By Mark Ellis
When Coach Bill McCartney took over as head coach of the University of Colorado football team it was one of the worst programs in the nation. But just as McCartney’s life had been transformed by Jesus Christ, Coach “Mac’s” Christ-centered influence changed Colorado football during his emotional and sometimes controversial tenure on the road to a national championship.
The dramatic journey is chronicled in a documentary released recently from ESPN’s award-winning 30 FOR 30 series, “The Gospel According to Mac,” which explores Coach “Mac’s” impact on the University of Colorado (CU) football team from 1982 to 1994. After his retirement from CU football, McCartney devoted his time to “Promise Keepers,” the men’s movement he founded.
Without a doubt, “The Gospel According to Mac” is one of the finest documentary productions that has appeared on television this season or any season.
30 For 30 briefly describes McCartney’s early years, coaching high school football and basketball in Detroit. “As a young coach I was full-throttle. It was all-consuming,” McCartney recounted to ESPN. He became the only coach to win the Michigan state championship in football and basketball in the same year.
During his first year as a high school coach, he married his college sweetheart, Lyndi Taussig, who grew up in Santa Monica, California. Lyndi devoted herself to raising their four children, while her husband spent long hours coaching. “She was a perfect coach’s wife: gorgeous, she was amazing – and she liked me,” he told ESPN.
Early in his career, McCartney began to struggle with alcohol. “When you win you want to tip a few, so we would go to a saloon and have a few drinks and sometimes more than a few. I started to struggle with wanting to drink. I should have been home,” he confessed on the documentary.
University of Michigan Coach Bo Shembechler noticed McCartney’s success on the field and hired McCartney for his staff. The moved brought a change in McCartney’s life he didn’t expect.
A dramatic change unfolds
One of the players on Michigan’s team invited McCartney to a Campus Crusade for Christ conference in 1974. “The guy speaking said, ‘You must be born again. You must be born of the Spirit of God,” McCartney recalled.
“As a Catholic growing up I never heard that before. He showed it to me in the Bible (John 3) and I knew the Bible was the Word of God so I was born again. I invited Jesus Christ to come into my heart and take dominion in my life.”
The impact was transformative. He began to arise before dawn to read Scripture, prayed regularly over his children, and fasted every Wednesday and Friday. With all the zeal of a new convert, he evangelized friends, neighbors and even strangers. It was a ”compulsion,” he said in an interview.
After McCartney’s life-changing encounter with Christ, he knew he had to deal with a demon in his life – heavy drinking. “One of the things I did was to get down on my knees and I said, ‘Lord, take away alcohol. Lord, give me victory over alcohol.’
“He did. He took it away. I haven’t had a drink in over 40 years,” McCartney told ESPN.
After eight years as an assistant at Michigan, he interviewed for the head coaching position at CU. “In my interview with Arnold Weber, President of the University of Colorado, who was Jewish, I took a chance. I looked him in the eye and I said, ‘You need to know that I’ve given my life to Jesus Christ. He lives and reigns in my heart. He’s my Savior, my Master, and my Redeemer. He’s my all in all.’
Weber paused, sat back in his chair, and said, “Really…” McCartney wasn’t sure if his brash declaration had cost him the job. But then Weber surprised him by saying, “That’s awesome!”
McCartney took over an anemic program that lacked any semblance of a winning tradition. At the time, the Colorado Buffaloes played in the Big 8 conference with two dominant powerhouse teams, the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Oklahoma Sooners.
Barry Switzer, head coach at Oklahoma from 1973-88 told ESPN, “Oklahoma and Nebraska, we were that much better than everybody else. This is not being braggadocios, but we were the best programs in college football.” One season, they scored 82 points on CU.
In the pre-BCS era, the Big 8 champion played in the Orange Bowl, often for the national championship.
A new rivalry and fresh accusations
After McCartney arrived at CU he looked around and asked, “Who is our rival?”
“We don’t have anybody like that,” he was told.
At the next press conference Coach Mac stood up and said their rival would be from the neighboring state — powerhouse Nebraska! His pronouncement brought scoffing and ridicule from all quarters. Nebraska’s coach at that time, Tom Osborne, “didn’t pay too much attention” to McCartney’s seemingly foolish pronouncement.
Coach Mac’s first three seasons were failures at CU. In his third season, the team only had one win. A whispering campaign began, alleging that Coach Mac was improperly favoring Christians on his team.
“Factions on the team began to feel like Coach McCartney was playing favorites towards kids that were more religious, Assistant Coach Gary Barnett told ESPN. “We did a prayer at the end of every practice. I don’t know that it was mandatory, but the players felt like it was mandatory. The ACLU got involved and he got a lot of criticism and it was a mess.”
The university came down hard, publicly reprimanding McCartney and prohibiting him from expressing his personal religious views in his role as coach.
“They said we don’t need to hear about any of that. Shut up about that kind of stuff,” Coach Mac recalled. People in the community viewed him as a “freak” – “a religious nut.”
Many felt CU had made a mistake hiring him. “I didn’t want to read the paper,” Coach Mac recounted. “Everywhere I went I wanted to wear a disguise.”
Mac’s secret weapon
While the university attempted to reign in Coach Mac’s faith, when he was on the road recruiting, he felt less constrained, and developed a secret recruiting weapon. At many homes, after he first arrived, he would tell the recruit to “get lost” for two hours. His plan was to win over the mom first, and spent much of his time talking about his faith – and even reading the Bible with the recruit’s mother.
“I was not ashamed of my faith. Many times in the African American community, mom is a woman of faith,” he recognized. After McCartney’s sincere, heart-to-heart talk the mom would often say to her son, ‘I know where you’re going; you’re going with him!’ (Coach Mac).
Colorado and Nebraska had an intense recruiting competition for Sal Aunese, a top quarterback prospect from
Vista, California. When Aunese committed to CU, Coach Mac threw a party. “Look out the Buffs are back!” he declared.
With Aunese, Colorado had back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in a decade and was ranked in the top 20.
Trouble with players
Even as the team began to win, there was trouble brewing off the field. A number of the coveted African American players recruited from “the hood” got arrested for brawling at local watering holes, allegations of rape, and shoplifting. In the 1988 season, 27% of the team had been arrested, primarily for misdemeanors, but they often involved physical violence.
People in the community leveled charges that Coach Mac had put together a group of “thugs” and “gangsters.”
“At Michigan we recruited the great black athlete. I felt we couldn’t win without the great black athlete,” Coach Mac noted. “It wasn’t true in every person’s mind but that’s how I felt.”
In 1988, the population of Boulder was less than 1 % African American. On Campus, among 23,000 students, fewer than 400 were black. A cultural clash was almost unavoidable. McCartney wisely enlisted an African-American professor on the campus, Dr. Wil Miles, to help counsel some of his young student athletes – and his intervention and involvement helped defuse the crisis.
But one controversy followed another. Coach Mac’s daughter, Kristy, lived on the same dorm floor with quarterback Sal Aunese and they “hung out a lot.”
“He was so much fun to be around,” Kristy related to ESPN. “He had a way of drawing people in. You wanted to be a part of whatever he was doing.”
Her feelings for him began to grow. “He didn’t love me. I was in love with him. You could say I was chasing him a little bit.”
Then disaster struck. The coach’s daughter – the daughter of a high-profile Christian coach – became pregnant with the team’s star quarterback. Kristy was mortified as she sat between her parents to share the news. “I blurted it out, ‘I’m pregnant.’”
“I didn’t even know she was dating the quarterback of my team,” Coach Mac admitted later to ESPN. “I called him (Aunese) in my office and he was scared to death. But I never blamed him. I blamed myself. I should have been a better father. I should have met the needs of my daughter in a more fulfilling way. For her to give herself outside of wedlock was an indictment of my leadership.”
As he faced the frightened young man fidgeting in his office, Coach Mac did not erupt in anger; he extended grace. “I explained to him that his position on the team was not jeopardized.”
“The important thing is, what are you going to do from here on?” he asked Aunese. “If you don’t love her don’t marry her,” he told the young man. “If you’re not ready to lay down your life for her, don’t marry her. If she doesn’t capture your heart, if you can’t stop thinking about her, don’t marry her,” he said.
Aunese started squirming in his chair. “I could tell that he had had sex, but he wasn’t totally in love,” McCartney realized.
When Kristy heard about her father’s encounter with Aunese, she was upset. “I remember being devastated by that…it was hurtful. I didn’t feel like he stood up for me.”
Her first reaction was to have an abortion, but her father reacted strongly against that course. “He said no; we’re raising this child.”
Instead of leaving town, Kristy chose to stay home to be closer to family and friends, but she was unprepared for the reaction by some in the community. “Bill’s religion was so public there was a perverse pleasure in what was going on here. There were cries of hypocrisy,” a local journalist recalled.
“I had no idea of the scrutiny that was coming,” Kristy told ESPN through tears. “I remember being surprised by how mean people were. At the Nebraska game there was some drunk guy yelling at the top of his lungs about me and what a slut I was. It was pretty brutal.”
In 1988, Aunese continued as Colorado’s quarterback and led them to a bowl game, but in that game the star quarterback was not his usual self; he was so unproductive that McCartney replaced him with the second string quarterback and Colorado went down to defeat. In the ensuing weeks, Aunese continued to struggle with a mysterious ailment.
In March 1989, team doctors insisted that Aunese check himself into the hospital for tests. While there, doctors made the shocking discovery that the young man had developed a rare type of stomach cancer that had already spread to his lungs and the lymph nodes around his lungs. Doctors said his cancer was inoperable and gave him six months to live.
Kristy and Sal’s baby arrived April 24, 1989. Named Timothy Chase “T.C.” McCartney, the new life coincided with the baby’s father’s tragic diagnosis. “Sal came to see T.C. and when he came to the hospital he said he wanted to talk to me alone and he apologized for the way he treated me. He said he couldn’t wait until we could take T.C. to the park,” Kristy told ESPN.
When Aunese showed up for training before the next season, it was obvious the cancer had progressed. Emotionally impacted, the team dedicated the season to him. “When I went to see him at the hospital as he was fighting for his life,” Coach Mac told ESPN, “I told Sal that I loved him and I had always loved him. I made sure he knew I didn’t hold any resentment.”
On Sept. 23, 1989, Aunese died of complications of stomach cancer at age 21. Prior to the funeral, Coach Mac had never publicly acknowledged the situation between Aunese and his daughter.
At the emotion-filled service for the fallen star, Coach Mac turned to his daughter from the lectern. “Kristy McCartney, you’ve been a trooper. Kristy, you could have had an abortion. You could have gone away and had the baby somewhere else to avoid the shame, but you didn’t. You stayed and you’re going to raise that little guy. Kristy I love you, I admire you. I love you so much.”
Aunese had written a letter to the team before he died, boldly charging them to win the Orange Bowl in the coming season. When it was read by Sal’s sister at the memorial, the team knew what they needed to do.
For the first time since 1965, an inspired Colorado team beat Oklahoma 20-3. One week later the Buffaloes hosted undefeated, third-ranked Nebraska. They beat Nebraska 27-21 to win a trip to the Orange Bowl.
At the Orange Bowl, they faced unbeaten Notre Dame. In practice a few days before the big game, Lou Holtz inexplicably told his players: “Colorado had been living a lie all year.” Holtz’s statement leaked to the press.
The Colorado players took it as a grave offense, thinking his words insulted their dedication of the season to Aunese. An infuriated group of Buffaloes took on Holtz and the Notre Dame team for their final game of the season. But Notre Dame was more accustomed to the pressure of playing in big games.
Colorado’s heartfelt dedication of the ’89 season to Aunese fell short. Notre Dame beat them convincingly, 21-6.
Undaunted, the team set a goal to return to the Orange Bowl for the 1990 season. They had a tie, a win, and a loss in their first three games – not exactly a great start for a team that aspired to be number one in the country. In the next game, they came from behind to beat 22nd ranked Texas 29-22.
Two games later they beat Missouri with the help of one of the most controversial plays in college football history. They beat Missouri in the final seconds due to a mistake by the referees that gave Colorado a fifth down –a final shot to get into the end zone from short yardage.
It was as if God had blinded the eyes and confused the minds of all the referees at once – a seemingly impossible occurrence.
Afterward, when the mistake was discovered some thought the ethical course for McCartney as a Christian would be to forfeit the win. He complained about the condition of the artificial turf that day, which caused his players to slip and slide throughout the contest. Some never forgave him for accepting the win, but he was unapologetic.
After three more wins, Colorado played Nebraska for a return trip to the Orange Bowl. A fan on the Nebraska side had a sign that read: “Where is Sal now?” which disturbed and infuriated the team.
Despite the fact that Colorado’s star running back, Eric Bieniemy had four fumbles, Colorado only trailed Nebraska by 12 points going into the fourth quarter. Then Bieniemy redeemed himself by scoring a record four touchdowns in the fourth quarter, leading the Buffaloes to victory, 27-12, and a second straight trip to the Orange Bowl.
Return to the Orange Bowl
It was an emotion-charged rematch with Notre Dame. The game turned into a defensive battle, with Colorado ahead 10-9 with a minute left on the clock. Colorado was due to punt the ball to Notre Dame, who had Raghib Ramadian “Rocket” Ismail waiting for the return.
Rocket Ismail was one of a few players in the country with the explosive potential to score on the return if he got the ball into his hands.
Coach Mac considered ordering the punter to kick the ball out of bounds or out of the end zone. Confident in his kicker’s abilities, he instructed the young man to kick it out of the end zone. Inconceivably, however, the kicker lofted the ball straight into Ismail’s waiting arms. Time seemed suspended as the players on the Colorado sidelines watched what happened next.
After breaking a tackle that seemed certain to bring him down, Ismail zig-zagged, broke free, and ran 91 yards for a touchdown that appeared to clinch the win for Notre Dame. But after a few seconds of pandemonium, a yellow flag was noticed near the sidelines. The touchdown was overturned due to a controversial clipping penalty. Colorado won the game and a share in the national championship. The twists and turns of an improbable season seemed ordained from above to some observers.
Later, QB Charles Johnson said, “I thought Mac was right. Jesus was really on our side. Jesus was a CU Buffs fan.”
The Associated Press voted Colorado number one at the end of the season, while UPI voted Georgia Tech number one, so it was a split national championship.
Coach Mac is filled with gratitude about the memories he’s carried with him from that inspired season. “To this day I celebrate the team, I honor them, appreciate them, I’m thankful to them that they gave me the opportunity to share that with them. We had that together. We did that together,” he said.