McCartney nearly kicks away QB's happy ending

MIKE LITTWIN

January 03, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

MIAMI -- Bill McCartney is a football coach and, therefore, obviously smarter than the rest of us, and not only because he knows what Z-48-slot means. So maybe he knew something that escaped the lay person when Colorado, on the verge of an actual four-down national championship, punted the ball directly Notre Dame's very own cruise missile, Raghib Ismail.

There are some things you know instinctively. For instance, you don't step in front of a moving car, even if it's American made. And you don't punt a football to a guy named Rocket, especially when the guy named Rocket is really Michael Jordan in long pants, only more explosive, and when the guy named Rocket has averaged -- averaged -- 61.8 yards in his 17 touchdowns for Notre Dame.

What you do is kick the ball out of bounds, even if you have to kick it sideways. Or you can fall on the ball. You can gift-wrap it and hand it to an appropriate official. You can blow it up real good. What you can't do is propel it, under any circumstances, in the direction of this definitely un-NASA-like Rocket.

But that's what Colorado did, on McCartney's orders, and if you were up late enough Tuesday night, you watched the Rocket catch the ball on his 9, stop, turn, stumble and then explode for 91 heart-stopping yards in the most exciting finish in 100-plus years of college football to snatch the title from Colorado in the final 35 seconds.

Except the punt return was called back for a clipping penalty, making it the greatest anticlimax in 100-plus years of college football.

And so, McCartney, through no fault of his own, won't be remembered as the biggest idiot of the modern era, only as the coach who accepted the fifth-down win over Missouri on his way to a national title that will remain forever tainted. In fact, it's so tainted that in the UPI poll of coaches, Georgia Tech is No. 1. Who are they kidding? Obviously, this was a critique of McCartney's coaching technique by his Z-48-slot peers.

The vote in the AP poll of writers and broadcasters was close, but Colorado had to be the winner, if there had to be a winner at all. No matter how enthusiastically Brent Musburger shilled for Georgia Tech and the ACC, no one really believes, No. 1-wise, that Tech is the best team in the country. Even the coaches can't believe that, no matter how they voted.

If we learned nothing else Tuesday, it was that Miami, despite two losses, has the team most likely to win a football game on any given day that the majority of the players can make bail.

It had to be Colorado. And if it had to be, it might as well have happened the way it did -- with Charles S. Johnson in control.

Johnson is a special kind of person. He was a walk-on who earned a scholarship as a quarterback. A political-science major -- a true student? -- he is the president of the university's black alliance. He is the legal guardian of his younger brother, a high school senior whom he wanted to remove from the mean streets of Detroit. But the reason the ending was so perfect is that Johnson, an infrequently used sub, was the quarterback last October in the infamous five-down game. He scored the winning touchdown, and no one has let him forget it.

"I didn't think of myself as a victim," he said. "But I do think too much attention was paid to the fifth-down business. It's a long game, a lot of things happen, a lot of things you can point to, but that's the only thing anyone remembers. It wasn't our fault. We didn't do anything wrong."

For most of the week leading up to the Orange Bowl, he was a curiosity piece, dragged out to allow gawkers to see the man who engineered the long-count touchdown and hear him tell the story. The starting quarterback was Darian Hagan, who, a year ago as a sophomore, finished fifth in the Heisman voting. Hagan is a star, Johnson a footnote.

Being a backup quarterback is always difficult, but especially so with Hagan, who is a hypochondriac.

"When he comes off the field," Johnson said, "he's always grabbing something, his arm or his leg or his stomach. He always says he can't go out there again, and I better get ready. I used to get all excited, start warming up, and then he'd go back in the game. Eventually, I learned that if he was walking and talking, he was going to play."

In the Missouri game, Johnson got to play because Hagan was hurt. But there was no notion of that possibility at the Orange Bowl until Hagan was helped off the field with a ruptured tendon 50 seconds shy of halftime. Hagan wasn't walking, but he was talking.

"At halftime, Darian told me he had a vision earlier in the week, that something was going to happen to him and that I'd come in to help us win the championship," Johnson said.

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