The canned crowd noise roaring through empty Folsom Field last Wednesday had a surreal ring to it. With the volume pumped way up to approximate the beer-fueled frenzy the team would face three days later in Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium, it's a wonder CU center Bryan Stoltenberg could hear the signals. The wide receivers could have used two-way radios. But when you looked around the place, all that looked back were 51,748 unoccupied seats, bathed in late-afternoon sunshine.
It was vaguely eerie. Football practice in one of its stranger guises, that's all. But it made you wonder if real, live Buffs fans would still be cheering by, say, October 28. Or whether the athletic department would have to rely on amplified special effects right there in the fourth quarter of the Nebraska game.
Nah. Probably not. But the questions surrounding University of Colorado football this fall have not run so deep since 1982, when hard-nosed, God-fearing Bill McCartney took over a program that had just suffered through three of the worst seasons in its history. Thirteen years and 93 wins later, McCartney's melodramatic tenure in Boulder is suddenly and unexpectedly over, and no one knows what to expect from a brand-new head coach, a roster of Buffs in the Rough and a well-bred but largely untested quarterback who's put together like Ichabod Crane.
If his personal style won't much be missed, McCartney's on-field legacy will be hard to match: Beginning with a 7-5 season in 1985, he lifted CU to the top of the major college football heap, culminating in a 10-9 win over Notre Dame in the 1991 Orange Bowl and a shared national championship. For 101 consecutive weeks the Buffs were a Top 25 team in the polls, and for 17 weeks in 1993 and 1994 they were ranked in the Top 10. Who can forget the Miracle in Michigan, the last-ditch, 61-yard TD pass to Michael Westbrook that beat the Wolverines 27-26? Or CU's first Heisman Trophy winner, Rashaan Salaam?
By now, football fans and astonished bystanders also know about the bizarre flip side of McCartney's success. About assorted lettermen who popped up in handcuffs at the Boulder police station almost as often as they did at football practice. About the infamous "fifth-down play" that stole a game at Missouri. And the head coach's increasing devotion to fundamentalist Christianity. His brain-locked decision to let Notre Dame's phenomenal Raghib "Rocket" Ismail field a punt in the pivotal Orange Bowl game, resulting in a 91-yard touchdown run that was called back on a questionable clipping penalty. They know about the two babies born out of wedlock to McCartney's daughter Kristi, each fathered by a CU player.
Looking for a suitably odd footnote? Everyone near the football program speaks glowingly (if guardedly) of McCartney's contributions, but fate and the proofreader have thrown a little curve: On page 117 of the new CU football media guide, in the "coaching records" section, McCartney's name appears beneath a stern mug shot of his predecessor, Bill Mallory.
Meanwhile, the guy on the cover of this year's media guide looks like your lab partner in sophomore chemistry class.
Rick Neuheisel--"Coach Neu" to his assistants--is new, all right. At 34, the former UCLA quarterback is the second-youngest head coach (by a scant four days) in all of Division I, and although he's got eight years as an assistant under his belt, this is his first head coaching job at any level. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, for one, wondered aloud why he got the gig at all: When Neuheisel was named last November 28, Jackson protested because seven-year CU assistant Bob Simmons wasn't picked instead. Simmons is black. Neuheisel looks like a young Robert Redford, with bigger ears.
Can he coach? Can he relate?
Only time will tell, and his debut, Saturday night's nationally televised 43-7 victory at Wisconsin (a team CU beat 55-17 last season) has only begun to tell the story.
For one thing, what you might call his atmospheric-research program continues apace. Late last week Neuheisel jokingly predicted that by Saturday afternoon "my wife will probably be trying to peel me off walls," but he still had every confidence in a new coaching regimen at CU that stresses togetherness as well as toughness, a little laughter along with hard licks. On the last day of this year's grueling freshman training camp, for instance, Coach Neu's exhausted charges were prepared for a two-mile run. Instead, their coach treated them to hamburgers, fries and a raft trip down Boulder Creek.
That kind of thing, he says, "doesn't guarantee a win, doesn't guarantee success in the early going. But it does guarantee that I would do it again. I think our team is well-prepared, well-conditioned and tough. Those are the three things you're trying to get done in a fall camp. If you can slip some fun in there all the while, I don't think that hurts you at all."
It didn't hurt Troy Aikman.
The baby-faced Neuheisel may be only eleven years removed from his own MVP performance in the 1984 Rose Bowl (UCLA 45, Illinois 9) but he's already been mentor to one of the National Football League's most talented stars. As a volunteer coach at his alma mater in 1986, he personally tutored Aikman, and the Dallas Cowboys quarterback credits much of his success to his friend Rick.
But then, Neuheisel had always shown pluck: He first made the UCLA team as a "walk-on" holder for placekicker John Lee, but by his senior year he'd won the Bruins quarterback job over now-Kansas City Chiefs starter Steve Bono.
Neuheisel's latest star pupil is not Troy, but Koy.
Last year's starting quarterback, Kordell Stewart, is now a Pittsburgh Steeler (joining six other ex-Buffs), Heisman winner Salaam a Chicago Bear, top receiver Westbrook a Redskin. Seven other Colorado starters also have graduated. Despite all that, McCartney left behind a powerhouse ranked number 13 in preseason polls. But if Coach Neu is to make a go of it in the tough Big Eight, many hopes will rest on the arm of young Koy Detmer, and a complex, multiformational new offense Neuheisel calls "cerebral."
As a 6-1, 158-pound true freshman in 1992, Detmer started two games. Then he red-shirted in 1993 and did mop-up work in six games last year. Now, as a junior, he's the man. They say he's beefed up to 185 pounds, but that's probably with Ralphie the Buffalo sprawled on his back. He still looks mighty frail out there in the afternoon light, but last week he was right on target to his swift but inexperienced receiver corps. Phil Savoy, Rae Carruth and James Kidd may not be Michael Westbrook revisited, but they average 4.32 seconds in the forty-yard-dash department.
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After noting Detmer's strong arm and accuracy, Neuheisel has concluded he could be "the next Joe Montana." If not, maybe he'll be the next Ty Detmer, and that might do the trick, too. All Koy's big brother did in four years at Brigham Young was pass for an amazing 15,031 yards and 121 touchdowns. By comparison, cocky Jim McMahon threw for 84 BYU scores, current 49ers demigod Steve Young just 56.
So it's not Stewart's shoes Detmer the Younger feels he must fill, but his brother's. "For years I've faced that," he says. Only one difference: This is the year.
So, too, for Rick Neuheisel. His relaxed coaching style may be as laid-back as Boulder itself. This may be a coach, the story goes, who picked up his guitar and regaled a female booster group with a Nebraska-baiting ditty he sang to the tune of "Let's Get Drunk and Screw." He's a coach who, before last Saturday's opener at Wisconsin, was prepared to let his players spend the afternoon watching football games and a season-opening special on ESPN, because "kids are into that, that's what they're excited about." He may be a guy who, as one CU observer says, "the players relate to because he was a walk-on who became an MVP in the Rose Bowl--and because he's younger than their parents."
But none of this should be interpreted as immaturity or lack of substance. There's a look in the man's eyes, and the Buffs likely won't need to lay on any canned crowd noise when the Big Red nemesis rolls into Folsom Field at the end of October. Hey. By then fans may not remember what Bill McCartney looks like any better than the press guide does.