As Bill McCartney can tell you, if you've ever been to a football game in Texas--any football game--it's like full immersion at the river bend. Texans take their football as seriously as their cattle, or their oil wells, or their ancient dislike of Oklahoma. If you don't walk the walk down there (even great-grandmothers do it), people stare at you like you just arrived from Pluto--or New Jersey. Fail to wear burnt orange in Austin at your peril. Remain silent at Texas Stadium while Troy Aikman shreds the hated Redskins or the despised 49ers and the multitudes around you may ask to see your identity papers.
Even at high school games--especially at high school games--the touchdown-stirred shriek is a Texas sacrament, and there are no innocent bystanders among the ticketholders. Football fans everywhere yawp and convulse and make fools of themselves for the love of their teams (those orange-wigged lunatics remain at large in Mile High Stadium, don't they?), but nowhere is football quite the religious experience it is in Texas.
Unless, of course, you go to Pennsylvania, where those huge kids from the tough mill towns are still suiting up for Joe Paterno. Or to Alabama, where the ghost of Bear Bryant still roams the sidelines in his checkerboard hat. Or Florida. Or Ohio.
Why is it, then, that the best college football in America was played right here in Colorado this fall?
We'll grant you that Penn State, Alabama and (whisper it low, like a curse) the University of Nebraska may have put better individual football teams on the field. But the gods of the gridiron have conspired, at least for one mad moment, to give our fair state three of the finest Division 1 teams in the nation this year, boasting a combined record of 27-6. Despite the occasional setback, fans in Boulder, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs are justifiably puffed up with pride, and local travel agents will be working their fingers to the bone arranging air travel to the bowl games.
Come to think of it, the planets must be aligned right in another sense, too: The bowlers have been spared the agonies of Denver International Airport for a while longer. Out at good, old, close-to-downtown Stapleton, the runways remain as sound as the Golden Buffs' offensive line.
That retirement bombshell Bill McCartney dropped Saturday afternoon sure knocked the wind out of Buff fans. But their opponent in the Fiesta Bowl had better look out: You can be sure the team wants to win one more for the archbishop. In his controversial twelve-year reign, McCartney put together a 92-55-5 record. And four years ago his Buffs finished in a dead heat with Georgia Tech for mythical "national championship" honors. For 96 straight voting weeks they have been ranked in the national polls. Right now they are number six, and were it not for their annual tribulations with the mighty Cornhuskers, McCartney might have become governor as well as CU's coach. Now, he says, he wants only to devote himself to his family. But don't be surprised if he actually does run for public office. In the wake of the recent Republican landslide, his agenda certainly looks like the perfect fit.
Meanwhile, running back Rashaan Salaam could probably have outpointed Roy Romer November 8. Previous to Saturday's demolition of lowly Iowa State, the swift junior was leading the nation in both rushing (180 yards per game) and scoring (13.6 points per). His 232-yard, three-TD game against Kansas November 12 gave him three new CU records--single-season yardage, touchdowns and points. This last, by the way, retired the mark of 122 set by Byron "Whizzer" White in 1937.
As it happens, Salaam is a political candidate of sorts, because the Heisman Trophy could be his at season's end. Even if he doesn't win it, he and CU quarterback Kordell Stewart carved their names in stone Saturday when they made Colorado the second school in history to sport both a 2,000-yard rusher and a 2,000-yard passer.
Amid the cheering and the kudos up in Boulder, Coloradans got used to all that winning under McCartney, just as Notre Dame got used to it. Now, who knows? McCartney's successor will have to come up with a few Hail Marys of his own--along with some blue-chip recruiting classes--to keep the faithful happy. It will be one of the most daunting tasks in college sports.
The story is just as dramatic at little Hughes Stadium in Fort Collins. In the waning moments of an astonishing comeback against Wyoming a couple of Saturday nights ago, a few hundred well-sloshed Colorado State fans streamed onto the field, tore down the goalposts (replacement cost: $3,900) and almost trampled a security guard built like a beer truck. Predictably, school administrators, sportscasters and other sundry guardians of the public tranquility furrowed their brows and wagged their fingers at the "incident."
Nonsense. CSU's long-suffering faithful haven't found themselves in anything close to a goalpost-busting mood for a couple of hundred years, and we liked the way easygoing coach Sonny Lubick soft-pedaled the whole thing. As any sophomore who's ever had a dozen pepperoni pizzas delivered to a university president's house can attest, a little campus tomfoolery never hurt anyone--especially in a year when you're about to win your first Western Athletic Conference title and play in your first Holiday Bowl.
Having beaten Brigham Young and preseason number-one Arizona on the road, and having lost only to Utah, the Rams are now number ten in the national football pools, and the cheering in Fort Collins has a freshness and an innocence you don't notice over in Boulder.
Besides, on Saturday afternoons in so many previous Rams seasons, the only thing you could hear were the cows mooing in the corral next to the stadium. Surely, this 10-1 regular season has been worth some lengths of plastic pipe and a few thousand hangovers.
Say it loud: Long live mischief.
That, however, is not the kind of thing you'll find at the Air Force Academy. The Falcons stalled on the tarmac early in the season but were flying high last week on an amazing seven-game winning streak before coming up short Saturday in a valiant comeback try at Notre Dame. Still, when their precise, triple-option offense scores a touchdown, no one rushes the field to commit vandalism. Instead, squads of beleaguered freshmen march out of the stands to do synchronized pushups in the end zone. The most outlandish expression of defiance you'll find in Zoomie-land is that banner raised high when Air Force plays Navy: NUKE THE SQUIDS.
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So, then. The final horse in college football's Colorado trifecta this season may display neither the grinning swagger of CU nor the joyous anarchy of the Rams, but it's a model of starched military discipline and good Calvinist work ethic. Wander into the Air Force locker room sometime and you'll be shocked: Coach Fisher DeBerry has no Samoans the size of bungalows, and his slight running backs, each with the acute look of the falcon in his eye, are built along the lines of the tennis team at most schools. That's because many of these young men soon hope to fit into the cramped cockpits of F-16s. They also are studying astrophysics, not basket-weaving, so they are more likely to wind up running corporations than running their cars into trees. This year, the Falcons even had the good sense to upset once-beaten Utah, thus giving rival CSU the inside track at the league title.
Seven straight? The Feisties do it with smarts, cunning and speed. Always have, always will. If they get to a minor bowl like the Copper, the opponent had better look out.
While we wait for the bids (everybody's going bowling), it may be time to sit back and savor this extraordinary football season. The NFL Broncos--with their all-business attitudes and their porous defense--may be in the sewer this season. But the scent of college football has never been so strong on the air along the Front Range. It's the scent of verve and joy and authenticity, and we should savor it while we can, before graduations and the other sea changes of the game take it away.
So eat your heart out, Texas. Whip that mule, Alabama. Bundle up for a long, cold winter on the flats, Ohio. This golden autumn belongs to Colorado and to Bill McCartney--at least until the Rams and Buffs bring home their bowl trophies.