Twenty years ago, the Colorado and Missouri football programs were forever changed.
A perfect storm of events, including a fifth down and a controversial touchdown call, resulted in a 33-31 Colorado victory that sent both programs streaming in different directions. Colorado went on to share the 1990 national title, the only one in program history, while Missouri floundered to a 4-7 season, the seventh losing campaign in a string of 13 that would stunt the growth of the program.
"When you stop and look at a team that had the chance to knock off a potential national champion -- who ended up voted as a co-champion nationally -- and it was nationally televised, I can see how it hurt Missouri football because that's a big moment in Missouri's history," said J.C. Louderback, who was the lead referee in the game. "It's a big moment with the result of the football game. So, it's not fun to be part of that. And I took full responsibility for my crew that we missed it."
The events of Oct. 6, 1990 vary depending on who you ask and which side they were affiliated with, but the one constant is everyone acknowledges an egregious officiating error that gave Colorado five downs, the fifth of which the Buffaloes used to score the game-winning touchdown as the clock ran out.
"The way that it unfolded for me was that I believe Colorado had gotten a first down on a pass play from Charles Johnson to John Embree that took it down to the three," said Jack Watkins, who was an assistant AD and the official scorer for the game.
"Charles Johnson spiked the ball on first down, then Colorado ran up the middle with Eric Bieniemy to gain two yards down to the one-yard-line and coach (Bill) McCartney called his last timeout. And the way that we were able to figure it out was that I don't think the down marker ever moved after that play. Colorado called its timeout and it should have been third-and-goal from the one and the box on the sideline showed second down."
Watkins was one of the few people in the stadium who definitely knew that the down marker was wrong.
During the "second" second down, Watkins had press box announcer Rod Kelly announce third and goal from the one-yard-line, which drew a comment from St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tom Wheatley, who was one of 10 media members still left in the press box after everyone else had retreated to the field. Wheatley pointed out that the down marker read second down and Watkins proceeded to read back the list of plays that had been run on the drive. After he was done, there was no doubt that it was third down.
"So we announced third-and-goal from the one, and he's stopped for no gain, and Charles Johnson comes up and spikes the ball to stop the clock," Watkins said. "And then it was fifth-and-goal. So we announced, when they lined up, fifth-and-goal from the one-yard line."
What was even more interesting is that among the people in the press box that day was Big Eight commissioner Carl James, who ended up suspending Louderback and his crew for a game for their mistake.
But it's hard to fault Louderback -- a calculus teacher by trade -- when none of the other coaches, players or officials noticed the mistake either. At no point did anyone from either sideline mention that there might be a problem with the down marker.
"My bottom line with it is, you want to get a game handled properly for the kids' sake, for the players because they put too much effort out there every down," Louderback said. "And when something like this happens, it's not easy for me to take. But I know, had we had any indication, it would not have occurred."
Louderback said he heard grumblings of a fifth down as police escorted him and his crew from Memorial Stadium and away from raging Missouri fans who were throwing debris at both the Colorado contingent and the officials. But he didn't know definitively until he was listening to the radio on his nine-hour drive back to Arkansas City, Kansas. And when he arrived home, he watched the recording in astonishment.
"I was listening to the sports announcer and they went back through it and that's when I first had the indication," Louderback said. "There was some indication that it might have happened because you hear some people yelling five downs and things like that, but there was nothing we could do at that time. The game is over and decided and there was no backtracking that could have been done."
As it turns out, one player did know and even acknowledged that there was a problem with the downs. During a timeout -- the timeout after which the down marker wasn't changed -- McCartney started running down the plays his team was going to run and offensive lineman Jay Leeuwenburg interrupted and told his coach that running his series of plays would result in five downs.
"I distinctly remember him looking at me and saying, 'You're the player and your job is to play. And my job as a coach is to coach. And this is what we're doing.'" Leeuwenburg said. "So, I thought I was wrong. I thought that somehow in the heat of the moment, I must have miscounted ... There was a lot going on and it was not the right time to have a debate about what down it was."
McCartney said he didn't remember the conversation because he was too focused on the poor playing surface, which game announcers joked should have been the player of the game because of all the tackles it made. McCartney noted that his players slipped more than 90 times on the turf, which put them in that dire situation late in the game in the first place.
"I didn't accept what he was saying because in the heat of the moment, you're just trying to bring out a plan and I didn't want to discuss it; I knew what I wanted to do," McCartney said.
"I made up my mind during the game that if we lose the game, I'm not going to say a word about that field. I'm just going to take the defeat, swallow it and go away. However, if we won the game, then it won't be a loser's lament. There should have been discussion that that field was not playable. We still won, but that's what I was thinking in my mind.
"So when the fifth down came up, I was more concerned with what I had already decided in my mind to do. And in that instance, I didn't handle it well. I handled it poorly and I regret it."
Regret and lament are common themes when it comes to Oct. 6, 1990. A fifth down has only happened twice in college football and in the other instance -- a 1940 contest between Cornell and Dartmouth -- Cornell's game-winning touchdown was negated and, subsequently, so was its national championship.
No such resolution between Colorado and Missouri.
When the teams meet Saturday in Columbia, Mo., it will be their 64th consecutive meeting and could be the last since the Buffaloes are moving to the Pac-10 next year. But these two teams will be irrevocably linked forever through that series of downs 20 years ago.
"It's historic and it changed both programs," former Missouri sports information director Bob Brendel said. "That game was definitely a crusher (for Missouri) because there was some talent on that team and they were making some strides. A win over Colorado there and who knows how the rest of that season would have played out? There was no way to keep the program, keep the team focused on the task ahead when the task immediately behind you was so historic and so deflating. That game definitely turned that season around in the wrong direction."