By Tony Phifer
This article originally appeared in Around the Oval, spring 2018
John Hirn (’93) is listed on Colorado State University’s official athletics site – CSURams.com – as a volunteer historian.
It would be more accurate, however, to describe him as an accidental historian. That’s because he never dreamed he would be doing what his three children call “the job I don’t get paid for.”
“I don’t play golf, and I really don’t have many other hobbies,” said Hirn. “A lot of guys my age have model railroads or some other passion. This is my model railroad.”
It’s a good thing, because without Hirn, much of CSU’s athletics history would be lost or, worse, unknown. But thanks to a couple of projects – his book, Aggies to Rams: The History of Football at Colorado State University, and his many volunteer hours and donated items that helped create the CSU Sports Hall of Fame display at Moby Arena – a big chunk of the history of Rams athletics has been preserved.
“John’s contributions are beyond measure,” said Paul Kirk, CSU’s assistant athletics director for communications. “We are so thankful for his passion for Colorado State, his generosity to lend his time and expertise, and his keen sense of what is important in preserving the history of Colorado State athletics.”
It all started in January 1990, when Hirn arrived for his first day of classes. His older brother, Tom, was a graduate student at CSU and encouraged his younger brother to embrace the Rams.
His timing could not have been more perfect. The men’s basketball team, led by beloved coach Boyd Grant and playing in front of raucous, sellout crowds at Moby Arena, was making a push toward its second consecutive conference championship, and Hirn was swept up in Rams mania.
“I used to grab a seat on the baseline, right next to the CSU bench, and watch Tiny Grant in action,” he said. “We had a great team, and it was a very exciting time.”
In the fall, the football program – largely a mess throughout the 1980s – suddenly started winning under coach Earle Bruce. The Rams earned national acclaim when they knocked off 19th-ranked Wyoming 17-8, and fans stormed the field, tearing down the goalposts at Hughes Stadium. And, yes, Hirn was one of those students hanging from the south goalpost when it came down.
The Rams went on to earn an invitation to the Freedom Bowl – CSU’s first bowl bid in 42 years – and capped their 9-4 season with a dramatic 32-31 win over Oregon in Anaheim, Calif. Hirn, who won the CSU Alumni Association’s Jim and Nadine Henry Award in 2014, loved every minute of the ride.
“When the football team had that great season in 1990 and went to the Freedom Bowl, I just got sucked into CSU athletics and never looked back,” Hirn said.
Labor of Love
Always a fan of history, Hirn joined the staff of the Silver Spruce, CSU’s yearbook, in 1992 and was asked to write a story about the 100th anniversary of Rams football. That project planted a seed in his head.
“They gave me eight pages in the yearbook to cover the entire history of CSU football,” he said. “I realized there was so much more to write.”
In his spare time, he would comb through old stories at the library about CSU football. He arranged interviews with former CSU President Bill Morgan, former football and wrestling coach, Tuffy Mullison, and many others.
Seventeen years after graduating with his B.A. in history, he published Aggies to Rams. The book – 450-plus pages of stories, rare photos, and other gems – has become the definitive, must-have book for CSU fans, with proceeds going to support CSU athletics. It came out not long after legendary football coach Sonny Lubick was fired in 2007.
“The book was a labor of love, really,” he said. “I wasn’t working on it for 17 years – I started my career, met my wife, and started a family during that period – but when Sonny was fired I realized we had reached a crossroads in CSU football history, and I was inspired to get the book done.”
Quite the Collector
While researching Aggies to Rams, Hirn began another labor of love: acquiring pieces of CSU sports
history. Former players he had interviewed started to give him old jerseys, helmets, and other pieces of Rams history. Others followed, and then Hirn took his collecting to another level by seeking out memorabilia online.
“It’s amazing what you can find on eBay,” he said.
In 2012, Doug Max, CSU’s senior associate athletics director for facilities, enlisted Hirn to set up a CSU Sports Hall of Fame display at Moby Arena. It has become a must-see campus highlight – a place where the history of CSU sports comes alive. Trophies, jerseys, game balls, programs, pennants, and dozens of other forgotten treasures now are displayed in glass showcases.
Hirn, the director of sales for Fort Collins-based Rodelle Inc., never stops collecting. He still gets donated items from former athletes and fans, and he’s always checking eBay to see if a new CSU jewel has come up for bid.
He said his “holy grail” goals include finding the football used for the famous “bounce pass play” in a 1966 game when CSU beat Wyoming, and recovering the championship banners that once hung from the rafters in Glenn Morris Field House.
And, not surprisingly, he has raised his three children to be Rams fans. He and wife, Nicole, are longtime season ticket-holders for CSU football and volleyball. Ideally, his kids will attend CSU and have their own life-changing Rams experience.
“They have been instructed that it’s OK if they don’t go to CSU,” he said, laughing. “But if they go to any school located in Boulder or Laramie, they will no longer be part of the family.”