4. Scandals everywhere in the Old Big Eight: 1989-95
It's never been difficult to find athletes behaving badly. However, from the late 1980s into the mid-'90s, three schools from what had been the old Big Eight and became the backbone of the new Big 12 -- Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma -- set new standards for football players running wild. (SI.com doesn't wish to slight Miami's raging Hurricanes of nearly the same era; they belong on any list of the wacky and wildest college football programs. But it's impossible to ignore the regional bias here.)
Under Barry Switzer, Oklahoma's wishbone offense was nearly unstoppable. "Let's hang half a hundred on 'em,'' Switzer would say before trampling the likes of Iowa State. In late 1988, Switzer's program was found guilty of three major NCAA violations and only three months later became the focus of national attention when one player shot another and three others were accused of gang rape. Switzer was gone before the start of the 1989 season.
At Colorado, under the God-fearing Bill McCartney (who would leave coaching after the 1994 season to found the Christian men's group Promise Keepers), Buffaloes football players ran amok to such a degree that a school policeman told SI's Rick Reilly, "At the first home football game of every season, a couple of detectives drop by the stadium and pick up a few programs. Saves you time. Instead of having a victim go through the mug book, you just take out your program and say, 'Is he in here?'''
Then there was Nebraska, which dominated college football from 1994 to '97, not long after coach Tom Osborne expanded his recruiting to include marginal students from all over the country instead of relying only on corn-fed local lads. The prime example was running back Lawrence Phillips, a gifted man-child from Southern California. (His game was a man's, his personality a child's.) Phillips was suspended in 1995 for dragging his former girlfriend down a flight of stairs, but Osborne, acting against strong public opinion, reinstated Phillips in November and allowed him to be a part of the Cornhuskers' second consecutive national championship. That decision forever smudged Osborne's coaching reputation.
College football was no exception to the embarrassingly slow integration of every major sport in the United States. However, in his exhaustive history, "College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy," John Sayle Watterson writes, "Top be sure, college football never capitulated entirely to the racial exclusion that swept through most big-time sports, though only a few African-Americans competed before the 1950s.'' Integration came first in the North (Jim Brown starred at Syracuse from 1954-56, and predictably, much later to the South. In 1965, Jerry Levias became the first black player on scholarship in the Southwest Conference and, notoriously, the epic 1969 game between Texas and Arkansas featured two all-white teams.
6. Colorado's fifth down: Oct. 6, 1990
This is perhaps the most egregious and meaningful officiating error in modern college football history. Nine months earlier Colorado and Bill McCartney had reached the national championship game in the Orange Bowl and lost to Notre Dame 21-6. In the fall of 1990 the Buffaloes came to Columbia with a 3-1-1 record. A loss would have taken them completely out of the national-championship picture, but they won (33-31) when sideline officials brain-locked and failed to flip a down marker after second down and Colorado backup quarterback Charles Johnson scored on a fourth-, er, fifth-down plunge as Mizzou fans stormed the field. Colorado returned to the Orange Bowl for a rematch with Notre Dame, where Irish coach Lou Holtz told his team that the Buffaloes were "living a lie.'' No matter, Colorado won the game (10-9) and shared its only national title with Georgia Tech, thanks to one big mistake.
7. Alabama buys Albert Means: Feb. 2, 2000
Stories of big-money boosters inserting themselves into the often shady world of recruiting have circulated through the college-football grapevine for years, but never before had such a brazen act of cheating entered the public realm. In January 2001, Milton Kirk, an assistant high-school football coach in Memphis, blew the whistle on a plot by his former boss, Tresvant High head coach Lynn Lang, to shop his blue-chip defensive lineman Albert Means to the highest bidder. In the NCAA investigation and federal racketeering case that followed, it was revealed that Alabama booster Logan Young paid Lang $150,000 in a long series of installments in exchange for Means' signature with the Crimson Tide. The incident prompted severe NCAA sanctions for Alabama and touched off a long, ugly saga in which lawsuits were filed, fingers were pointed and the NCAA's entire investigative process -- in which Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer served as a secret witness against his rival school -- was called into question.