Players, fans relive the greatest game ever played at Hughes Stadium

Keegan Pope

It’s been nearly 25 years since Eric Tippeconnic took his uniform off for the last time at Colorado State.

Tippeconnic, now a history professor at Cal-State Fullerton and a part-time artist, doesn’t remember everything from his football career, but there is one moment in particular he could never forget.

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The revival

For decades, the Colorado State football program was mired in a state of not just mediocrity, but overall embarrassment. Following the then-Colorado A&M Aggies 21-20 loss to Occidental College in the 1949 Raisin Bowl, the program didn’t play in another bowl game under head coach Bob Davis, despite winning the Mountain States Conference championship in 1955 and rolling to an 8-2 record. When Davis left the program after that season, the downturn of the program began. Over the next 35 years, CSU lost more than 10 games in a season five times, and never made it back to a bowl game under the likes of Don “Tuffy” Mullison, Milo “Mike” Lude, Jerry Wampfler, Sark Arslanian, Chester Caddas, and Leon Fuller. None of those coaches left the school with a winning record, and only Arslanian won more than 35 percent of his games.

But in 1989, former Ohio State head coach and Woody Hayes’ protégé Earle Bruce became the 17th head coach in program history, taking over a Colorado State team that finished the 1988 season 1-10 and was handled 48-14 by then-No. 10 Wyoming.

(Highlights provided by John Hirn, CSU athletics volunteer historian)

The Rams improved in 1989, finishing with a 5-5-1 record, but were dominated by rivals Air Force, Wyoming and Colorado, who combined to beat the Rams 146-76. It was a step in the right direction, but the Rams were surrounded by rivals who were among the best teams in the country, with the Buffaloes winning the 1990 national championship under Bill McCartney. Bruce vowed to turn things around, and in 1990 he did.

A game for the ages

Coming into Rams’ showdown with then-No. 19 Wyoming Nov. 3, 1990, CSU owned a 5-3 record, including a season-opening road win over Air Force. CSU hadn’t beaten Wyoming since 1986, and the Rams came into game as heavy underdogs against the Western Athletic Conference-leading Cowboys. Then-Wyoming head coach Paul Roach allegedly said on the radio that week that CSU wasn’t tough enough to play with the Cowboys, and he would resign from his position if Wyoming ever lost to CSU while he was the head coach.

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(Photos Courtesy of John Hirn and Eric Tippeconnic)

That was all Eric Tippeconnic and his teammates needed to fire them up. Bruce had shirts printed with the words, “Who’s Tougher Now?” which he showed to players before the game and promised to give them if they won.

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Despite scoring 47 points against New Mexico the week before, and coming into the game as the 12th-ranked offense in the country, CSU’s offense sputtered all game against the Cowboys. It was the Colorado State defense that came to play against Wyoming, sacking the Cowboys six times, intercepting three passes, scoring a safety and causing a fumble at the goal line late in the fourth quarter.

Trailing 11-0 at the half, Wyoming cut the deficit to just three with 9:04 left in the third quarter on a 19-yard TD pass from quarterback Todd Corontzos to wide receiver Shawn Wiggins. Corontzos then hit wide receiver Robert River for a two-point conversion, bringing the Cowboys within 11-8. The Cowboys were looking to take the lead with a little more than six minutes left in the fourth quarter with the ball at the Colorado State 6-yard line. However, running back Jay Daffer fumbled into the end zone and CSU recovered for a touchback.

After the Rams’ offense faltered, Wyoming began another drive, looking to steal away a road win in the final minutes. But, with 1:29 left, linebacker Tippeconnic stepped in front Corontzos’ pass, picked it off and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown to give the Rams a 17-8 they would never relinquish.

Colorado State linebacker Eric Tippeconnic returns his interception 33 yards for a touchdown to seal the Rams' 17-8 win over then-No. 19 Wyoming in 1990. (Photo Courtesy of Eric Tippeconnic)
Colorado State linebacker Eric Tippeconnic returns his interception 33 yards for a touchdown to seal the Rams’ 17-8 win over then-No. 19 Wyoming in 1990. (Photo Courtesy of Eric Tippeconnic.)

It was a total defensive domination,” Tippeconnic said.  “And honestly, my play happened so fast. I remember getting lined up and Todd Corontzos was the quarterback for Wyoming. I remember we were in a zone defense, and we knew they were going to pass. I dropped back into my hook zone, and I tried to get to the depth I was supposed to get to. And I get there and I settle in, but before I can really sit down in my zone, that ball was in the air. And all I can remember is just reacting to it, and I don’t even remember catching it. I just remember the beginning of the play and then feeling like I was waking up from a dream and realizing, ‘I’m running the ball now.’ And then I was thinking, I’m going to score. I’m not going out of bounds, I’m not going to sit on the ball, I just reacted. I started running toward the right sideline and everyone was pursuing the play that way, so all I had to do was make one cut, and I just cut it back against the grain toward the middle of the field, and the whole defense had turned into a bunch of blockers. That was it. That was the game. The whole thing happened in like the blink of an eye. I remember lining up and then all of the sudden, it was over.”

Wyoming got the ball back one final time after Tippeconnic’s interception, but at that point, it was already over.

“After that play, after I picked off that pass and ran it back for the score, I remember moving over toward the part of the stadium where my family was sitting,” Tippeconnic said. “I just remember looking at them and celebrating with them in my mind. I see them jumping up and down, I see them hugging strangers and I’m just looking at them with my arms out like, ‘How do you like that?’ From that point on, it was just a celebration. Even when Wyoming got the ball back, they were in desperation mode, and Corontzos dropped way back and threw one deep, and that’s when Adolf Renaud made an interception at the end of the game to kind of seal it. But from the time I scored that touchdown, the game was over. We had it, and we knew it. It was over and it was final. That’s when the celebration really began. You don’t ever want to celebrate before the game is over, but I’d be lying if I said we didn’t already know we had it.”

Bedlam

As the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard and the cannon rang out one final time, students, including a then-freshman named John Hirn, stormed the field and tore down the goal posts in celebration.

“I think just about everybody from my floor in Corbett Hall went to that game, I remember filling my car with as many girls and guys as could fit in a 1979 Camaro,” said Hirn, now the CSU athletic department’s volunteer historian. “We were packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the student section, there was this guy dressed in a brown coat, cowboy hat and yelling for Wyoming that got his face bloodied by students in the fraternity section of the east stands. The cops tossed him out of the stadium. It was cold and dark, and that was even before the lights were added to the stadium.”

“…We knew that if we beat the No. 19 team in the country we had a great chance at our first bowl game since 1949. The students were well aware of how important a win over Wyoming was. When the final cannon fired and we had won the game, we all poured onto the field and rushed after the goalposts. I remember hanging on the south post when it snapped, but they carried that thing out of the stadium before I could catch up to them. The mayhem was total joy.”

Today, a part of that goalpost hangs in CB and Potts restaurant on Elizabeth Street in Fort Collins, and various different pieces of memorabilia are scattered around the country in the hands of coaches, fans and players, including the game ball, which was given to Tippeconnic by Bruce after the game.

The game is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest game ever played at Hughes Stadium. The Rams went on to play in their first bowl game in more than four decades, defeating Oregon 32-31 in the 1990 Freedom Bowl. It was the first bowl win in CSU history, but Tippeconnic still remembers the win over Wyoming, and his interception, as one of the greatest moments in Colorado State history.

“In the modern era of Colorado State football, we built the foundation for all subsequent success. I cannot discount anything that came before us, but in the modern era, when you talk about momentum and how important recruiting is and how important success is to build a program, that game, that moment in time, that snapshot propelled us to that bowl season and then that bowl victory. I think all of the success CSU has had following that was built there in part. I think it’s — if not the most important game in CSU football history — it’s definitely up there in the conversation with any other game played at Hughes Stadium. Absolutely. Unequivocally. Without a doubt.”

Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at kpope@collegian.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.