This can't be the same Darian Hagan Colorado fans remember from 1988, the young man who had once boldly proclaimed when he was still a high school senior that he would break college records, then was so disheartened after the '88 Freedom Bowl that he no longer wanted to play quarterback.
Two years later Hagan has come full circle. The brashness has disappeared, even though Hagan now has every reason to brag.
Few sophomore quarterbacks have enjoyed more bitter, yet rewarding, seasons than Hagan did in 1989. Thrust into the starter's role by tragedy -- terminal cancer, which claimed the life of 1987 and '88 starter Sal Aunese Sept. 23 -- Hagan rapidly matured emotionally, mentally and physically to become the catalyst in Colorado's 11-0 record and climb to No. 1 in the polls at the end of the regular season. Only a loss to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl spoiled the season.
Despite playing in just 33 of 44 quarters, Hagan became only the sixth player in NCAA history to both rush and pass for 1,000 yards in a season. In the Buffaloes' second year of the I-bone -- an I-formation with some wishbone principles -- Hagan rushed for 1,004 yards and 17 touchdowns and passed for 1,002 yards and four touchdowns to lead an offense that was second nationally in rushing, sixth in total offense and third in scoring.
After Colorado beat Nebraska, 27-21, to virtually clinch its first outright Big Eight championship since 1961, Coach Bill McCartney told a national television audience that Hagan should be considered a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.
Perhaps McCartney was looking ahead to 1990.
Hagan never was a serious threat to win the Heisman in 1989, but he did finish fifth in the voting, and he's the only one of the top five still in college. Starting Over
Whether Colorado can come close to duplicating its remarkable '89 season seems doubtful. The schedule includes a 12th game, albeit the opener, against Cotton Bowl winner Tennessee in the Aug. 26 Pigskin Classic; nonconference road games with Illinois and Texas; a home nonconference game against Washington; and a Nov. 3 showdown at Nebraska.
Some people wonder what the motivation will be. The Buffaloes had a mission last year: Win for Aunese, whose deathbed letter urged them to "bring home the Orange Bowl."
Colorado did everything but, losing by 21-6 to Notre Dame in its bid for an undisputed national championship. And that defeat has become the incentive for 1990.
In addition to Hagan, who was the Sporting News national player of the year in 1989, Colorado returns 1988 all-Big Eight tailback Eric Bieniemy, who missed half of last season with a broken fibula; consensus all-American guard Joe Garten; 6-foot-8, 300-pound all-Big Eight offensive tackle Mark Vander Poel; two of the best outside linebackers in the country, Alfred Williams and Kanavis McGhee; and all-American punter Tom Rouen.
McCartney, beginning his ninth year as Colorado's coach, has built a powerhouse. Since turning around the program in 1985, McCartney has a 39-20 record that includes four bowl losses in as many postseason appearances.
This summer McCartney signed an unprecedented 15-year contract that will take him through 2004 and his 65th birthday. It is estimated that McCartney, with a base salary of $130,000, will earn about $6.5 million over the 15 years.
Hagan gets only room, board and tuition, but he has other incentives to improve statistically. For one, Colorado has a tougher schedule, and he will have to be more productive. For another, McCartney wants to improve an anemic passing game by 500 yards.
Hagan's passing fell off the second half of last season when he injured his throwing (right) wrist, then his right shoulder. In key games against Oklahoma, Nebraska and Notre Dame, Hagan completed just eight of 29 passes for 107 yards. McCartney knows that in games against quality opponents, Colorado's offense cannot be one-dimensional.
The 5-10, 185-pound Hagan's arm strength has never been questioned -- he is deadly on long passes, which have been the primary element of Colorado's passing game -- but this year the Buffloes hope to throw more short- and medium-range passes.
Said McCartney: "His arm looks stronger than it was a year ago, and he picked up right where we left off on some of the things we were working on."
But running the option is what Hagan does best, whether it's turning the corner, faking out a defender or pitching the ball at the last second to a trailing tailback.
Hagan learned how to run as a youngster in the Watts section of Los Angeles. He ran away from gangs and into sports. Once, in the ninth grade, Hagan was walking home from football practice wearing his school's red uniform. He was chased by gang members because red was the color of their rival gang.
"They didn't catch me," Hagan said. 'My Heisman'
Hagan also grew up where talk is not cheap. At Locke High, he became one of the nation's best option quarterbacks, and was not shy when it came to self-promotion. Referring to Jamelle Holieway, the former Oklahoma quarterback who was his idol, Hagan once said, "Picture him and you see me."
There were some differences between him and Holieway, Hagan once said in an interview. "I'm faster. I throw better too. But I don't want to sound too cocky or anything."
Ten months later he wasn't. Hagan played sparingly behind Aunese his freshman year, then threw an interception and crossed the line of scrimmage before throwing a pass in another crucial situation in a Freedom Bowl loss to Brigham Young.
McCartney and quarterbacks coach Gary Barnett had to convince Hagan to stay at quarterback; he wanted to be moved to running back. And when Aunese was diagnosed as having inoperable stomach cancer one week before the start of spring practices last year, Hagan grew up overnight.
Though he is a top candidate for the Heisman and all-American honors, he couldn't care less. "It's no big deal to me," he said. "The Heisman is a thing you can always look back to. For me, I can always look back to our season of last year. That can be my Heisman."