Twenty-five years later, it could never happen again. Could it? Nah ...
That would be a collective somnambulance in a college football stadium that not only contributed to a dubious win, but also a national championship.
Think -- in our day and superhighway age -- of an entire season shaped by one play. One extra, illicit down, actually. A quarter-century later, the infamous Fifth Down Game dwarfs any Immaculate Reception and any number of Hail Marys you can name.
Tuesday marks the 25th anniversary of the most heinous officiating screwup of all time. A 55-year-old math teacher and top age-group tennis player was the referee on a crew who lost track of the downs in Colorado-Missouri on Oct. 6, 1990.
There were five of them. By the time CU quarterback Charles Johnson squeezed into the end zone for a 33-31 victory on that final, fatal fifth play, most everyone was confused -- starting with the fact that Johnson might not have gotten over the goal line in the first place.
"I don't care what anyone says, he wasn't in," said Stacy Elliott, a former Missouri defensive lineman. "I was in on the tackle."
That referee, J.C. Louderback, and his crew missed it all, but then again so did most everyone else -- players, coaches, a lot of fans and the media.
"It blew my mind that nobody in the press box knew it was fourth down [before the final play]," said Jeff Flanagan, then covering Missouri for the Kansas City Star. "Then on the fifth down Johnson never f------ got in.
"[Missouri coach Bob] Stull didn't know. Nobody knew down on the sidelines. I just don't understand how that could happen."
Before there were screen grabs, Twitter rants, Vine highlights or even instant replay, time was measured in analog. Flanagan's editor wasn't even sure it was that big a story until the New York Times started weighing in.
Dave Plati knew. In the press box, CU's sports information director uttered an F-bomb that went out over the Buffs radio network when Johnson spiked the ball on what should have been fourth down. Instead, the play was considered third down because that's what the down marker said.
"If [a fifth-down] happened today, it would be kind of like golf," Plati said. "A bunch of people watching on TV. If he moves the ball they tweet something.
"Before you run the play, you'd have 1,000 tweets saying, ‘He got a fifth down!' "
It could never happen again, could it?
"Never," Flanagan. "Too much technology."
Except that it almost did Saturday in the Nebraska-Illinois game -- in reverse. The Illini were given one fewer down due to a mistake by the chain crew.
So to say a fifth down could never happen again, you must first consider the worst …
The officiating crew probably would be fired by Saturday night. Deadspin would have the referee's medical and criminal records published by Sunday. There would be a 30 for 30 by Thursday.
Twitter would crash along with the stock market and some air traffic control centers.
Considering modern-day implications, former CU assistant and head coach Gary Barnett said, "Somebody would have poisoned our trees on campus."
It would be all that and then it would be gone. The topic would be pushed off the top of the trending list by the next shark attack or trick shot or cute baby.
"Even though it would seem to be instantaneous and around the world, it seems like the shelf life of these things -- unless it's a really, really life-threatening thing -- [is short]," said Plati, now in his 33rd year with CU.
Twenty-five years ago, the issue lingered because incompetence was stacked on top of incompetence. Big Eight commissioner Carl James, since passed, literally backpedaled his way out of the stadium, refusing to face reporters or the situation.
That guy in charge of the down marker, Rich Montgomery, didn't flip it from second to third down. Montgomery said he never got a signal from an official. Montgomery didn't know what had occurred until he was driving home to Blue Springs, Mo.
"I got sick to my stomach just thinking about it," Montgomery said.
Colorado's offensive coordinator that day, Gerry DiNardo, didn't know until he reached the locker room. "We all had a chance to know we were wrong," said DiNardo, now a Big Ten Network analyst, "and none of us knew we were wrong."
Buffs coach Bill McCartney added to the controversy by complaining about the field conditions. CU cut up film of players falling on Missouri's slippery OmniTurf 92 times and sent it to ESPN.
GameDay showed 16 clips, Plati said. Popular opinion may have swung in favor of Colorado, but not in mid-Missouri. McCartney was viewed as a traitor. In the 1960s, he had played for Dan Devine at Mizzou. His Christian faith was called into question for not "giving back" the game.
In one sense, that was impossible. The same rule applies today as it did then. Once the game is over, it's over -- no matter how much it was screwed up.
"It's a rule that's over 100 years old," said David Nelson, then secretary-editor of the NCAA rules committee. "It's that the team with the greater number of points at the end of the game wins."
There was no justice for Missouri fans when media dug up an instance of when Cornell got a fifth down against Dartmouth in 1940. The Big Red gave the result back to the Big Green when it was discovered the referee had awarded an extra down to Cornell.
Protest letters flooded the Big Eight office in Kansas City. James, a former football and track star at Duke, was a kindly man but not the kind you would call a demonstrative leader. His answer to those mailed protests was a form letter, which only made things worse.
"Why stubbornly refuse to correct a tragic error?" wrote Missouri student Jennifer Ann Wilcox.
"Send the correct message to the young people of our society …" wrote Jack Wilt, superintendent, Pekin (Ill.) Community High School.
"Your group of officials … were so poor that I was concerned that they would incite a riot," said Edward E. Zimmerman of St. Louis.
Actually, it was close. Newspaper accounts say two people were arrested for knocking over a police officer. A security officer roughed up reporters waiting outside the officials' locker room.
The fallout did not abate ...
"Hey, you clowns, I think you people are: a) blind and dizzy from staring at black and white stripes; b) well-paid by the Buffaloes; c) just plain screwed in the head or d) (write-in answer)," --a clip n' mail comment card pre-addressed to the Big Eight office from the Missouri student newspaper, The Maneater
"5th Down Bread, Buy 4 loaves get the 5th loaf FREE." read a legitimate print ad in the Boulder Daily Camera, Oct. 12-13, 1990.
"I challenge you, as a the commissioner, to develop a review system to prevent such an injustice …" wrote Henry Robertson Jr. of Joplin, Mo.
Mr. Robertson was prescient. Replay now would make a fifth down a correctable error. That's what basically saved Illinois from getting a fifth down on Saturday.
"I would never say it couldn't happen [again]," said Steve Shaw, the SEC's supervisor of officials. "But in a normal situation? No."
What's a normal situation these days? A cynic might suggest adding a Pac-12 crew to the situation and viola! -- fifth down repeat.
"I wholeheartedly support efforts by Missouri fans to see that the school withdraws from the Big 8," wrote George Gladney of Champaign, Ill.
That happened, too -- 22 years later, when Missouri bolted to the SEC.
"We knew the Big Eight commissioner was there," Elliott said. "All we wanted Coach Stull to do was fight. That set our program back years."
It took the Tigers until 1997 to go to a bowl, breaking a streak of 13 bowl-less seasons. For Colorado, it was quickly forgotten they had tied Tennessee and lost to Illinois to get to this point.
After the extra down, the Buffs went on run the table. That included an Orange Bowl victory against Notre Dame, 10-9, which clinched the school's only national championship (shared with Georgia Tech).
It was fitting that a clipping penalty against the Irish kept Rocket Ismail from a game-winning punt return.
The Buffs were living right that year.
They continue to live with it, all of them. Stull is now the athletic director at Texas-El Paso. Both Eric Bienemy -- a CU running back that day -- and Andy Reid -- a Missouri assistant in 1990 -- are with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Elliott is more famous these days as the father of Ohio State tailback Ezekiel Elliott. Louderback is 80, still taking calls from inquisitive media members.
"I always say your reputation for 1,000 years could depend on one moment," Stull once said. "J.C. got his one moment. All the stuff he's done his whole career came down to that moment."