SEEING THE LIGHT

Coach Bill McCartney's faith has endured in trial and triumph at Colorado
December 31, 1990

Bill McCartney has religion, so sue him. Religion is not the easiest thing to wear on one's sleeve these days, or, in McCartney's case, in his every aspect. It's as inseparable as his humped nose and the space between his front teeth. It's at the backs of his eyes and in the bass note of his sublimely low, flannel-covered voice. It's in his serious, muscular austerity. It's also awkward-making; it causes people to look at him just a little, well, funny.

It doesn't mean that McCartney can't be a regular guy, a guy who likes his Cheers reruns in his easy chair or who sits around with his three sons watching football on Sundays, whooping and bragging, "Looks like they got a hold of my high school highlight tape." He's a guy who likes to win as much as the next, and who, in his 8½ years as coach at Colorado—which will almost certainly win the national championship if it beats Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl next Tuesday—has built a team known for both its successes and excesses. McCartney doesn't drink, smoke or swear, but he does have his vices. He needs his several jolts of coffee in the morning, and if you want to see some very uncharitable behavior, lay a parking ticket on him. Those vices he lacks are made up for by his wife, Lyndi, whom he met in a bar in college and who docs drink and smoke, a little. "Somebody in the family has to," she says.

Maybe the best way to view McCartney's highly personal brand of religion is to recall the words of H.L. Mencken, who said, "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."

McCartney, who was raised a Catholic, now attends a nondenominational church called the Vineyard and prefers not to be labeled anything. The Vineyard is a small, California-born church of about 100 congregations that falls somewhere in between fundamentalism, charismaticism and Pentecostalism. There is much music and tears and laying on of hands for healing purposes, but there is also a lack of pretension. McCartney's pastor, James Ryles, says, "We are somewhere between Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart. We are real people facing real struggles and looking for real answers."

A self-described unassuming man, McCartney finds that he is a national figure out of all proportion to his intentions. "I was just going to be a guy who strategized a little," he says. "A guy who won some and lost some." But his religious fervor got him into trouble even before his team became a big winner. In 1984, the American Civil Liberties Union protested his attempts to impress his beliefs on his team, and last season he was criticized for speaking at an antiabortion rally. "Usually, it makes people uncomfortable," he says of his faith. Mainly, it opens McCartney to charges of rank hypocrisy, especially when he seems to behave in a manner more coachly than Christian.

If you are a fervent believer like McCartney, you are not supposed to accept a victory over your alma mater, Missouri, that came on a notorious fifth-down play at the end of the game as he did on Oct. 6. Your 20-year-old daughter, Kristyn, is not supposed to bear a child out of wedlock by your star quarterback, Sal Aunese, as she did in the spring of 1989. And you are not supposed to recruit all of these startling, and sometimes trouble-making, star players from California and Texas, and then state unrepentantly, "Let's face it, you can't win without talent." You are probably not supposed to guide these players into two straight national championship games, either.

"When you take a stand on spiritual things, there's a much greater accountability you have to accept," McCartney says. "There are two sides. One is really pulling for you. One is waiting for you to fall down."

Perhaps as a result of his stands during his years at Colorado, it seems that McCartney, 50, has been falling upward. There has been a low for every high and a high for every low. He arrived in Boulder in June 1982, having previously been the defensive coordinator under Bo Schembechler at Michigan. His first two Buffalo teams finished 2-7-1 and 4-7. In '84 he suffered through a 1-10 season and heard calls for his dismissal. In '85 McCartney, who had emphasized passing in his first years at Colorado, switched to a run-dominated offense, and the Buffs went 7-4 and got a trip to the Freedom Bowl.

By then, McCartney had begun attracting outstanding talent to Boulder, but from 1986 to '88, two dozen of his players were either charged with or convicted of offenses ranging from disorderly conduct and brawling to rape. The incidents led to criticism that McCartney had not been properly discriminating in his recruiting, that he wanted to win at any cost.

In the spring of 1989, shortly after Kristyn gave birth to Aunese's son, Timothy Chase McCartney, the quarterback was found to have stomach cancer. While Aunese struggled against the disease that fall, the Buffaloes embarked on an 11-0 regular season. Aunese died on Sept. 23, and at a memorial service McCartney for the first time acknowledged that the quarterback was the father of his grandson.

The Buffaloes have gone the last two years without significant disciplinary problems, but those seasons have hardly been uneventful, as Colorado amassed an extravagant 21-2-1 record with victories over both Oklahoma and Nebraska each year. The Orange Bowl will be a rematch of last year's teams; that game was won by the Irish, 21-6, ending Colorado's strange season of grief and exultation.

The Aunese ordeal is viewed by McCartney even now as "overwhelming." While he coached in the middle of it and wrote a book about it, Lyndi recalls very little other than just trying to get through it. "There was so much pain," she says. "When you're a little kid and you get pushed down, if you have some grit you get up real fast and say, 'O.K., hit me again.' That's kind of how we've been. But we never got up angry." They might have, given the sometimes ugly public scrutiny focused on Kristyn, who lives at home with Timothy while she works at a local restaurant and takes classes at Colorado.

"What could be more delicate or sensitive?" McCartney says. "A young coed in a small college town being talked about. She was a victim of being my daughter. She's dealing with it. Being a single mother is not uncommon, but it has its curves."

McCartney could draw solace from his team's 10-1-1 record this season, but there has been controversy there too. The Buffaloes beat Missouri 33-31 at Columbia when backup quarterback Charles Johnson scored on a one-yard run with two seconds remaining. The game should have ended on the previous play, but the officials mistakenly awarded Colorado a fifth down. McCartney has insisted that had he known the correct situation, he would have run a scoring play on what was actually fourth down (though the down marker indicated that it was third), instead of calling for Johnson to stop the clock by spiking the ball. McCartney has ignored suggestions that a true Christian would hand the victory to the Tigers. He complained instead that Missouri had allowed its field to become muddy in order to slow down Colorado's fleet backs, a protest that was seen as ungracious.

Whatever else McCartney seems to be, it's apparent that he is a successful program builder. The Buffaloes won only seven games in the three seasons before his arrival; under him, they have received five bowl invitations in the last six years. His standing at Colorado is such that president Gordon Gee, who was about to leave for the same job at Ohio State, and athletic director Bill Marolt, unworried about risk or appearances, extended him a 15-year contract in July.

McCartney doesn't profess to be anything other than "a Christian who coaches." He has the particular temperament—stubbornness, naiveté, ego, loyalty, paranoia and inventiveness—that always seem to attend the job of head coach. He's a coach at home. "Why are you stirring it that way?" he asks Lyndi as she stands at the stove. He coaches on how to carve a turkey. "Why did you buy that color?" he asks, pointedly. Or, "Don't you think it's time to go to bed?"

"He coaches all of us, in all areas," Lyndi says. "Finally you have to say, 'Oh, give me a break.' "

McCartney was already a coach when he was seven or eight, growing up in Riverview, Mich., just outside Detroit. In touch football games, he called the plays. He was always the one who brought the catcher's mitt and chest protector to the baseball diamond for Little League. He was also, even then, a churchgoer. "I had a heart for God," he says. He got it from his father, a Marine and an auto worker who put in 10 hours a day, six days a week. "I'm a lot like him," McCartney says of his father, who taught him the Notre Dame fight song and The Marine Hymn before he learned Jingle Bells.

And, like his father, he was a Catholic. After Timothy was born and Aunese's cancer was diagnosed, McCartney was troubled by the effect of all this on his family and began to feel that their trips each Sunday to their Catholic church had become rather lifeless. So, after 48 years as a Catholic, McCartney embraced his somewhat obscure brand of evangelism and joined the Vineyard Church in the spring of 1989. McCartney soon became such a fervent follower of Ryles, the Vineyard pastor, that one afternoon as he and Ryles were playing golf, McCartney mentioned that some members of his team wanted a prayer service on game days, and he asked if Ryles would lead it. That spring, he made him the team chaplain.

"What exactly do you want me to do?" Ryles said.

"Just do what you do, only quicker," McCartney said.

Ryles says that the services are attended by about 25 members of the team, and he stresses that they are strictly voluntary. McCartney has been sensitive to that question ever since the ACLU came down on him. It demanded that McCartney cease leading the team in prayer and threatened to take him to court in the wake of a local magazine story entitled "God and the Gridiron," which suggested that players were recruited and earned starting positions on the basis of their beliefs. McCartney strongly denied the charge then and still does. Any prayers now are led by players. But McCartney's irritation at being spiritually policed is evident, and it led him two years ago to consider taking the coaching job at Southern Methodist, before Colorado reminded him that he already had a contractual obligation in Boulder.

McCartney's demands upon himself are more than spiritual. He decided that, for his 50th birthday on Aug. 22, he wanted to weigh what he weighed at age 30, 195 pounds. An incorrigible snacker, he weighed 210 before he suddenly abstained for several weeks. On his birthday he confidently stepped on a scale. The needle hovered at 197. McCartney stepped off, shed every stitch of clothing and stepped on again. As the needle came to rest at 195, McCartney, naked and exultant, thrust a fist in the air and yelled, "Yes!" He has applied the same sort of single-mindedness to building his team. When he succeeded Chuck Fairbanks as coach, McCartney said that it would take seven to 10 years before Colorado could realistically compete with Big Eight powers Oklahoma and Nebraska. "I always thought I could get it done," he says. "The question was whether I would be given the time." He recalls watching teams on the opposing sideline and wondering what it would be like to coach that sort of talent.

"We'd come out all excited and enthusiastic and highly motivated," he says. "And they'd come out strutting. They already knew what we didn't want to believe, that we were just overmatched."

In 1984, the Buffaloes beat only Iowa State. "There is a grace period for coaches," McCartney says. "And mine had run out." However, Marolt took him at his word that the talented freshmen McCartney was collecting by posting four recruiters full-time in California would mature soon, and midway through that 1984 season he extended McCartney's contract for five years. McCartney would make Marolt look brilliant.

At the same time, McCartney was showing a certain flair for promotion. It struck him after his first season that Colorado didn't have a true rival. So he made one up. He picked on Nebraska as the Buffaloes' "red-letter" opponent, circling the day of their game in red on the schedule. He forbade anyone to wear Cornhusker shades of red around the football offices and feigned horror whenever he encountered the color on the street. In 1984 he sent an open letter to all Colorado fans asking them not to sell their Nebraska game tickets to any Cornhusker fans, because he needed to protect the home field advantage and was sick of seeing his own stadium full of red. It worked. "He has a plan," Marolt says. "He knows what he wants. He has a good public relations sense and a good political sense."

Nothing, however, equals McCartney's recruiting touch. He can talk birds out of trees with that mellifluous voice. But, above all, he knows the value of back-breaking persistence. "You shake the bushes harder, push harder, make more phone calls, send more postcards," he says. California's population of 29 million began to yield players. The 1990 roster has 36 Californians, including two Heisman candidates, running back Eric Bieniemy (who finished third this year) and quarterback Darian Hagan (who finished fifth last year), and All-America offensive guard Joe Garten.

Some of the Californians were, like Garten, what you might call discount specials. A number of schools, including Arizona, Oregon and Washington, backed away from Garten because he had a problem with a biology requirement and faced possible academic ineligibility. McCartney was one of the few coaches who expressed confidence in him; he also promised to play him early and often. Garten went on to pass the course the summer after his senior year of high school.

"He didn't treat me like a piece of carpet," Garten says. "A lot of coaches blow smoke up your butt. He never did."

But McCartney was also bringing an uncomfortable slice of real life into Boulder, a picturesque town where it is said former student Glenn Miller used to play his horn in the foothills under his headlights, and where an average of one murder is committed every three years. Along with McCartney's wholesale talent came wholesale problems: the string of criminal acts committed by his players and, in the case of Kristyn and Aunese, unplanned parenthood.

The three-year stretch of bad behavior among the Buffaloes could be attributed to two things: the difficulties of black, urban athletes adjusting to an isolated campus community, which has fewer than 400 blacks among its 24,000 students, and McCartney's own inability to supervise his charges. Marolt acknowledges that Colorado has accepted a number of student-athletes considered to be at risk, academically and socially. "Sure, we recruit in the margin," he says. "But that's not to say it's a bad policy. It says you have to be prepared to support and teach them to develop, in the classroom, in football and socially."

McCartney and school officials have tried to do that in the past two years, with psychological counseling for the players and programs on such issues as date rape. Gee, who personally helped in recruiting, defends the caliber of players who were brought in by McCartney. Gee points to a 70% graduation rate and the absence of recent lawlessness. "I think we did have some problems, and the coach acted appropriately in dealing with them," he says. "I think we have the last laugh."

But more effective than any program has been McCartney's no-second-chance rule. For a first offense, a player is suspended for one game. For a second offense, he is suspended for the season. At the beginning of last year McCartney suspended his two starting cornerbacks for a year. He began this season by suspending Bieniemy for Colorado's opener against Tennessee, after Bieniemy was given an eight-month deferred sentence and 48 hours of community service for pleading no contest after an altercation with a fireman who was attempting to put out a blaze in Bieniemy's parents' garage.

Bieniemy was outraged at the severity of his penalty, and all of the Buffaloes suffered when they played Tennessee to a 31-31 tie. But Bieniemy remains a McCartney loyalist. "I'll back him any time, even if we've had our ups and downs, because he loves and respects me," Bieniemy says. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hurt, disappointed. But I don't ever second-guess him."

"What I learned is that you've got to have rules with real strength," McCartney says. "If you compromise or vacillate, the problems will reoccur. So if anything has changed here, it's that I have firmer standards and I don't compromise them.

"It's not a win-at-all-costs thing. I do believe we needed tighter standards and I demonstrated too much compassion where I shouldn't have. But now the players are winning, and they're winning big and they're graduating. That tells the whole story."

McCartney may have seen the error of his ways in his initial dealings with his players, but he is otherwise unrepentant. He has no intention of turning down the volume on his beliefs. "Coaching has provided me with notoriety and visibility, to the extent people listen to what I say," he says. "I'm compelled to share my faith. I'm not ashamed. It's very prominent in my mind and heart, and I won't compromise that."

Colorado is obviously comfortable with that position. Gee was the moving force behind McCartney's 15-year contract, which he called an experiment in relieving a proven coach of win-at-all-cost pressures. "He's a guy who feels deeply, and he'll just say it," Gee says. "That's often not smart politically, or media-wise. I'd characterize him as painfully honest."

McCartney's way seems to be working. "Last year we did something it had taken a hundred years to do, and people were saying, 'Better enjoy it because it could take another hundred,' " Marolt says. "Lo and behold, we're here again." Donations to the athletic program have doubled in the last year, and a new $12 million multisport complex is under way. Colorado is plainly in a state of euphoria.

In the McCartney household on a late fall afternoon, however, the elation was muted. Upstairs a small boy was napping. On a mantel was a picture of Aunese, draped by a hand towel he had used during games. What satisfaction Bill and Lyndi may feel about the season is undercut by memories of last year, the fifth-down controversy and some fatigue with it all. "Over the last 18 years I've watched football crowds grow drunker and more vicious," Lyndi says. "There's so much frustration in the world, and it's encroaching."

In the quiet, closed-off setting of McCartney's home or office, he is a serene man who puts a picture on his wall of every player who graduates. Only very recently, and grudgingly, has he learned the most obvious lesson of the 1980s and '90s as social forces intrude on college athletics: These games are no longer just games. "There's no book you can read and know what to do," he says. "There's nothing I've done that prepares you for all of that, or for this arena. And I don't claim to be capable now."