The old coach is watching football on television. Sometimes he goes to games in person, like the evening before, when he went to cheer on the nearby high school team that his son coaches. Sometimes he catches the games from his living room recliner, like on this brilliant fall morning, when he’s picking through a chef’s salad and marveling as the Kansas State Wildcats roll up the score on the Texas Longhorns.
The old coach still carries on a running monologue when he watches football. He can’t help himself; he has to be careful at his son’s games to avoid yelling out loud, leading people to point up at him and say, Isn’t that … ? But now he points at another old coach on his screen, a snowy-haired wizard named Bill Snyder, who happens to be virtually the same age, and who happens to still be coaching college football.
“That’s amazing,” the old coach says, and I agree that, yes, it is, and then I ask him a question I’d already asked him the day before, but couldn’t help revisiting: I ask him whether he ever thinks of doing what Snyder did at Kansas State, whether, after retiring so suddenly and so prematurely, he ever feels a tug to return to the only profession he’d aspired to since the age of 7 (and reportedly aspired to again a few years back). I ask him, in so many words, if he ever wonders what his life might have been, or if he ever feels anything resembling regret for walking away from football coaching 20 years ago, in the prime of his career. And the coach replies exactly the same way he had the first time.
“Over-the-Hill Bill,” he says, jabbing a finger at his chest.
David Zalubowski/AP Photo
The old coach’s name is Bill McCartney, and he led the football team at the University of Colorado for 13 seasons, so I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that he seems to have sharpened his aphorisms to near perfection. “I can do an interview,” he says. “After a game, when the media fills the room, that’s my strength. Going and talking to the Buff Club, I could do that. The Bible says we all have unique spiritual gifts, and my spiritual gift is Romans 12:8. My gift is exhortation.”
The pithy little mottoes, the metaphoric anecdotes, the inspirational speeches: They come naturally to him, the way they flow off the tongues of preachers and pitchmen. They’ve become an organic part of his conversation, and they’ve carried him through the difficult and occasionally awkward discussions that attend the life of any man in his mid-seventies, particularly one whose professional and personal life were subject to such public scrutiny. “Over-the-Hill Bill” is McCartney’s way of saying, Any regrets I have are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. “Over-the-Hill Bill” is one way of acknowledging that his life has ultimately always been in the hands of a higher power.
He’s 74 years old now, and he lives on a quiet cul-de-sac in a Denver suburb called Westminster. He’s a widower who seems to enjoy playing as much golf as he can, and so perhaps “Over-the-Hill Bill” is not an inaccurate characterization. But all those autumns ago, when McCartney first began heeding the pangs that would draw him away from football, he was 54, the same age Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is now. His Buffaloes had won at least eight games in each of the previous six seasons, and had claimed a share of the national championship in 1990. His 1994 team was in the midst of putting up an 11-win season (including the Miracle at Michigan and a Fiesta Bowl victory), and his running back, Rashaan Salaam, was on his way to rushing for more than 2,000 yards and winning the Heisman Trophy. McCartney had already turned down one high-profile job, at Southern Methodist, and he surely would have been a candidate for other weighty jobs if he’d stuck around.
But the revelation came down, and McCartney heeded it.
Maybe, on the surface, the story of a man whose religious convictions intertwined with his relationship to football doesn’t sound particularly unique. Those two things have often merged, and in the modern era they often merge uncomfortably; there have always been (and still are) dozens of coaches who clung so deeply to their faith that it became part of their public identity, and therefore became a political flashpoint. But in the midst of the evangelical revival of the 1980s, in the wake of the Clinton-era surge of the religious right, McCartney became the first coach to so forcefully blur the line between preaching and football, stepping away from the sport he loved to help foment a religious movement.
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His life has been shaped by a series of revelations. The son of an autoworker, he grew up near Detroit, a devout Catholic who attended church nearly every day, and yet he still felt as though something were missing from his religious life. He was the defensive coordinator at Michigan in 1974 when one of his players, Chuck Heater, enticed him into attending a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting. From there on, McCartney says, he chose to devote his life to Jesus Christ; from there on, he could not stop himself from both compulsively heeding and spreading the message. He began fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, and he prayed over his children, and he preached the gospel to anyone who would listen. He says he beat his drinking problem without attending a single Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and that after he beseeched the Lord to help him quit smoking — he was up to two packs a day — he did so cold turkey.
“I’ve never been close to smoking or drinking again,” he says. “Why? The Lord took it away.”
And so in the fall of 1994, McCartney had another revelation while sitting in church with his wife, listening to a visiting speaker named Jack Taylor. The way McCartney tells it, Taylor was in the midst of sharing the three most important things he’d learned over four decades of preaching. “If you really want to know about a man,” McCartney recalls Taylor saying, “and if you want to know what kind of character he has, you need only look at the countenance of his wife.”
McCartney told this story in the first of two autobiographies he wrote, and has held on to it ever since. I have no reason to believe it’s anything but true, yet as with most of the story of the old coach’s life, there are complicating factors. McCartney may have been one of the first coaches who really did retire prematurely to spend time with his family, but the reasons behind that decision are far more complex than any lone sermon could ever hope to encompass.
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McCartney arrived in Boulder in 1982, inheriting a destitute and directionless program that had gone 7-26 in three seasons under the previous coach, Chuck Fairbanks. Almost immediately, McCartney conjured the idea of declaring Big Eight foe Nebraska a rival, even though the Cornhuskers were peaking under Tom Osborne and Colorado had not beaten Nebraska since 1967. He recruited the best players from within the state, and then he extended his reach to hotbeds like California and Texas, crafting a stem-winder of a sales pitch that extolled the picturesque virtues of both the town of Boulder and the college at its center.
McCartney never considered himself a great tactical coach; often he would sit in positional meetings and take notes, because he felt he could learn things from his assistants. When the Buffaloes failed to succeed with a wide-open passing game that attempted to replicate Brigham Young’s, McCartney readily embraced a wishbone offense similar to Nebraska’s option. He went 2-8-1 in his first season, and 4-7 in his second, and 1-10 in his third, a disastrous campaign during which his best player, tight end Ed Reinhardt, nearly died from a head injury. That fall, McCartney’s contract was up; Bill Marolt, the coach of Colorado’s ski team, had just been promoted to athletic director, and the pressure was bearing down on both of them.
“I thought about where we were and where we were going,” Marolt recalls. “I thought about what Bill’s résumé was, and what he brought. I thought what the program really needed was continuity and consistency.”
And so he renewed McCartney’s contract.
A short time later, in December, McCartney was profiled by the Boulder Daily Camera’s Sunday magazine. He told the newspaper that religion “affected every area of my life”; his players talked about saying grace before team meals. One of them, Alan Chrite, told the newspaper they could earn preferential treatment by adhering to McCartney’s ideals, and another, Loy Alexander, said certain players felt pressure to abide by McCartney’s precepts. In a college town with a reputation for progressivism, these complaints drew the attention of the Boulder chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. So McCartney, a university attorney, and Marolt met with the ACLU’s lawyers and drew up a policy mandating that employees disassociate themselves from the school when expressing religious sentiments.
“I remember it well,” says Judd Golden, longtime president of the Boulder ACLU. “It was very surreal in some ways. Coach McCartney was saying, ‘I don’t see what the problem was.’ He just was somewhat oblivious about all this.”
McCartney tells me he never actively recruited an athlete based on his religion. He says he never mandated a team prayer, and that the chapel services he held were voluntary. He says he tried to walk a fine line, especially after the ACLU helped Colorado impose its policy. But, he asks, what was he supposed to do? Back in 1974, at Michigan, he’d heard a call; he’d had a revelation, and for him not to share the truths he’d been convinced of felt like a dereliction of duty.
“What is the role of a man who has strong spiritual convictions?” he says. “What rights does he have when he’s in secular company? Does he impose his faith? Those are tough questions. To have the balance to walk that straight and narrow path and not offend, it’s an imperfect science. You don’t want to impose your faith, but you don’t want to be ashamed of your faith, either. Jesus said, ‘If you’re ashamed of me, I’ll be ashamed of you.’ Just because you work for a state university, that doesn’t give you a free pass.”
In 1985, McCartney’s Buffaloes went 7-5 and played in the school’s first bowl game in nearly a decade. It was one of the most impressive turnarounds in the country, and after a 6-6 season in 1986, the program continued to improve. In 1988, the Buffaloes went 8-4 before losing in the Freedom Bowl. Their quarterback was a California kid named Sal Aunese, and he would soon become linked to McCartney’s legacy in ways the coach never could have foreseen.
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Midway through the Kansas State game, McCartney changes the channel to UCLA-Colorado on the Pac-12 Network. He gets up and stands over the television set, slips on a pair of reading glasses, and squints hard at the picture. “I don’t see him,” he says, and I point out the player he’s looking for: no. 95, a defensive end named Derek McCartney, a redshirt freshman who shuttles on and off the field depending on down and distance, and who happens to be the old coach’s grandson.
Since McCartney left following the 1994 season, the Buffaloes have largely struggled to achieve the same national profile, churning through multiple coaches with ties to McCartney’s own tree. His relationship with the university is better now (he actually has seats in a luxury box that he gave away on this October weekend), but it hasn’t always been that way; the polarizing nature of his tenure, not to mention his tendency toward radical honesty, has occasionally complicated his dealings with the school. After Dan Hawkins was fired in 2010, McCartney expressed interest in the job, but according to reports at the time he was never considered a top candidate; in 2012, when Colorado fired one of his former players, Jon Embree, after just two seasons, McCartney questioned whether the decision had something to do with Embree being black.
Derek grew up in the house next door, where McCartney’s daughter, Kristy, raised two children as a single mother. The way time has circled back around to place a McCartney at Colorado 20 years after the first one left is a hell of a tale, but in this story, one can also find the complexity of McCartney’s legacy laid bare; in the link between Bill and his grandsons, Derek and T.C. — and in the public struggles of their mother — one can see why some people in Boulder still view McCartney as a self-righteous hypocrite.
In the offseason between 1988 and 1989, Kristy, then 19, told her parents she was pregnant. The father was Aunese, the Buffaloes’ quarterback. Two months before the baby, T.C., was born, Aunese was diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer. He died in September, with the Buffaloes on a bye week in the midst of an 11-0 regular season that would end in an Orange Bowl loss to Notre Dame. The Aunese tale became a rallying point, an inspirational headline as the Buffs kept winning; the fact that Aunese and Kristy had fathered a child together1 was an open secret, and McCartney wrote in his first autobiography of the anguish it caused him and his wife when Aunese distanced himself from their daughter in his final days. If the whole thing weren’t real, it would have felt like a daytime soap opera, and it opened up McCartney to the charge that he was more in control of his football program than he was his own family, and that all of his moral posturing presented a false front behind which his own house was crumbling. Which wasn’t entirely untrue.
“The whole thing was a national story, it wasn’t just a local story,” McCartney says. “We’re all sinners. We all fall short. What was it like for her to be in a home where her dad’s the head coach at a major university and her brothers are all athletes? If you’re a young girl growing up in that environment, that can’t be easy. Because she was attracted to one of my players, that shouldn’t be surprising. What if I had done a better job of being a father to a daughter? Then she might not have given herself out of wedlock.”
After Sports Illustrated reported on a series of player arrests at Colorado,2 and after McCartney won a share of the 1990 national championship, Kristy got pregnant again, with Derek, who was born in 1993. The father was another Colorado player, Shannon Clavelle, and the gossip about Kristy was vicious and cutting; a Denver alternative newspaper, Westword, wrote such a scathing piece that McCartney admitted in his first autobiography to briefly wanting to kill the story’s author.
“The bottom line is, ‘Did you get the job done?’” McCartney says. “And the obvious answer is, ‘I came up short.’ But these two guys that came out of this, I love them with all my heart.”
Through it all, McCartney continued to proselytize. In 1989, he was heavily criticized for speaking at a rally for the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, but because he’d disassociated himself from the university, the ACLU actually wound up defending him. In 1990, while driving to Pueblo, Colorado, for a Fellowship of Christian Athletes conference, he and a friend named Dave Wardell came up with the idea of bringing together groups of men to celebrate Jesus. It began with about 70 people, and by the following summer it had grown to 4,200; in 1992, they gathered 22,500 men in Colorado’s Folsom Stadium, and in 1993, the numbers swelled to 50,000. In the summer of 1994, they drew 275,000 men to six different venues throughout the country.
Promise Keepers was not designed as an inherently political organization, but with McCartney campaigning against abortion and declaring homosexuality an “abomination,” it soon became one. It drew criticism from women’s groups and liberal critics, who viewed it as a conduit for antifeminist thought and far-right ideals, and it also drew criticism from local churches for detracting from their work by operating outside of their structure. Promise Keepers would peak in 1997, with a gathering of men more than half a million strong on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.3 The group’s influence swelled to the point that a GQ article likened McCartney to Hitler, but by the end of the decade, the organization’s cultural moment had already begun to pass. “As the movement’s signature event, Promise Keeper conferences were designed to be spectacles,” wrote author John Bartkowski in his book The Promise Keepers: Servants, Soldiers, and Godly Men. “They were intended to entertain as well as edify. And the problem with a spectacle is it needs to be outdone by something more spectacular and more stimulating the next time around.”
While Promise Keepers still exists, McCartney has minimal involvement. But the ideas that McCartney espoused? The notion, for instance, of traditional male-female roles within a marriage? He still advocates for their validity.
“The only way a marriage works is if you lay down your life for your wife,” he says. “A man has to serve his wife and enable her to be everything that God created her to be.”
This was the backdrop for McCartney’s revelation in the fall of 1994. He readily admits that he was not giving up as much as it appeared by walking away from coaching, since the growth of Promise Keepers (both in terms of membership and revenue) had been occupying more and more of his time, and since the notion of coaching football at a public university while also presiding over a burgeoning movement had become an increasingly precarious task.
In his first autobiography, he wrote that over the previous summer, he listened to some cassette tapes of a preacher named John Maxwell, who had recorded a series titled “When to Quit Your Job.” And so on that day in church, after considering Lyndi’s countenance, McCartney became determined to resign from what was then one of the best football coaching jobs in the country. He told only his pastor and his wife, and eventually a few close friends with whom he prayed. To the rest of the college football world, McCartney appeared to be content atop his profession, once again a candidate for national coach of the year (as well as for the Michigan State job that would open up following George Perles’s ouster).
On the morning of the final game of the 1994 regular season, McCartney called Marolt and asked to meet with him. Marolt walked into McCartney’s office, and McCartney told him he was resigning. Marolt was stunned. “The whole community was flying high at that point,” Marolt says. “I don’t think anybody anticipated Mac was going to take that step.”
He tried to talk McCartney out of it, but he could also tell that McCartney had already thought it through. In the midst of his success, McCartney had signed a 15-year contract with the university, and this was the first year he could opt out. The media was both skeptical and perplexed; in the Rocky Mountain News, columnist Bob Kravitz wrote that McCartney was “an extraordinary and contradictory man.” And even now, all these years later, the coach’s legacy is opaque. Even now, McCartney knows, there are people in his own community who view his values as antithetical to their own.
“Not everybody wants a coach who has those strong spiritual convictions,” McCartney says. “It’s offensive to people. It challenges the core of who we are. I’m saying this life is temporary, and the next life is eternal, and when you hold convictions like that and you’re at a public university, you can see how that would not be digested so well by everybody.”
Karl Gehring/Denver Post/Getty Images
In retrospect, it’s almost disconcerting how publicly forthcoming both McCartney and Lyndi were about their marriage and personal life. After McCartney published his second autobiography in 1997, Lyndi gave an extensive interview to the New York Times, in which she said she suffered from bulimia and had contemplated suicide in the year before McCartney’s resignation; the McCartneys’ longtime pastor told the Times that Bill had confessed to committing adultery back in the 1970s.
Factor in all of this additional complexity, and McCartney’s resignation starts to feel a little less startling and a little less like a sudden revelation. Here was a man who came to his decision after years of witnessing his family struggle, who was drawn away from his relationship with football by an even stronger relationship with a higher power. Whatever his faults, here was a man who recognized his inherent imperfections and has spent much of the past two decades of life attempting to right them.
“Here’s a picture for you,” McCartney says. “The game’s over, and you talk to the team, and you meet with the media, and you walk out, and you know who’s the one person standing outside the stadium, waiting for you? Lyndi. I loved her with all my heart, and that’s why I got out of coaching. A man’s job is to serve his wife and enable her to be everything that God created her to be. I enjoyed coaching too much. And that’s what pulled me out of it.”
McCartney says things got better after his retirement; his four children have said the same.4 Even if you don’t agree with McCartney’s conception of what a marriage should be — even if you find his views wrong-minded and antiquated — it’s still hard not to recognize the decision McCartney made 20 years ago as an attempt at self-sacrifice. He failed and succeeded, succeeded and failed, and at 74 there is not much left for him to do but embrace his family and await that final revelation.
He gets up again. He points me to a glass-encased board full of pictures hanging beneath the kitchen counter. He says, “That’s Lyndi.” I can see his eyes getting glassy; in 2013, Lyndi died from complications of emphysema. He lives alone here now, in this living room, surrounded by his children and his grandchildren, awaiting the eternal, attempting to atone for his sins and his shortcomings the best way he knows how. In the background, the football game plays on, but at least for a moment, the old coach seems to have forgotten it’s even there.
Michael Weinreb (@MichaelWeinreb) is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.