In McCartney's first season, the Buffs went 2-8-1. On top of that, Colorado boasted some of the worst facilities in the Big Eight conference, and didn't even have a strength coach. For a football player coming out of high school, Colorado was not a prime destination.
So McCartney devised a plan. He decided to sell the talented crop of high school football players in the Centennial State on coming to Boulder and laying the foundation for CU's turnaround. Several of the players, guys like Jon Embree, Eric McCarty, Ed Reinhardt and David Tate, had offers from prestigious football programs from the Big Ten and Pac-10.
But McCartney came up with what turned out to be an ingenious strategy in luring the Colorado kids.
"Back then it was real unusual for a guy to early commit," said McCarty, who now serves as CU's team physician. "Mac's idea was that he would bring the guys in on the last weekend before Signing Day. That's unheard of nowadays; you could never do that."
When the dozen or so in-state prospects gathered at Boulder's Harvest House that weekend, McCartney and his staff put on a show. Defensive coordinator Dale Evans gave a speech he called "Acres of Diamonds." It was a fable about a farmer in Africa who dreamed of faraway riches and sought out to find them. But after searching far and wide, hidden riches in the form of diamonds were discovered beneath the land the farmer had once owned.
The moral of the story? Why go out of state when the local players could stay home and help uncover the hidden gem of a program McCartney and his staff were building?
The strategy worked. Eleven of the state's best players decided to play in Boulder.
"Picture this," McCartney said in an interview 10 years ago. "Here we are putting all of our eggs in one basket. They were such outstanding kids that when we got them all together, and we also had their parents there, the chemistry was perfect. That's what we were banking on, and that's what happened."
"What happened was really special," McCarty said. "All of the guys got together one of the nights and talked about how neat it would be if we all stayed around and put this program back on the map. We talked about how Colorado high school football is pretty darn good. Just like all Nebraska high school football players stay in the state of Nebraska, what would happen if all Colorado high school players stayed in the state of Colorado? And we felt like we had better football than the state of Nebraska."
That group of players would eventually form the nucleus of the team that ended CU's drought against The Big Red. Embree, McCarty, Tate, Dave DeLine, Barry Helton, Curt Koch and Sam Smith were all former Colorado prepsters in the 1983 class who were full or part-time starters in 1986, when CU defeated Nebraska 20-10, the Buffs' first victory over the Cornhuskers in19 years. That game is thought of as the turning point in the CU program.
It wasn't easy getting there, even for the 1983 class. The Buffs won just one game in 1984, and after a Freedom Bowl berth in 1985, CU began the 1986 season with four straight losses.
But McCartney knew enough to nurture the players from the 1983 class, even as the entire team struggled. After all, it was the coach's first class he signed.
"Coach Mac used to meet with the freshman class once a month just to assure guys that everything was going to be all right, and that we were there to help turn it around," said Embree, who is currently an assistant coach at UCLA. "He did a good job of insulating us. And he just asked us to keep pounding away and grinding away and told us we'd be rewarded one day."
That reward came with back-to-back bowl berths in 1985 and '86, and the win over Nebraska. It also came in knowing the 1983 class laid the foundation for CU's turnaround and eventual national championship in 1990.
"We didn't have the talent that some of the classes had in the late-‘80s, when they started getting guys like Eric Bieniemy and Darian Hagan, J.J. Flannigan and Kanavis McGhee," McCarty said. "But what we had was real special. We really believed that something special was going to happen at CU."
To subscribe to the Buffalo Sports News, follow this link: BSN Magazine Online Special