Senior Writer

Fifth down reverberates 20 years later -- especially for Missouri


First down: The memento

The coin that flipped it all off sits in an unadorned frame on Kevin Stull's desk. Stamped with the old Big Eight Conference logo, it was used by officials to determine who would receive the kickoff that day.

Call it in the air? That's kind of how Oct. 6, 1990, ended at Memorial Stadium in Columbia, Mo.

Charles Johnson scores (or did he?) on the fifth down as time expires. (Columbia Daily Record)  
Charles Johnson scores (or did he?) on the fifth down as time expires. (Columbia Daily Record)    
Flipped it all off? There was at least plenty of flipping off. You can almost see it on the two-decade-old film that captured the perhaps most heinous officiating error in the history of sports. It is called the Fifth Down Game, and it will not die. Not after two decades, maybe not ever. Certainly not in mid-Missouri.

"People definitely still talk about it," said Stull, an assistant golf pro at The Club at Old Hawthorne east of Columbia. "They always talk about in Columbia."

Stull was 6 years old. His memories of what that coin symbolized are passed down from his parents, friends and fans. He knows Colorado got a fifth down that day, won the game 33-31 and eventually became national champions, and that Missouri was never the same.

Second down: Somewhere in the desert Southwest

Bob and Kim Stull were driving home to El Paso from Las Cruces, N.M., Sunday after a football game. The Stulls' cell phone kept cutting out across the miles of nothingness, reminding everyone that even in 2010, miscommunication is easier than you think.

Bob is the AD at UTEP these days, 17 years removed from his final days as Missouri's coach. This week, everyone knows him as the losing coach in the Fifth Down Game. It might have been the "highlight" of his time as Missouri's coach from 1989-1993.

The Mizzou job was a plum for Stull, long before the BCS defined such things. It was a major-conference job. When he took it, the program was coming off a disastrous four-year slog under Woody Widenhofer. Stull was a hot name at the time, having won 10 games in 1988 at UTEP. He was known as a turnaround guy, usually in his second year.

He also knows that part of his legacy will be his place in the game that Colorado won on the last play. Wednesday marked 20 years to the day when everything changed at both schools, and really college football. In some small way, how everyone missed the fact that CU got an extra play was the reason instant replay was adopted a few year years ago.

"I don't think it's possible this would happen today," said Bill McCartney, Colorado's coach that fateful day.

It's easy to consider a Butterfly Effect had the fifth down never happened. Surely, Colorado wouldn't have shared the national championship that year with Georgia Tech. There's no three-year stretch (1989-91) during which Colorado doesn't lose a Big Eight game, plays for two national titles and wins one.

For the "victims" there's this: Perhaps Missouri doesn't continue on to complete a 13-year stretch without going to a bowl.

"The biggest problem I had was how devastating it was," Stull said. "We were going to win that game. ... I think it affected us for the rest of the season for sure. The guys put all their heart and soul into that game and to lose. You'd rather get your butt beat.

"We were going to play Nebraska the next week. We had just beaten No. 21 Arizona State 30-9 and No. 12 comes in."

No. 12 was Colorado, a rising Big Eight and national power. McCartney had built his program by luring talented kids from Southern California to the Rocky Mountains. He loaded up his non-conference schedule with giants because it was the only way CU would be noticed. Before anyone had coined the phrase, Coach Mac knew you had to beat the best to be the best.

When the Buffs came to Mizzou that day, they had been underachieving. That scheduling philosophy had backfired. CU started 3-1-1 after tying Tennessee, beating Stanford and losing to Illinois. The other two non-cons were wins against Texas and Washington. You wouldn't find a team in the country, then or now, that would play that kind of schedule outside its conference. Oct. 6, 1990, then, was more about getting back on track than winning a national championship.

As the Big Eight opener played out, McCartney made two conclusions. First, the field conditions were ridiculous. Missouri's OmniTurf field remains a cruel joke in the program's history. Someone had talked someone into installing a field with a sand base. The problem with sand is that it bunches up like your living room carpet. The field is inconsistent. It also gets slippery in dry conditions. Oct. 6 was sunny and hot. Colorado counted 90 slips by its players on the Missouri turf that day.

McCartney's second conclusion was that he would only complain about the field conditions if CU won. If the Buffs lost, it would seem like sour grapes. When they won like they did and McCartney still spoke out, it was like sticking a knife in Missouri and twisting it.

"I could have handled it with more grace," McCartney, 70 and living near Boulder, says now.

That touched off another firestorm. Not only had Mizzou been screwed, the winning team's coach was basically saying that the Tigers deserved it because of the field conditions. Adding to the knife twist was McCartney being a Missouri grad who had played for Dan Devine.

That made it a bigger national story. There were calls for McCartney to "give back" the win because it was the right thing to do. That's exactly what had happened 50 years earlier when Cornell beat Dartmouth 7-3 with the help of a fifth down. When game film was reviewed, Cornell had no problem forfeiting the game. Dartmouth accepted.

"I love reliving the fifth down," said Kim as the Stulls tooled across the desert. "My mother wrote a threatening letter to the governor of Colorado. I just found that letter last year in a scrap book. She said they should forfeit. He wrote her back kind of basically saying, 'Get a life.'"

Her son, at least, got the coin.

Third down: The Down Marker Guy

In the old days, Rich Montgomery carried a pistol. It was legal and it was his job. At the end of each quarter, he'd hand it to the referee, who shot it off to signal the end of the quarters.

Then he got a promotion. This is Montgomery's 40th year as the guy who holds the down marker at Missouri. Yes, he is the one on the sideline in charge of changing, on the referee's command, the down from one to the next. He was there at Missouri 20 years ago, and he'll be there Saturday when the teams meet for the last time as Big 12 opponents.

"What's interesting to me is all these different slants people have," said Montgomery, a 66-year-old State Farm insurance agent. "I can't tell you what happened."

The series in question started on first-and-goal from the Missouri 3 with the Tigers leading 31-27. CU quarterback Charles Johnson spiked the ball on first down to stop the clock with 28 seconds left. Montgomery can tell you that linesman Ron Demaree did not tell him to flip the marker from second to third down after CU's Eric Bieniemy was then stopped at the 1. (Demaree claims in reports this week that he did.) It was then that Colorado called its final timeout with 18 seconds left. McCartney asked referee J.C. Louderback to watch Missouri defenders trying to bleed the clock by taking their time getting up.

It was still second down on Montgomery's box when it should have been third. Out of the timeout, Johnson called a play named "Geronimo." Center Jay Leeuwenburg already had caught on, telling McCartney that if the Buffs went through with the spike, the game would be over. They would be out of downs.

You play the game, McCartney said, I'll coach it.

Colorado's final series
Down Result
1st and goal, MU 3 Charles Johnson spike (28 sec. left)
2nd and goal, MU 3 Eric Bienemy 2 yard run
Colorado calls final timeout (18 sec. left)
3rd and goal, MU 1 Bienemy no gain
Clock stopped with 8 sec. left to unpile players
4th and goal, MU 1 Johnson spike (2 sec. left)
5th and goal, MU 1 Johnson 1 yard TD run

So at that point it was proven. The players (except Leeuwenburg), the coaches and officials didn't have a clue. On the next play Bieniemy was stopped on an over-the-top lunge at the 1. Louderback, doing what he was told, stopped the clock briefly with eight seconds left as Missouri players were slow getting up.

That should have made it fourth down. On the down marker, on the scoreboard and in the minds of thousands it was third down.

"He was our guy," Stull said of Montgomery, "If there was any kind of mistake he would have been saying something. We were arguing whether it was fourth down and we looked up at the scoreboard. Then we looked over at Rich and he was just standing there. We said, 'We've got to be wrong.'"

On what was supposed to be fourth down, Johnson went ahead and spiked the ball with two seconds left. Game over in the real world. In this parallel universe, Colorado lined up for a fifth down.

That's where it really got weird.

On fifth down, Johnson kept it himself and ... what? Scored? In a strange scene, while CU players celebrated a touchdown, Missouri fans, believing their team had won, attacked both goalposts. The official ruling was touchdown, but there are those to this day who say Johnson was down before the ball crossed the goal line.

The local papers showed a detailed sequence of photos making it appear that the quarterback was down.

"I didn't know how many downs there were but I was pretty damn sure that I was in," said Johnson, now in the athletic department at CU.

Carl James, then the Big Eight commissioner, ducked into a production truck to watch replays, learning the horrifying truth. Johnson didn't know there was a fifth down until the team got back to Boulder. Montgomery didn't know until he heard a radio replay driving back to his home that night in Blue Springs, Mo.

"I got sick to my stomach just thinking about it," he said.

Fourth down: The statistician

Jack Watkins was more than sick to his stomach. The result tortures his soul to this day. He's a Missouri guy. At that point, his school hadn't had a winning season since 1983. As assistant sports information director that day, he was in charge of the stats.

"After Johnson spiked the ball, I debated whether to go down the hall and knock the door down," said Watkins, now 47 and associate commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference.

That would have been the door of the Missouri coaches booth.

He didn't. They don't call it a press box for nothing. The inhabitants are supposed to get it right. Out of the timeout, press box announcer Rod Kelly said, "second and goal from the 1." According to Watkins, a reporter turned around and said that wasn't right. Kelly corrected himself: Third down. In the chaos that followed, Watkins was responsible for gathering the official stats, printing them out and making them available to the media. On the official play-by-play, the last play of the game reads, Colorado: fifth-and-goal from the 1.

Then a call came from downstairs. Assistant athletic director Joe Castiglione was on a walkie-talkie in the officials' dressing room. Watkins carefully read the sequence of plays to Castiglione, now the AD at Oklahoma. He heard nothing back.

"It was as silent as a grave," Watkins said.

Fifth down: Aftermath

 Could a fifth down happen today? Not likely with a replay official in the booth able to stop the game by calling down to the referee, says national coordinator of officials Dave Parry. Even if a fifth down were run, Parry said the replay official could review it. There is a rule that allows the replay official to correct "egregious errors".

Bill McCartney and Colorado went on to share the national championship after the infamous fifth down game. (Getty Images)  
Bill McCartney and Colorado went on to share the national championship after the infamous fifth down game. (Getty Images)  
"It could [happen] but it would take several people going brain dead," Parry said.

Well, it's happened twice in 70 years.

 What would have happened if Missouri had won? There's no certainty that it would have resuscitated the program. The Tigers were 2-2 going into Colorado. They finished 4-7. Stull was fired three years later.

"Those are career-changing games," said current Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, a friend of Stull's who coached with him at Washington. "You win a game like that, your whole program changes."

As for Colorado, it was the jumping off point to a championship season. The Buffs finished 7-0 in the Big Eight, beating rival Nebraska 27-12 along the way. After defeating Kansas State 64-3 to finish the regular season, CU moved to No. 1 in the Nov. 19 AP poll and stayed there. The epic Orange Bowl 10-9 victory over No. 5 Notre Dame is remembered best for Rocket Ismail's punt return being called back with 43 seconds remaining.

McCartney's scheduling paid off. Colorado finished 11-1-1, beating seven ranked teams.

 Louderback did not return a phone call for this story, which is strange. J.C. has been something close to a friend. We stayed in contact over the years when there was a Fifth Down anniversary coming up. Louderback and his crew were suspended by the Big Eight after the Fifth Down Game. That's where it got ugly.

The gentle native of Arkansas City, Kan., got hate mail and disgusting phone calls. Louderback never let it get him down for long. He was/is an age-group tennis player of some note and was a four-time Kansas state high school tennis coach of the year. Among Missouri fans, though, his last name became a verb, as in "We got Louderbacked."

He went on to officiate after that season, though never again in the Big Eight.

"I always say your reputation for 1,000 years could depend on one moment," Bob Stull said. "J.C. got his one moment. All the stuff he's done his whole career came down to that moment."

  Excuse Missouri fans if they feel cursed. Seven years after the Fifth Down Game, the infamous "Flea Kicker" game occurred in the same end zone. In that game, Nebraska scored on a pass that was kicked by wingback Shevin Wiggins into the arms of teammate Matt Davison as time expired. Nebraska won 45-38 in overtime but Missouri's effort was so heroic that it moved into the top 25 the next week after the loss. For what is believed to be the first time, a No. 1 team (Nebraska) dropped from that spot after a victory.

 Had Colorado stayed in the league, the Big 12 was thinking about moving the 2011 Colorado-Missouri game to a Thursday night -- Oct. 6, the 21st anniversary of the Fifth Down game. CU joins the Pac-10 next season.

 Four of the seven men on Montgomery's chain gang crew in the Fifth Down Game will work the game Saturday.

Wonder if Kevin Stull's memento will be available?

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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