MAIMI — MIAMI -- So, it's a new year, but that doesn't mean we can't still relive the exciting moments of 1990, particularly the one where Colorado cheated its way to the No. 1 spot. Did I say cheated? What I meant was that the referees goofed and gave Colorado five downs and let the Buffaloes beat Missouri in the last seconds and get to be No. 1 and play Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl tonight when the honorable thing would have been to . . .
What would the honorable thing have been to do?
Should the Buffaloes have said they wouldn't take the win?
Should they have donated a quarter of the win to charity?
Should they wear ashes and sackcloth to the Orange Bowl?
Or, maybe, at the time, in the heat of the moment, they should have said they were sorry the game had to be won that way, instead of saying, basically, "Well, those are the breaks. Catch you next year." That was after they complained that Missouri had watered down the field. What you couldn't say is that Colorado was gracious.
Maybe we should talk about watered-down ethics.
Which brings us to Colorado coach Bill McCartney, no relation to Paul, the man who is not only a born-again Christian but a vocal one, who likes to flaunt what he calls his spirituality. Isn't there some contradiction here?
"That was reflected in my mail," McCartney said. "People say, 'You claim to be a Christian, so why didn't you do the Christian thing?' When you take a strong stand in a spiritual vein, you're going to get a lot of scrutiny."
And his answer to his detractors (which is nothing like Dick Nixon's "I am not a crook" speech' but does have its own special flair):
"First Corinthians 4:4: 'I have a clear conscience, but that doesn't make me innocent. It is the Lord I have to give an accounting to.' I have a clear conscience in this matter."
According to my hotel Gideon bible -- Gideon checked out and left it no doubt to aid in poor Billy's revival -- it goes this way: "For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord." Pretty much the same thing.
Of course, there was a lot of other judging going on at the time -- a time, at first, in which McCartney and his team didn't even realize they'd been granted that extra down. It must be remembered, too, that the Colorado quarterback stopped the clock on third down by throwing the ball to the ground. At least, he thought it was third down because the officials said it was third down. If quarterback Charles Johnson had known it was actually fourth down, he would have gone for the touchdown then and might have made it.
Or he might not have, since time was running out. Is this what national championships are made of?
The result is not unlike the Dempsey-Tunney long count. The game will live forever, especially if Colorado beats Notre Dame tonight and wins the whole shooting match.
This is not a subject, predictably, the Colorado players are interested in talking about. Old news, they say. But, in college football at least, the new year puts the finishes touches on the old, and when it comes to voting a national champion, the Missouri game must be kept in mind.
There is no easy answer here. But there are legitimate questions that remain so.
"To not have feelings for Missouri's players would be unethical," Johnson, a reserve quarterback who engineered the final drive, has said. "You have to feel sorry for them. It wasn't their fault. It wasn't our fault."
He's right. It was the officials' fault, and they were all suspended. But Colorado got the victory, and, now, a great chance to finish the season No. 1.
"If I had known history was being affected, if I knew that people would be looking back 50 years, if I had had any appreciation of all that when the game ended and in the ensuing 24 hours, I might have reacted differently," McCartney said. "I wouldn't have offered the game to Missouri, though. I absolutely wouldn't do that."
What he would have done is not mention that Missouri watered down the field and would have said instead: "Gosh, we were fortunate, and, boy, I feel sorry this had to happen to anyone, even Missouri."
That brings us back to an earlier question. What could Colorado have done?
They could have done what Cornell did in 1940 in a similar situation against Dartmouth. Cornell got five downs and a touchdown and a win and, upon learning of the special circumstances leading to triumph, decided that it wasn't fair, and -- get this -- refused to accept the victory.
Of course, you know what happened to Cornell. Sure, it remains a great university, among the very best in the land. But just ask yourself this: When was the last time Cornell played in a bowl game?