For the University of Colorado's athletic program, competing in the Big 12 Conference for the past 15 years — and the old Big Eight before that — has provided plenty of great moments ... and a similar number of dark days.
The most spectacular victories, such as the 39-37 win against Texas for the 2001 Big 12 football title, are matched equally by the worst disasters, none more destructive than the 70-3 loss to Texas four years later for the 2005 Big 12 title.
Last weekend, Colorado participated in its final Big 12 event before flying away this summer to join the Pacific-12 Conference. You won't find any unbiased observers saying that CU's departure is a mistake. In fact, from all appearances it's the smartest move Colorado could have ever made. There will be more exposure up and down the West Coast, opening new horizons for recruiting and for cultivating alumni support. Also, of course, the Pac-12 will provide far better opportunities for televised games in different sports, producing millions more in annual revenue.
Despite all that, we can't let CU's sayonara from the Big 12/Big Eight slide past without a nostalgic look back at some of the best memories. This can't be called an official list, and it's really just in what some might call the "modern" era. Let's focus on five, with the intent of creating several surprises:
Big 12 men's basketball, 2011: Hard to ignore what Colorado achieved in its final Big 12 season (and the first for new coach Tad Boyle), beating two Top 10 teams (Missouri and Texas) in Boulder and toppling a very good Kansas State team three times, the last one in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals. No, the Buffs couldn't break through against Kansas, but those five significant conquests and their late run to the National Invitation Tournament's final four made the year special.
Big 12 football, 2001: Colorado ended this regular season with arguably its best back-to-back games ever. First, unbeaten Nebraska came to Boulder and got hammered, 62-36. A week later, the Buffs knocked off Texas in that Big 12 championship game, the pinnacle of head coach Gary Barnett's tenure in Boulder. (Footnote: Barnett started his career here at Air Academy High School.)
Big Eight women's basketball, 1993-96: Those four years encapsulated the career of standout Erin Scholz of Colorado Springs, as the Buffs went 110-21, topped by the amazing 30-3 season of 1994-95. That winter, CU put together a 25-game win streak, rose to No. 2 in the national rankings and made it to the NCAA Elite Eight before losing 82-79 to Georgia.
Big Eight football, 1989: This was Colorado's finest regular season, a perfect 11-0 and the nation's No. 1 ranking going into the Orange Bowl (which CU lost to Notre Dame). The Buffs, with head coach Bill McCartney at his inspirational best after the September death of quarterback Sal Aunese (from stomach cancer), had to prove themselves on consecutive Saturdays toward the end. They first went to Oklahoma and beat the Sooners, 20-3, then turned a frigid November night into a wild celebration after a 27-21 home win over third-ranked Nebraska.
Big Eight football, 1990: In the national championship season also marked by that infamous Fifth Down victory at Missouri, Colorado actually faced its biggest test Nov. 3 at Nebraska, which entered the game No. 2 in the nation. After three quarters, the Huskers had a 12-0 lead and looked absolutely unbeatable. But the Buffs awakened at the end of that nasty, cold, rainy day in Lincoln (where CU hadn't won since 1967), driving to four touchdowns — all scored by All-American tailback Eric Bieniemy, back now as offensive coordinator — in the final 15 minutes for a stirring 27-12 victory.
I might be partial, having actually covered that game. But that amazing turnaround, and the euphoria it created for CU's small contingent in Memorial Stadium that evening, always has stood out as surely the best single memory for Colorado in its Big Eight/Big 12 history.
Can CU approach those accomplishments in the Pacific 12 against the likes of Southern Cal, Oregon, Stanford, Cal, UCLA, Washington and the Arizona schools? We're about to start finding out.
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