Among the first things Bill McCartney did when he replaced Chuck Fairbanks as head coach at Colorado in 1982 was designate Nebraska as the Buffaloes’ rival.
He told the Big Eight Skywriters of the designation, much to their surprise—Colorado’s only victory against the Huskers since Bob Devaney became head coach in 1962 had been in 1967, the first of back-to-back 6-4 seasons for Nebraska. The Huskers had won 14 in a row against Colorado since.
Nevertheless, Nebraska would be the Buffs’ rival, McCartney said, and the story among Skywriters was, he had even gone so far as to ban red vehicles in the athletic department.
Though Boulder had typically been the destination for Nebraska’s “student migration” on years the Huskers played there, Nebraska fans for the most part dismissed McCartney’s designation. The Huskers had a rivalry, one of mutual respect, with Oklahoma.
Even though Tom Osborne’s teams had struggled early on in his tenure as head coach to win against Barry Switzer’s Sooners, there was national championship tradition and the reality that the Big Eight title was usually at stake when the teams played. The rivalry made sense, unlike Colorado-Nebraska.
Besides, if the Huskers needed another designated rival, there was always Missouri.
The first season a McCartney-coached team played Nebraska, at Boulder in the 1982 conference opener, the final score was 40-14. The second year, the “Scoring Explosion” erupted for 48 points in the third quarter, on the way to a 69-19 victory. The third year, the Huskers won at Boulder 24-7. And McCartney’s fourth season, Nebraska needed an 84-yard touchdown run from fullback Tom Rathman in the final minute of the third quarter to break a 7-7 tie in a 17-7 victory.
The games were getting closer. But rivalry? Not necessarily from the Huskers’ standpoint.
Nebraska went to Boulder in 1986 with an unblemished record and No. 3 ranking in the Associated Press poll—Miami was No. 1, Alabama No. 2—on yet another potential national championship run it seemed. Only one of the Huskers’ six victories hadn’t been by at least 17 points. South Carolina had taken them to the wire in Columbia, with four lead changes in the fourth quarter. A Broderick Thomas recovery of a Brian Davis-forced fumble with 2 minutes remaining preceded an 11-yard, Steve Taylor-to-Todd Millikan touchdown pass 26 seconds later, after which safety Bryan Siebler intercepted a pass at the Husker 10-yard line with 38 seconds remaining to seal the 27-24 victory.
The Huskers led the nation in scoring and ranked second in rushing offense six games into the season. But you wouldn’t have guessed either on that 63-degree, partly sunny afternoon before a sellout crowd of 52,440 (with an estimated 15,000 Husker fans) at Folsom Field in 1986. Nebraska rushed for 123 yards and managed just 10 points.
Colorado ran an option offense; the Buffs threw only five passes, two of them by halfbacks, one good for 52 yards and a touchdown—their other touchdown coming on a 39-yard split-end reverse.
“We practiced on the Wishbone for two weeks and they didn’t show us anything today we didn’t see in practice,” said defensive tackle Neil Smith, who was credited with 10 tackles.
The Huskers couldn’t score until 1 minute remaining in the third quarter, however, following a Thomas fumble recovery at the Colorado 14-yard line, to cut the deficit to three. Eight seconds into the fourth quarter, halfback O.C. Oliver and wide receiver Lance Carl teamed up on the 52-yard pass.
Carl caught only nine passes, total, for the season.
Final score: Colorado 20, Nebraska 10.
The goal posts at the south end of Folsom Field were pulled down with 16 seconds still on the clock.
“I think this is a moment in the program we will always cherish,” said McCartney. “We beat a great team. That’s something we hadn’t done to this point.”
Thomas, who was credited with nine tackles and had a second fumble recovery, was undaunted, as well as unwilling to concede to the Buffs. “I promise as long as I play at Nebraska, Colorado will never, ever beat us again,” he said. “I raise my right hand and promise you . . .”
The sophomore outside linebacker made good on his promise.
Nevertheless, “I think we’ve got a rivalry now,” McCartney said.
Tom's Time is a regular feature that will take a closer look at the life of Tom Osborne. Nebraska has a storied history in football that dates back to the earliest years of the game, but the tradition to which Husker fans hold Nebraska is mostly a reference to Osborne's 25 years as head coach. And that will always be worth exploring in greater detail. Click here for all of the entries in the series.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.