy they adopted from Hatfield and DeBerry was “famine, famine, feast,” staying patient for the big play.

“It was a grind them out, hit-you-in-the-mouth kind of offense,” Barnett said. “As years went on, the way we practiced, we developed that mentality. But at the end of spring (in 1985), you couldn’t say that we had that mentality. We didn’t know if we could do it. The CSU game gave us a lot of confidence that we could.”

The Buffs manhandled the Rams in the opener to spark a 5-1 start – the only loss coming to No. 7 Ohio State. They finished the regular season at 7-4 and third in the Big 8, earning a trip to the Freedom Bowl – CU’s first bowl appearance in nine years.

“We only do that if we’re in the wishbone,” Barnett said. “We don’t do it if we’re in any other offense. In any other offense, we wouldn’t have moved Hatcher to quarterback and we wouldn’t have had that explosion. The players we groomed over the spring and the summer and the fall, they became pretty much made for the wishbone.”

McCartney’s decision became one greatest moves in the history of CU football. The offense evolved into an “I-bone” attack by 1988, but the success of Hatcher and the 1985 Buffs led to CU landing star option quarterback recruits Sal Aunese and Darian Hagan.

Running the option from 1985-91, CU went 58-24-2, played in six bowls, won three Big 8 titles and reached the top of the  mountain with the program’s only national title, in 1990.

“It just stabilized us,” Barnett said. “It gave us an identity and it gave us a physical identity. Defensive coaches always want to be physical and we just weren’t on offense (before 1985). It gave our offense and our team an identity that we had not had.”