Infamous Fifth Down Game that Inspired 5th Down College Football Website was a Brouhaha for the Ages
This site—5th Down College Football—takes its name from a disaster Franklin Roosevelt would have called the second-greatest infamy of the twentieth century, just behind the surprise bombing of the fleet at Pearl Harbor back in Forty-One. This second, slightly lesser known cataclysm manifested itself at the tail out of a hot, noisy, and slippery Saturday afternoon on the Omniturf surface at Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri.
The outrage, as many call it, appeared out of nowhere, metastasizing through a series of incidents and errors so confounding in their cumulative effect that a cargo-ship’s hold worth of permutation proofs, generated by the most indiscriminate chaos theory ever authored, could not have predicted it.
“One of the most mind-boggling break downs in officiating we have seen in years,” was how CNN described the kerfuffle that night on their national broadcast coverage of the mayhem at Mizzou.
In the end seven Big 8 Conference officials would be suspended indefinitely for the collapse in order they had overseen; one team would lose a game it had rightfully won; and a second team, apparently fortune’s favorite friend, would continue on a predestined course to championship glory.
What is known to history as the Fifth Down Game, played Saturday, Six October 1990, between the Universities of Colorado and Missouri, was so bizarre in its unique details and yet, in its general sense of semi-surreal havoc, so thoroughly representative of the grand spectacle and mercurial sport of college football, that it has eased into its place amongst the astonishing annals and bewildering lore of a game that counts one-off oddities almost without beginning and end.
But the Fifth Down Game, after all these years, would have shrunk back to an insignificant local anomaly, a semi-arcane asterisk for old conference rivals to argue over for the ensuing century, had its benefactor, Colorado, finished the season with a 4-7 record like its victim, Missouri, had in 1990.
Instead, the Buffaloes went on to win the national championship, knocking off the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 10-9, in the Orange Bowl Classic on New Years Day-night in Miami, thus guaranteeing that the baffling end-of-game sequence back in Columbia would live on in lurid detail for as long as the game is played.
DOWN IN MIZZOU
Several hours after Colorado had defeated Missouri, 33-31, scoring what may have been a phantom touchdown on the game’s final play—a 5th Down snap that should not have happened—a gentle, kindly-looking man named Rich Montgomery pulled over his vehicle at the top of an entrance chute onto Interstate-Seventy West, shouldered open his door before lurching out, and vomited onto the side of the roadway. He had not been drinking all afternoon under the heavy October sun, though it was likely he would have taken a drink at that moment, but had just learned, by way of the post-game radio broadcast, that he had been a key figure in an absurd drama that cost his alma mater a massive upset victory in a major college football game.
Montgomery had served that day as a ‘box man’ on the chain gang, the individual charged with flipping the large, orange-numbered down markers—first through fourth—on top of a seven-foot signal pole that gets toted up and down the sideline to mark the line of scrimmage. Montgomery erred in not changing the down after a play had been run, an automatic act for a box man so elementary that this would have been an outrage at a Pop Warner football game.
If Montgomery had not been an alumnus of Mizzou, and a fanatical Tiger’s partisan with vanity plates that read BGTIGR, an investigation into game-fixing and the underworld’s wire chatter out of Kansas City and Chicago would have been launched that day by the Justice Department.
Montgomery, fairly certain he was done vomiting, peered back into the vehicle where his son, who had walked-on at Missouri’s football program less than a decade earlier, gazed out at him in horror. The son was in his first year volunteering with the chain gang and had been amidst the sound and fury all day alongside his father. These were not exactly the Custer brothers at Last Stand Hill, but at that moment the mistake must have felt just as fatal. Montgomery the elder sank back into the car and drove home to Kansas City to await the fallout.
But Montgomery’s role, and his personal level of fault in this tragi-comedy, were not as simple as all that, because that Saturday, in the final, heavy turbulence of an all-out battle, a surprise set of waves had crashed down heavily over the end-of-game sequence, and swamped it.
A SATURDAY TO REMEMBER
The overarching fact of the matter is that it had been the hell of a game, everything that makes college football an almost-mystical and mesmerizing spectacle. The big crowd, full of an unsullied belief in the possibilities, had arrived early, filling the nearly fifty-thousand seats and packing the steep grass embankment of Rock-M Hill beyond the north end-zone, turning the surrounding grandstands into a kind of Mizzou-partisan, black-and-yellow cubist mass.
They were animated by that special kind of Saturday hope, the kind which allows a passive spectator to contribute heavily, by way of perpetual shouting and powerful telekinetic energies, in the home upset over a mighty, and heavily-favored, conference rival. The organic and prideful revelry that commences after victories of that nature, for those who choose to participate, fills the weekend with a kind of untouchable joy that cannot be generated in any other way.
The Buffaloes in 1990 were that program to beat, a nouveau dreadnought fighting out of the Rocky Mountains, built up over the preceding decade into an ultra stylish and deadly serious national championship contender. They were a beautiful and menacing squad to behold, wearing black jerseys with big, white-block numbers and COLORADO in capital letters across the chest. They wore gold helmets decal’d with a black, charging American buffalo and an interlocked CU branded through the center. Their primary pants were gold, but at home they had begun wearing black to go with their black jerseys, which gave them the look of marauders.
Colorado had gone undefeated the year before, marching 11-0 through the autumn campaign before being stopped by Notre Dame in an Orange Bowl upset, denying the Buffs their first national championship at the gates of Valhalla. The Miami Hurricanes at that time played their home games at the Orange Bowl stadium, and they had left behind an evil eye to protect their sacred stomping grounds. The Hurricanes in 1989 were approximately halfway through an NCAA record fifty-eight game home winning streak that would not be snapped until the 1994 season, and the Buffaloes had been hexed by it. Miami, a one-loss team to end the regular season, had shipped to New Orleans and throttled Alabama at the Sugar Bowl, which meant they returned to south Florida hoisting Colorado’s national championship trophy, their third title in the now-concluded decade.
With Colorado's record at 3-1-1 after a ferocious opening five weeks to the new season, and on the brink of falling off the national title pace, the Buffs believed they had finally arrived at a softer week of work. It was time for Missouri, an unranked league lightweight, to step in front of the stampede, much like they had the year before in a 49-3 route at Boulder.
But, instead of the widely-predicted wood-shedding, that loud, stoked-up crowd at Faurot Field was witness to a spectacular performance by their Tigers, who had upset Arizona State University the week before inside the same ballpark, and in consecutive weeks dazzled with a showing that intimated the beast within was growing stronger.
The scoring shots between the schools went back and forth in sensational fashion.
Missouri opened the show with a nineteen-yard touchdown pass to take an early lead—a score answered immediately by way of a twenty-nine-yard Buffalo touchdown gallop to tie it at 7-7. Colorado's counter was re-countered by Mizzou, whose offense connected on a forty-nine-yard touchdown strike to surge back ahead by seven. But the scoreboard had barely flashed the new score when Colorado struck again with a high-style, sixty-eight-yard touchdown off of a wide-receiver reverse that closed the first half of competition with the game tied at fourteen a piece.
The second-half quickly caught hold of the same live wire.
Colorado kicked a field goal to start the proceedings and break the tie, moving ahead, 17-14. But Mizzou was not ready to cede the field to the favorites, answering with a thirteen-yard touchdown run of their own to go back ahead, 21-17. That lead held through the end of the third quarter, but Colorado's potent offense had another response ready to start the fourth, piercing the Tigers defense with the sharp arrow of a seventy-yard touchdown shot to jump back ahead, 24-21, with thirteen minutes left to go.
The Tigers stayed game in that final period, splitting the uprights on a long field goal on the very next drive to tie it up at twenty-four all. The teams traded punts for almost eight minutes until, with the hour beginning to grow late, the Buffaloes marshaled yet another field-goal drive to squeeze back ahead, 27-24, with just 3:41 to play.
It was at that critical moment Mizzou daggered Colorado with what appeared to be the coup de grace, reaching the end zone on a thirty-eight-yard touchdown pass with just 2:32 left that put the Tigers ahead, 31-27. The Tigers had put themselves in prime position to end the Buff’s national championship campaign right there, while launching something special of their own.
That was how matters stood when everything went plaid.
The Buffaloes' offense, with their to-the-death championship pedigree, worked quickly back down the slippery field and into scoring range. But, trailing by four, they would need a touchdown to win the game.
That slippery surface at Faurot Field has been alluded to several times, a track-condition incongruent with a hot, dry day in Missouri, but the moment has come to read out the full indictment.
Back in 1985 Missouri rolled out a brand of artificial surface known as Omniturf to cover their playing field. It already had earned a reputation as the worst surface in the Big 8 but some Saturdays, because of the carpet’s physical and chemical composition, were worse than others. Omniturf was optimized for damp-weather, with a heavy sand base beneath the plastic grass that would soak up water and make a strong, sticky track on wet days. The University of Oregon played on Omniturf for years out West and took few complaints because the climate matched the engineering.
But at Faurot, with the sun blasting down from high overhead, the sand would heat up, loosen, and expand underneath the already hard plastic, making it more like an asphalt parking lot dusted with loose gravel than a grass field. Of course, this was not really a problem so long as you did not want to plant a foot at high speeds and quickly change direction. Fortunately for the athletes, this was a technique used only several hundred times over the course of a normal football game.
"That field was awful," said Mike Ringgenberg, a Missouri linebacker in 1990. "I don’t care if you played on that field day in and day out, practiced on it, played on it. Your footing didn’t get any better. You just learned to slip and get back up."
Colorado in particular, because of their option-heavy and misdirection-dependent offense, had to plant a foot down hard and go on almost every play. The Buffaloes later estimated, through watching film of the game, that no fewer than ninety-two times had one of their players been in position to make a positive contribution but instead slipped and slammed down onto the turf.
During that final Colorado drive, with the game and chance to continue pursuing a national title on the line, the television broadcast crew began taking unvarnished shots at the field conditions. After one of the Buffaloes’ wide receivers lost his footing and crashed down on a play in which he would have been wide open, play-by-play man Les Shapiro became incensed.
“Maybe they should rip up this turf, the way everyone is falling down on it,” he said. “How frustrating is this if you’re a C.U. Buff?”
Colorado head coach Bill McCartney, a former Missouri football player who had helped battle the Tigers into two Orange Bowls in the early 1960s, would go ballistic over the field after the game.
“The biggest story is not how the game ended, it’s that field,” McCartney shouted, red-faced, and bug-eyed during the press conference. “That field is glass. That field was not playable."
The field conditions, fittingly, would catalyze the chain reaction that guaranteed the game’s infamy. With thirty-one seconds to play Colorado completed a short pass to their tight-end, John Bowman, at the four-yard-line. As Bowman turned toward the goal there was nothing but green plastic turf in front of him, marking the path to an easy go-ahead score. But as he planted his foot and turned toward the end zone it was exactly like he had stepped on a patch of loose gravel; his legs went out from underneath him and he slipped down to the ground.
“Bowman, if he keeps his footing, he scores easily and the game pretty much is over,” said analyst Dave Logan to the television audience. “Colorado has just had the devil of a time trying to stand up today.”
“This turf is an embarrassment,” said Shapiro. “If I was voting on a most valuable player I would give it to that stuff.”
“For the first time ever,” was Logan’s sardonic reply.
Instead of a sure touchdown and likely Buffaloes' victory, it was first and goal from just outside the three-yard-line. With one timeout remaining and half-a-minute on the clock, the cold hand of fate settled its icy grip over the assembly at Faurot Field.
Johnson, the Buff’s quarterback, rushed the team to the line, took the snap and spiked the football to stop the clock. The free spike was a new rule in college football. Whereas in the past a quarterback would have to appear to attempt a real pass, stepping back to throw the ball forward and out of bounds, bleeding an extra two or three seconds off the clock, the rule had been changed so he could fire the ball directly at his feet to accomplish the same purpose.
But the tradeoff to this tactic, as always, was that it cost the offense a down. With the newness of the rule, and the intensity of the moment, the first inklings of confusion crept into the game. The broadcast crew, for just a moment, was not sure if it was first or second down after the spike.
“Second down,” said Shapiro, ominously foreshadowing the ensuing tumult. “No, first down, and goal-to-go for the Buffs.”
It was second down, but that critical error had not yet been made on the field. While Shapiro was confused about the down burned by the spike, the chain gang was not. Down on the field Montgomery and his box—standing alone at the three-yard-line—showed an orange two for second down.
Montgomery standing alone was another crucial ingredient in the foul broth coming to boil. The Big 8 was testing another first-year policy, one in which the other members of the chain gang stepped away once it became first-and-goal inside the ten-yard-line. The rationale was defensible: The chains no longer were needed and the fewer bodies crushed into that compressed space the safer everyone would be. The logic was solid, but the tradeoff was that two fewer sets of eyes would be monitoring the game as it related to down and distance. And Montgomery, alone, was about to experience a surreal interlude.
Colorado snapped and ran its second-down play, a handoff to running back Eric Bienemy that sent the stout, speedy athlete into the middle of the line. He hit the turbo boost toward the end zone but slammed into a picket of Missouri defenders who corralled and dragged him down just outside the goal line. At that moment a Colorado lineman rushed up into the face of head-referee J.C. Louderback and called the Buff’s final timeout.
There were eighteen seconds left in the game and the down, at this moment, should have been flipped to third.
But as Louderback stopped the clock he looked up and saw Colorado’s coach, McCartney, waving him to the sideline. Louderback, without signaling Montgomery to flip the down to third, trotted over to hear what the coach had to say. And the box man, at the moment he would have taken the signal from Louderback, or asked another official if he was good to make the change, was staring across the field and up into the grandstands behind Colorado’s bench. It was eighty degrees at the end of a three-hour battle—the game at that moment reaching a pitch of intensity that has to be experienced to be believed—and someone’s heart had given out.
There was a melee about twenty rows up from the forty-yard-line and sideline paramedics were racing into the stands. An elderly, heavy-set Missouri fan had collapsed into the row of people in front of him at the moment Bienemy was stood up at the goal line. Several people in the surrounding rows, recognizing immediately the signs of heart failure, had begun CPR until the paramedics could get there.
The paramedics loaded the man onto a stretcher and rushed him down to the track where they could work on him with all of their equipment. Montgomery stood watching this desperate scene as the timeout came to an end. That poor fan would die on the track behind Colorado’s bench surrounded by a thunderous stadium largely oblivious to his personal tragedy as the surreal chaos of the moment played out.
“I’d like to say I wasn’t distracted,” Montgomery said years later in an interview with ESPN. “But even most of the Colorado [bench] players were turned around and looking.”
While all of that was happening Louderback was in parlay with McCartney, who wanted to explain—so the referee would be prepared—what Colorado was going to do to end the game. Everywhere McCartney looked it said second down, so he took the signal pole, the scoreboard, and the referee at their word, telling Louderback his team had a three play sequence—a run; a spike to stop the clock; and a final run—to close the proceedings.
McCartney, critically as it turned out, admonished Louderback not to let Missouri players lay on top of his guys and bleed out the clock before they could spike the ball. Louderback told him not to worry about it, he would not let it happen.
Up in the television booth the broadcast crew was speculating against the last, frantic conversations they could see taking place down on the field.
“I think the chains are wrong on the field,” said Logan, the analyst. “I don’t think it’s second and goal. They had second and goal before, I don’t think it’s second down now.”
“I was a little confused by that myself,” said Shapiro, the play-by-play man.
“They threw the pass down to stop the clock on first down,” said Logan, recalling that first play of the final sequence.
“Yes, you’re right, that’s right. It’s third down,” said Shapiro, marking the television crew as locked-in to the actual scenario.
“But that won’t matter,” said Logan, making a rational but serious miscalculation. “You won’t have time to run three plays. You’ve got time for two plays here, and I’m sure that’s what Bill McCartney is telling his guys.”
Jay Leeuwenberg was Colorado’s center, a position often occupied by one of the team's more cerebral players. Fittingly, Leeuwenberg stood in the center of the sideline huddle during the timeout. He had warned McCartney it was third down, no matter what the marker said, and if they spiked the ball after the following play it would be on fourth down and the game would end.
McCartney, full of that bolt-rattling tension that consumes a head coach at the climax of a tight game, with veins popping out of his head and neck as he shouted over the jet-engine roar of the crowd, turned an intense set of eyes on his future All-American lineman and shouted: “Shut up, Leeuwenberg! Play center!”
There was nothing to say after that, the die had been cast.
Louderback—who was working with an officiating crew he had met that morning—did not have the beats worked out with his fellow referees. That camaraderie is a critical component of quality referee work and this crew did not have it. When Louderback jogged to the sideline to hear McCartney’s spiel, none of the other officials had stepped up to change the down marker.
As the teams trotted back onto the field the box on top of the signal pole said second down. The scoreboard said second down. The head referee believed it was second down. And Colorado was running an end of game sequence predicated on it being second down. Of course, it was third down, something a fast-growing crowd within the stadium was starting to comprehend, and they were making their way quickly out of the stands and down onto the field to shout their truth.
Bob Stull, Missouri's head coach, said he felt something was going haywire with the downs but de-prioritized it. Stull had the disposition and final instruction of a squad making its desperate last stand to concern himself with, and he put his trust in the controls. Fourth down, fifth down, tenth down, the Tigers had to make a stop.
"In the heat of the game I can much more easily see a scenario where the teams and coaches lose count, but not the officials," Stull said the next day. "I’ve seen plenty of instances where the coaches make a mistake with the downs and the officials have complete control of the situation."
Colorado snapped the ball and sent Bienemy over the top, where he was met in a crackling head-on collision and knocked down on the spot, maybe even a yard backward. It should have been fourth down from the one or two-yard-line, and the clock ticking implacably toward all zeroes.
With bodies all over the field, and Mizzou players moving with conspicuous sluggishness to stand up, Louderback minded what McCartney had forewarned him of during the timeout and waved his arms to stop the clock. This act was almost unprecedented in itself. The clock runs after a tackle in bounds and, while a referee might stop it for a second or two in extreme situations, Louderback held the stoppage for six full seconds as Colorado maniacally scooped up its own players and referees put the fire to Missouri’s defenders to stand up and line up.
Finally, with the clock frozen at eight-seconds, Louderback cut it loose. The Buffaloes lined up and spiked the ball—on what should have been fourth down—with two seconds left in the game.
Logan up in the broadcast booth had been right. If Louderback had not stopped that clock there had not been time for even a second play, let alone a third. But here was Colorado, with a fifth down play and two seconds showing on the scoreboard.
One referee, the linesman Ron Demaree, also thought something was wrong, but being part of a new crew he did not trust himself to broach the issue. Over the course of the game Demaree had slid a rubber band from finger to finger as the downs changed, a kind of manual failsafe against the box man and scoreboard and head referee, who were capable of making errors in the heat of battle.
Demaree remembered that his rubber band was on fourth down when Colorado spiked the ball with two-seconds left, but when he looked to the sideline, to the scoreboard, and to his head referee, he saw the entire apparatus going on with business as usual, as though it were only then fourth down, and convinced himself, in a near-perfect demonstration of the Asch Conformity Experiments, that they were right, and he was wrong. But Demaree’s role in this mayhem was not yet through.
Astonishingly, one group inside the stadium was absolutely sure it was fifth down, and they had a public-address system near at hand. Up in the Missouri press-box a man called Jack Watkins, an assistant sports-information director for the Tigers and the game’s official scorekeeper, had counted out the plays, and the downs, and knew it to a certainty.
When the box-man on the field showed second down, Watkins announced to the newspapermen still in the press box that it was third down. He called it fourth down when Johnson spiked the ball. And as Colorado lined up for its final play, Watkins called out to everyone within range of his voice: “Fifth-and-goal from the one-yard-line!”
In the several minutes it took for this sequence to develop a large, ominous, and burgeoning mob of Missouri fans had been collecting on the field. In the television broadcast you could see them at the top of the frame piling up like a marathon was about to start just beyond the sideline paint.
By the time Colorado lined up for its fifth down play a mass of students and fans had crossed the track and pushed to the very edge of the playing surface. The leading edge of this horde was standing literally feet behind Demaree on the goal line, nearly touching his back, and screaming into his ear it was fifth down, that the crew was giving Colorado an extra play.
Colorado snapped the ball on fifth down and the clock ticked down to zero. The Buff’s quarterback, Johnson, took off to his right, saw a gap in the line, turned hard left and, slipping a little, dove toward the end zone. He was met by two Tigers’ defenders and knocked sideways, while at the same time engaging his built-in athletic gyroscopes to roll off the contact, now falling backward toward the goal when his back hits the turf, and he bounces, and stretches, and the football goes over the line . . . .
Demaree is sprinting straight down that same goal line with a pile of players in front of him, trying to see. The fans are pouring onto the field believing Missouri had stopped Colorado short. Players from both sides are beginning to celebrate and Demaree, after an incredible, excruciating delay, throws his hands up into the air—touchdown Colorado! The Buffaloes had won the game! It was over . . . .
“Look out!” shouted Shapiro from the television booth, sounding like the newsman from War of the Worlds. “They’re all over the field! The fans are streaming onto the field!”
A shock went through the crowd and mayhem broke loose. A horde of fans, and several Missouri players, rushed up into Demaree’s face, screaming at him, chest to chest, eyeball to eyeball. The referees were accosted on the field by hundreds of fans enmeshed with Missouri players and coaches, screaming they had given Colorado an extra down and that the Buffaloes had been short of the end zone on the final play. It was complete chaos and cacophony as the referees tried, in a growing panic, to sort it out.
And, in the final analysis, it appeared the mob was right on both counts. While the fifth down play is irrefutable, it does also appear that Johnson’s back hit the turf before he extended the ball across the goal line. It was only after he bounced, and arched his body, and stretched, that the ball just barely breaks the white-painted plane of the end zone.
He was down at the one yard line on fifth down, and Missouri was the rightful winner in more ways than one.
A group of fans tore down one set of goal posts during the initial fracas, whether in a rage or in confusion about the outcome is not known. Colorado celebrated for a moment but left the field quickly to escape the growing menace that was taking shape. The referees, in a stupor, did not know what to do.
The field was cleared by police and stadium security. For the next twenty minutes the referees convened to try to figure out what had happened. During this time Watkins, the game’s official scorekeeper, and a group of Missouri administrators mounted a wild campaign to try to set the record straight and compel a summary reversal.
Their group dispatched an assistant athletic-director with a walkie-talkie to the official’s locker room to relay the sequence of plays straight from Watkins. The scorekeeper read it out, play-by-play, three times to the assembled officiating crew, but could not convince the referees to reverse anything that had happened on the field.
With a surly crowd shouting and booing in the stadium above them, and the agitation growing, the officials did not have protocol to determine if they had given Colorado an extra down, so they dropped it. Instead, they re-assembled and called both teams back out for the extra point—because Missouri had a chance to block it and return it for two points and the tie. Under a barrage of booing and objects being lobbed down from the stands Colorado snapped the ball, fell on it, and sprinted back to the locker room, again, the victors.
Leeuwenberg, Colorado’s center, said as he was running off the field for a second time, the team partially protected by a phalanx of police officers, some Missouri fan with an object in his hand took a run at a Colorado player but, swinging whatever he had, knocked out a police officer instead. Four of the officers peeled away from the escort formation and clobbered the fan on the field before presumably arresting him.
“It scared me to death,” said Leeuwenberg. “I thought there was truly a chance I wouldn’t make it back to the locker room.”
A hoard of renegade fans later made its way up the stadium tunnel and found the official’s locker room. Sequestered inside, the referees sat listening as the door was pelted with bottles, loose equipment, and whatever else the attackers could find in the concourse before they, too, were hauled away. The officials would be escorted out of the stadium by police several hours later.
Missouri head-coach Stull called what happened in those final thirty seconds 'the perfect storm.' No fewer than nine fronts had opened up at once to brutalize the last moments of what had been a fantastic football game between old rivals. The slip. The spike. The new chain-gang rule. The sideline conference. The heart attack. The unfamiliar officiating crew. The timeout conversation. The stopped clock. The questionable touchdown call . . . . .
In the moments after the winning score had been signaled, with the crowd rushing onto the field and officials trying to figure out what to do, Stull had looked them right in the face and said: “I hope you guys are right about all of this, because if you aren’t, it’s not going to be very pretty.”
The officials had been wrong, and Stull was right: things got ugly.
In the post-game press conference McCartney could not calm down and refused to give an inch in the foggy uncertainty of what had happened. In that moment he could not get himself to be far-sighted about the madness he had just been part of; instead he was enraged and defiant on behalf of his program.
McCartney went off, first cursing the wretched field conditions at his alma mater, thundering that the surface was unplayable, and launching into an out-of-my-cold, dead-hands-style oath on behalf of his team.
“We don’t apologize for this victory. No way shape or form. Our students should know, if we were outplayed and the circumstances were fair, then we could very seriously considering forfeiting this game," said McCartney, making it clear the latter option would not be exercised.
The diplomacy would have to come on another day.
That afternoon lingered on a bitter note for the Tigers, sending their season into a tailspin. The game had the opposite effect on Colorado, a team with legitimate championship class, and jolted the squad out of its malaise. The Buffaloes clobbered every team on their schedule for the rest of the fall, including Oklahoma at home and Nebraska on the road, before avenging their loss to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl and winning the school’s first, and only, national title.
Back in 1940 there had been a fifth down incident between Dartmouth and Cornell, with the Big Red the beneficiaries of an extra snap in a victory over the Big Green. But when the foul up had been discovered the day after the game, Cornell immediately forfeited the victory to Dartmouth, sending a telegram from their university offices and offering their congratulations for a hard-earned triumph. Some newspapers had carried the story on the front page.
There would be nothing of the sort in the aftermath of the Colorado and Missouri redux fifty years later.
The Fifth Down Game in Columbia stayed with everyone who had participated in it, including McCartney, who began, over the years, to beat himself up for how he had handled the controversial victory. Twenty years later, it was still on his mind.
“I went to school at Missouri, okay?” McCartney said during a 2010 interview with ESPN. “I’m an alum, okay? And all of this has tarnished that. That is a regret I will carry with me to my grave. I wasn’t gracious in victory. When you win, be humble, you know? So I say this to all the people of Missouri, I am sorry for the way I behaved. I behaved with immaturity. I should have handled that graciously, and I regret I didn’t uphold the tradition of being a Missouri Tiger better in that time of struggle.”
McCartney will have to accept that the apology will live forever, right beside the game.
Fifth Down College Football—both the website and an original book to be written on the road this fall from college football pilgrimage sites across the country—is proud to associate itself with a game as historic, colorful, and fascinating as college football, and hopes all of you reading this introductory piece will buy the ticket and take the ride alongside us.
Please do not hesitate to invite your people to come join our virtual and moveable tailgate and jump in on the good times to come.
The more the merrier, indeed.
May 21, 2021