Putting His House in Order

Bill McCartney quit as Colorado's coach for a greater quest: healing his family
January 16, 1995

Almost immediately after Colorado's 41-24 Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame on Jan. 2, Bill McCartney vanished. He took the coach's communion of Gatorade and disappeared, evaporating into some religious ether of his own making. He was in Sedona or Tahiti, or maybe in Boulder, still packing up. He was leading his Promise Keepers, one of the fastest-growing Christian groups in the U.S., to salvation. You heard different things. But he was no longer available for football, that was for sure. Quit, retired, gone nuts, take your pick.

How else do you explain walking away from a job like McCartney's? What man gives up such power and prestige as he enjoyed after 13 remarkable years at Colorado? He won a national championship four years ago and nearly did it again this season. Put another way, what man walks out on a $350,000-per-year contract with 10 years remaining? So that he can spend time with his wife and his god? There is a word for this behavior. "Un-American," says McCartney, laughing softly.

Unreal is more like it. Ever since McCartney announced at a press conference in Boulder on Nov. 19 that he would resign after the Fiesta Bowl, his Colorado constituency has gone crazy trying to figure him out. The Buffalo faithful have long learned to accept McCartney as complicated; his forays into religion and conservative politics have pained many, including the school's administration. But there wasn't any blemish on McCartney's public record that couldn't be redeemed by, say, an 11-1 season and a good thumping of Notre Dame. So what could this so-called retirement really be about?

There were rumors, of course: A native of Riverview, Mich., and a former Michigan assistant, he is angling for the Wolverine job; he's embarrassed that his unmarried daughter, Kristy, having already given birth to a son fathered by former Colorado star Sal Aunese, has borne another child out of wedlock, by a current Buffalo player; he's burned out; he's at odds with the higher-ups at Colorado; his marriage is in bad shape; he's on a weird religious mission. The stories are all out there, and at least one of them is apparently true—in November 1993, Kristy gave birth to a son, Derek, whose father, she says, is Shannon Clavelle, a junior defensive tackle from New Orleans.

But McCartney says the explanation is simple. He is quitting to spend more time with his wife of 32 years, Lyndi, and he waves all other explanations aside. He does admit that all is not perfect with his family—his concern about Lyndi would indicate as much—and he blames only himself. As a religious zealot whose standards for others are impossibly high, he is accustomed to suffering criticism when his own life is less than righteous. "Has Bill McCartney done everything right?" he has said. "No, [he's] just a sinner saved by grace."

Before he scheduled his disappearance, telling the local media at his press conference that "not one of you will be able to find me," McCartney sat for one last interview. It took place in his office overlooking Folsom Field, and he affected an air of hopeful resignation. He knew that by speaking of his reason for leaving, people would think him a head case. His notions were too radical for many. Then again, the idea that a man's marriage might take precedence over all else might make sense to someone. You just never knew.

He was also aware of the possibility that nobody would believe him. There was evidence that his own house was in disorder and that his exit was a desperate move to invest his personal life with the storybook qualities that his religious beliefs demand. Even Kristy, 26, whose relationships with McCartney's players have produced a measure of small-town shame, wonders if there is something to that. "I'm not saying what has happened with me made my father quit, but it's probably apart of it," she says.

In the spring of 1989, in an event that has become part of Boulder lore, Kristy bore the son of Aunese, the team's quarterback. It was a messy affair in that Aunese disdained her and only acknowledged paternity after a blood test. It was made all the more painful when cancer was diagnosed in Aunese. He died on Sept. 23, five months after Timothy was born.

McCartney did not publicly discuss his grandson until Aunese's memorial service, when he praised Kristy for not having had an abortion or leaving town. He has since spoken only warmly of Aunese and remains supportive of his daughter.

Then in February 1993, Kristy told her parents that she was again pregnant by one of McCartney's players. "I had been dating Shannon for a while, which they didn't like," she says, "but I was a grown woman, 24 years old. They couldn't tell me what to do. When I did tell them I was pregnant, they were hurt and upset, but completely supportive."

According to Kristy, Clavelle only occasionally provides money for 14-month-old Derek's care, and he visits infrequently. Clavelle would not comment on his relationship with Kristy, but two Buffalo players told SI that Clavelle had said to them that he is Derek's father.

Kristy has consulted with a lawyer, who has advised her to wait until Clavelle leaves school before pursuing him for child support. Clavelle will decide this week whether he will forgo his senior year of eligibility and enter the NFL draft.

During her second pregnancy Kristy felt it was necessary to leave town. "I know what people would say," she says. "I've heard their mean things so many, many times before. I try to ignore it all, but this time I had to get out." A licensed masseuse, she is now out of work and says she's "depressed a lot, lonely." She feels she has been a victim in a Boulder morality play. There are few greater burdens, it would seem, than to descend from a self-made preacher.

McCartney remains fiercely protective of his daughter. Sitting at his desk, McCartney freely admitted that he neglected his children—he and Lyndi also have three sons—as they were growing up, instead spending all his time "with someone else's kids," implying that if he had been around more, maybe things would have turned out differently for Kristy. Later, when told what her father had said, Kristy sighed and said, "I would say that's right. We missed out on a lot."

Although McCartney won't put it in these terms, people who share his religious convictions might wonder if he has been punished for the sin of ambition—if, while McCartney did not sell his soul to the devil, he did lend him his family. He has been criticized in the past for the type of player he has recruited in a relentless search for talent. As SI reported (Feb. 27, 1989), between 1986 and '89,24 Buffaloes were arrested on charges that ranged from sexual assault to criminal trespass. In 1988 Aunese served 14 days in jail after pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault. And there have been other incidents since then. In December, Clavelle was convicted on an assault charge and received an 18-month deferred sentence.

But would McCartney, sitting behind his desk now, admit that Kristy's pain contributed to his regret and to his desire to leave coaching? "It's not so," he says calmly. "It's just not so."

Actually, he says, it is his wife who requires his attention. If you believe him, his retirement is only the logical extension of his religious beliefs, a stew of ideas that combines ultraconservative politics with idealized concepts of marriage. But McCartney promises you that he was simply overcome by a creeping conviction to overhaul his life. He allows that this is the most unsettling explanation of all, because it means it could happen to you.

McCartney's beliefs are the same ones that animate the Promise Keepers, an all-male evangelical movement he cofounded in 1990. The movement takes rigid family-value ideas from here and there, then puts a thoroughly male spin on them and, thriving on what is clearly an anti-feminist backlash, is playing these days to rallies that draw crowds of 50,000 and more. In addition to taking harsh stands against abortion and homosexuality—McCartney has publicly referred to gays as "stark raving mad" and called them "an abomination against Almighty God"—the Promise Keepers proclaim the primacy of the man in the household.

Some of these ideas are, to say the least, controversial. But another of these, the most benign of them, has lately taken possession of McCartney and prompted him to renounce ambition, greed and vanity—some of the things required of any successful football coach—and embrace a Utopian idea of marriage. This epiphany has been a surprise to him, too; of all the lives he hoped to change, he never figured to transform his own.

"The glory of a man is his wife," McCartney says. His words sound scripted, but the intensity with which he utters them is unnerving. "Nothing tells you more about a man than what you see in his wife. When you look into the countenance of a man's wife, you will see everything he has invested or withheld. You will sec what kind of character he has."

McCartney knows that coming from a football coach this sounds like oddball stuff. His apparent sincerity is winning, but, as with any person of outsized convictions, you must wonder if he has gone off his head. What in the world had he been thinking about, up in this office? Wasn't he diagramming plays? How had he gotten his bowl-bound team to 10-1? At one point in the interview, struggling to make a point, McCartney sprang from his chair and took a Bible from a cabinet. It was stuffed with notes, scraps of paper, junk. You realized that his fervor had carried him to another realm, perhaps made him useless for this one.

His passion is now single-minded, ever since he was forced to recognize the neglect—"the pain, struggle, sacrifice and denial"—in Lyndi's face. Although it's clear that he and Lyndi have not always been completely in step (though she declined to be interviewed for this article, in an interview with SI in 1990, Lyndi noted that she smoked and drank, adding lightly, "Somebody in the family has to"), McCartney insists that there was no crisis that compelled him to a career change. Rather, at the semiyouthful age of 54, he recognized an opportunity to make up for his selfishness. "Many of our best years are ahead of us," he says. "I don't want to be [spending time with her] as a result of some adversity, some catastrophe. I want to do this while we both have a lot of energy and excitement about our lives."

If Colorado boosters or school officials tried to talk McCartney out of his decision to quit, they must have been profoundly frustrated. His devotion to this new idea appears to be total. During this interview assistants scurried in and out, one of them handing McCartney a sheet of paper that actually had X's and O's on it. McCartney would not be distracted. Notre Dame was small potatoes next to the larger issue that consumed him.

"I see an opportunity to put everything on a back burner and have a marriage become all it's capable of being," he says. "That's what's in my heart, and nothing else. I know it's almost un-American to quit your job, and I know it sounds arrogant, because not everybody can do it. But not everybody has a job as demanding or taxing as being a head football coach. I recognize this is not conventional thinking, but it's very much my thinking. And I wasn't always in touch with that. But now that I am, it's the most compelling, convicting thought that I have."

If McCartney's departure is as simple as that, it would be truly amazing, because nothing else in his life has ever been organized around a single principle. His life has been a veritable battleground, the imperatives involved in running a big-time college football program clashing with those of a would-be spiritualist. In fact, it has been great sport in Colorado these past few years to measure the coach's pragmatism against his religious convictions. McCartney-watchers point to his graceless reaction to Colorado's victory at Missouri in 1990, the school's national-championship season, in which the winning touchdown came on a "fifth down," courtesy of the game's befuddled officials. McCartney said he might have considered allowing the Big Eight to reverse the outcome had Missouri not maintained an unfair advantage during the game with "unplayable" turf. And were his moral standards somehow suspended during that period in the late 1980s when he recruited a team better known for its rap sheet than for its on-field record?

McCartney is immune to such accusations of hypocrisy, though possibly not to criticism from his bosses. He recently lost a prized recruit, Rafael Cooper, a running back from Detroit, when the Athletic Review Committee turned down his admission on academic grounds. And then there was the censure from Colorado president Judith Albino in 1992 when McCartney, in a team sweater with a school banner flying behind him, used a press conference to voice antigay views. The confusion of personal beliefs and football was trying the patience even of boosters.

"The feeling is that his agenda has become pretty crowded lately with his right-to-life stuff, the family values, Promise Keepers," says a longtime member of the Buff Club, the school's booster organization. "To be a football coach takes a great deal of energy, and the feeling is that he doesn't have it anymore. He deserves tremendous credit for what he's done here, but his decision is timely, and I'm not mourning his departure, nor are, really, most people I know in the club."

Never mind that McCartney was still delivering the goods. He was too consumed by this idea of his to fit in with this old life much longer. "Over the last three weeks, I've seen a woman radiant." he said. "She knows I love her more than football. If you could just see the glow on Lyndi's face, you'd understand. Because it's real clear now, what's more important. Lyndi's more important."

This is a hard-won realization. His old friend Tom Versaci says, "Mac has always put football first. Lyndi has had to contend with a lot of late meals, a lot of missed meals, and she's been hurt a lot.

"Trust me. Mac wants to be coaching right now. He could have written his own ticket to several big programs, but he has said, 'No, I want this time with my wife.' He's trying to play catch-up with his family, to make up for the last 30 years."

Will we be able to watch McCartney, to the extent that we can locate him, and find out if this is possible? Can we learn exactly what a man can make up for? Or will he satisfy our cynicism and, a year from now, plunge back into coaching?

The last we saw of him, he seemed happy. He seemed delirious. It was after the Fiesta Bowl, Colorado had won, and he was saying a final goodbye to his players, his coaches and supporters. He embraced his wife and his daughter—his young grandchildren played nearby—and said, "A huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I am at peace."

And then, as if unburdened of his secret regrets, he and his wife vanished, left for Sedona, or Tahiti. Or maybe just Boulder. How would we know?

PHOTOCHRIS COVATTABefore the Buffaloes' win over Notre Same, McCartney paced the field alone at the Fiesta Bowl. PHOTOCHRIS COVATTABill says he saw his neglect reflected in Lyndi's face. THREE PHOTOSCHRIS COVATTAThe paternity of Kristy's son Timothy (below, with her) was conceded by Aunese (opposite, far right) before he died; she says her second son is by Clavelle (92). PHOTOCLIFF GRASSMICK/BOULDER DAILY CAMERAMcCartney, whose group insists on the primacy of men, says he's "a sinner saved by grace."

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