Jim Weber runs LostLettermen.com, devoted to keeping tabs on former players and other bits of nostalgia. Today he revisits the "Fifth Down" game, ahead of the final Missouri-Colorado game as conference rivals on Saturday.
If you think umpire Jim Joyce has it bad, imagine being J.C. Louderback after 20 years of counting and recounting five simple snaps by Colorado:
Joyce was thrust into instant infamy last June when he missed a call at first base that cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Gallaraga a perfect game on what should have been the last out of the ninth inning. He was ridiculed, vilified and hounded by fans, and even received death threats. But 20 years before Joyce, the same role belonged to Louderback, the head official who somehow missed an entire down in the 1990 Colorado-Missouri game in Columbia, Mo. – a gaffe that cost Mizzou the win, sent the two programs in opposite directions and ultimately had a part in multiple people losing their jobs.
Exactly two decades later, Louderback is still living down one of the most notorious officiating blunders ever.
"I've got a life that I go on with and I knew officiating can have some rough moments," Louderback said. "But sure, it's always on my mind and always will be, to not know for sure who really should have won that ballgame."
It was Oct. 6, 1990. The 12th-ranked Buffaloes found themselves trailing 31-27 to Big Eight rival Missouri, fresh off an upset of Arizona State the previous week, with 2:25 on the clock and the ball at their own 12-yard line. Behind backup quarterback Charles Johnson – in for injured star Darian Hagan – and All-American running back Eric Bieniemy, the Buffs methodically drove the length of the field, completing a pass to set up first-and-goal at the Missouri 3 with 31 seconds to play.
On first down, Johnson used a new rule to stop the clock, spiking the ball with 28 seconds left. On second down, Bieniemy plunged straight ahead to the 1-yard line, and Colorado called its final timeout.
During the break, the situation began to go haywire. While Louderback was explaining to CU coach Bill McCartney that the Buffs had no more timeouts, on the opposite side of the field, volunteer Rich Montgomery forgot to switch the down marker from "2" to "3," although linesman Ron Demaree later recalled instructing him to do so.
[Related: The 10 worst college football calls ever]
While hundreds of Missouri students screamed "five" and several people in the press box noticed the error, the players, coaches and officials on the field seemed oblivious: Either they were too caught up in the action to notice the upcoming play was actually fifth down, or assumed they must be mistaken since no one else seemed to notice, or – in the case of one confused Colorado player – were told to shut up when they started to bring it up.
Given an extra life, Johnson took the final snap and plunged for the end zone. Amid the chaos of bodies on the goal line, the crowd's view was obstructed. So was the television audience's. And so, too, was the officials'. Forced to make a call without a clear view, Demaree raised his hands to signal a touchdown.
Pandemonium ensued. With the touchdown signal, Colorado's sideline erupted. Assuming they'd stopped Johnson short, Missouri fans stormed the field and started to tear down the goal posts in victory. Once it became clear the Tigers had lost, the exultant crown turned into an angry mob. With no time left on the clock, Colorado took a knee instead of trying the extra point and bolted from Columbia with a 33-31 win.
Louderback was defiant after the media alerted him of his mistake. It wasn't until he listened to the radio on his seven-hour ride home that he realized the crew had in fact made a grave error. Montgomery was also listening on his way home, and had to pull over to throw up when he realized his failure to turn the down marker cost Missouri the game.
Louderback and his crew were promptly suspended by the Big Eight, which apologized for the error but upheld the outcome. There was no procedure for reversing a missed play and, after all, Johnson wouldn't have spiked the ball on fourth down if the down marker hadn't read "3."
The suspensions and apology did little to soothe the anger of Missouri fans. While Colorado went on to win the rest of its games and a share of the 1990 national title (coincidentally aided by a controversial clipping call that negated a Notre Dame touchdown in the Orange Bowl), Missouri stumbled to a 4-7 record after being robbed of what could have been a program-defining win. Defensive coordinator Mike Church, who lost his job at the end of the season, has referred to the fifth down as the play that got him fired. Meanwhile, Missouri coach Bob Stull was never able to turn the program around and was ultimately shown the door following the 1993 season.
[Related: The man voted MLB's best umpire]
With his home in Arkansas City, Kan., flooded with hate mail and prank calls, Louderback retired from the Big Eight after the season, officially due to an age requirement. He retired as a teacher and high school tennis coach a couple years later, and hung up his whistle for good after the 1999 season. The calls and letters eventually trailed off and the media stopped inundating him with interview requests for every single Colorado-Missouri game – until the lead-up to this year’s 20th anniversary, that is, which also happens to be the last CU-Mizzou meeting after 65 consecutive years with the Buffaloes' impending move to the Pac-10 next year.
He speaks openly about the call and seems at peace with his dubious place in history.
"I'm not hiding anything," Louderback said. "I've always said when there's an error, you stand up and say exactly what happened and you don't hide from it."
Not that his friends would let him: "I've got a poker group that brings it up every night we play," Louderback said. "We'd go every other week and someone's always bringing up, 'How's our fifth-down man?'"
As it turns out, after 20 years of criticism and ridicule, Louderback’s doing just fine.
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