(Editor’s note: This column, written on October 7 when Darian Hagan’s induction into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame was announced, has been updated.)
BOULDER It was the late 1980s, early ‘90s in college football and a gnat-sized option quarterback named Darian Hagan had a vision. He remembers sharing it with his position coach at Colorado, and he remembers Gary Barnett reacting, well, as if he might be trying to shoo away a cloud of gnats.
Hagan’s proposal: “Coach, we can run the option out of the shotgun.”
Barnett’s response: “Son, you can’t do that.”
A couple of decades later, Hagan watches on television and in person at Folsom Field as college QBs line up in spread formations, in the shotgun, and run the read option. It's the college game's new normal, and Hagan saw it a little too much of it, in fact last October when Oregon’s Marcus Mariota accounted for seven touchdowns (five passing, two running) as the second-ranked Ducks dazed the Buffs in a 57-16 win.
“I think (Barnett) has been proven wrong,” Hagan said, flashing the high-wattage smile that always has been as much a trademark as were his option pitches to “Jaay-Jaay Flannigan” during a giddier and grander era of CU football.
Said Hagan: “I watch spread teams come in here and run the option. I was doing it 20 years ago but I was under center and getting hit sooner. That’s the only difference.”
Even if Barnett had accepted Hagan’s proposal, it’s hard to imagine Hagan being any more effective in the shotgun than he was lining up under center in Bill McCartney’s I-Bone offense. Hagan was a 5-foot-9 (he’ll falsely claim another two inches) apparition with the football. On the perimeter, he was smoke without the mirrors, leaving linebackers and safeties clutching for something that was already gone.
Fact is, he did pretty well crouched under center, going 28-5-2 in three seasons as CU’s starting quarterback. He directed the Buffs to three consecutive Big Eight Conference championships, a stretch from 1989-91 during which they were 20-0-1. Hagan was an All-America honoree in ’89, when he became at the time only the sixth player in NCAA history to run and pass for more than 1,000 yards in the same season.
Very few college players have made an impact like Hagan’s at CU, who will be inducted into the 2014 Colorado Sports Hall of Fame on Thursday night. Also to be inducted posthumously is former CU men’s basketball coach (1936-50) Forrest B. “Frosty” Cox. In 13 seasons, he guided the Buffs to a 147-89 record, with three NCAA and a pair of NIT postseason berths that included a Final Four appearance in 1942 and two NIT championship game appearances (1938, 1940).
Hagan, who attracted a parade of national recruiters to Los Angeles’ Locke High School as a four-sport athlete, is in his ninth season as a CU staffer (now director of player development). Hagan said “elated would be putting it mildly” to describe his Colorado Sports Hall of Fame selection. “It’s a privilege, an honor to be elected . . . I would dedicate it all to my former teammates good guys I played along with. All I had to do was hand it off or pitch it.”
An induction such as the one awaiting him “is something every kid who plays sports wants,” he said. “I never thought it would come to fruition (and) I’m overwhelmed by this announcement.”
Hagan’s CU highlight reel wouldn’t be out of place among the most entertaining in college football. He has long been a fan favorite, and as he was walking off Folsom Field last fall following CU loss to Oregon, a fan and his son approached him. The father told Hagan he remembered a Hagan pitch to Flannigan that went for a 70-yard touchdown against Oklahoma “like it was yesterday.”
It might have been as fresh as yesterday but CU’s opponent, recalled Hagan with that grin, was Nebraska. Whatever, the memory for the fan was indelible. Well, most of it.
The play that Hagan won’t forget was a “pitch to Pritch” in the 1990 Pigskin Classic in Anaheim, Calif. against Tennessee. Mike Pritchard, normally a wingback/receiver, opened at tailback in place of the suspended Eric Bieniemy. Pritchard took to his new role rather well, carrying 20 times for 217 yards, which included a pair of long touchdown runs.
One of them was a 78-yarder on a pitch from Hagan, who Tuesday recounted the play like this: “We had the ball on the right hash, (Tennessee) ran a corner blitz from the boundary . . . the guy had me but as I was going down, I switched the ball from my right to my left hand and pitched to ‘Pritch’ . . . he went 80 yards for a touchdown.”
For the record, it was 78, but who’s going to quibble over 2 yards 24 years later? Hagan’s memory is a little better than mine, but I unearthed my game story written for the late Rocky Mountain News for verification.
If Hagan remembered this about the ’90 Pigskin Classic, which ended in a 31-31 tie, he didn’t share it Tuesday. Here’s what I wrote about his passing on that scorching afternoon in Anaheim: “Hagan, who completed just five of 19 attempts for 68 yards, was usually high, wide and loathsome whenever he cocked his right arm. Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about Hagan’s first-half passes is that they had good hang time. They were horribly reminiscent of the 1988 Freedom Bowl interception that made Hagan wonder if he was playing the right position.”
This is how Hagan explained his inaccuracy back then: “I just don’t know what happened. I messed up a lot of reads, and I just didn’t throw well.”
But those kinds of outings were rare for Hagan, who finished his career with a 50.3 percent completion rate, hitting 313 of his 424 passes for 3,801 yards and 27 TDs (19 interceptions).
Of the “pitch to ‘Pritch’” in the Pigskin Classic, this was the RMN account: “Within two plays, the Buffs returned to a 14-point lead as Hagan dashed right on the option, appeared to be caught just over the line of scrimmage and shoveled a left-handed lateral to tailback Mike Pritchard. It was one of the ambidextrous Hagan’s more accurate tosses, and it resulted in a 78-yard touchdown run for Pritchard.”
I also had the good fortune to cover Hagan’s CU debut a 27-6 rout of Texas on Sept. 4, 1989 at Folsom. In a milestone game for CU football, Hagan was nothing short of masterful. Here’s my lead paragraph of the game story in the next morning’s RMN: “The University of Colorado zoomed into its 100th year of football here last night behind one of the most exciting option quarterbacks the Buffs have shown in, oh, about a century.”
How’s this for a fast start to what would be a storied career? Hagan’s first college carry was a 75-yard run to the Texas 1-yard line, setting up a Bieniemy TD that got the Buffs geared up. Hagan’s debut night stats: 14 carries, 116 yards and a score. He also completed 7 of 12 passes for 95 yards and a TD, and afterward he said this of his performance: “I just expected us to go out and play hard and win. But no, I didn’t expect to do what I did.”
Hagan was humble then and is now, but his humility doesn’t detract from his confidence or his mischievousness. He has no doubt that he could be a 21st century option quarterback, a Johnny Manziel-type minus the flamboyance, taking shotgun snaps and driving defensive coordinators batty. And I agree; he was ahead of his time.
His teammates and CU fans will remember him for nights like he had against Texas and his free-wheeling, eye-popping option pitches to Flannigan, Pritchard, whoever. But here’s what Hagan wants to be remembered for and it has nothing to do with stats, wins or championships.
He wants his legacy to be “my smile that’s it. I want to be remembered as a good guy, a good teammate. My proudest moment was getting my degree at the University of Colorado. There are two things . . . my passion, I played the game of football not as intense as Bieniemy, but I was intense. But I remained humble; that was my upbringing . . . I was never known as a taker except for the free Nike gear.”
Of course, he was smiling warmly but as always a little mischievously as he said it. Whatever taken was earned, and he’s given plenty back.