Bill McCartney has never been able to stop thinking about men. When he landed in Boulder in 1982 as the new coach of the University of Colorado's moribund football program, he had a wife and four kids. But he had to find some young men to make his dreams come true.
A Type A+ personality and a demon for work, McCartney recruited blue-chip athletes--along with quite a few thugs--and built a team that hit hard on the field and broke laws off it. At one point in the Eighties, his team's off-field behavior was so scandalous that it made national headlines. He himself was tempestuous: A female office assistant told McCartney to his face that he was like "Jekyll and Hyde."
But he persevered, and in 1990 the Buffs won the national championship. Looking back on that victory in Sold Out, his second autobiography, which was published this past November, McCartney proudly notes that he "had built the program on the Rock of Christ."
Coach Mac wore his Christian zeal on his sleeve and trumpeted "family values," and that made him an easy target for liberals. But what did he care? He had revived a football program. Why not revive a whole country full of men? And so the seed for Promise Keepers was planted.
At the time, Coach Mac was a member of a five-man group called Face to Face. Among the members was his pastor and golfing buddy, James Ryle, of the Boulder Valley Vineyard Christian Fellowship, who was the Buffs' team chaplain. The men went on retreats together (sometimes their wives tagged along) and made big plans together. Most important, they prayed together. Bill McCartney astounded his friends with his fervent desire to pray.
Formerly a raging drunk, he claims he overcame his bad behavior by praying. He would get up at 4 a.m. and pray. His house had a separate room for prayer. He prayed to resist temptation. He prayed for his friends. He prayed for gridiron glory.
"I knelt down each morning and prayed a blessing over Lyndi," Coach Mac recalls in Sold Out. "Before my sons and my daughter left the house, I would rest my hands on their heads and ask God's blessing, power and healing over them...But I was not fully connecting; I was not entering into their lives...Work was always there, and the prayers that frequently filled my head pled with God to extend His favor on CU the next Saturday."
But, as wife Lyndi points out in Sold Out, he never prayed with her.
"Bill believed his struggle against alcohol was his exclusively," Lyndi writes. "It probably never entered his mind to share his pain or the intensity of his struggle with me. We were both Christians, but he didn't see me as a source of spiritual support; so he never asked me to pray for him or even with him so we could combat this stronghold of the enemy together."
But he had no problem getting intimate with other men. Encouraged by such evangelists as Colorado Springs religious broadcaster James Dobson, in 1990 McCartney began filling stadiums with "manly men" who were "hot for Jesus." In early 1992 he injected himself into the debate over gay rights by speaking out on Amendment 2. This man, who had patted 100,000 male rumps in his lifetime, who'd prayed privately only with men and had pledged his heart to a man named Jesus, declared that the sexual love of men for other men was an "abomination" before God.
He smooched his wife on stage at Promise Keepers rallies to show what real love was all about. In Coach Mac's view, women were created to "help" men. Men were to lead, women--"vessels of honor," his church calls them--were to follow. He dreamed of a Jesus-loving society led by men who had sex only with their wives and who made the decisions for their families.
But Coach Mac also took some innovative stances. Boldly going where few other white, conservative evangelical Christians had gone before, he denounced racism and preached "reconciliation" with people of color. He backed up his words by publicly bonding with black men, hugging them and praying to Jesus with them.
Meanwhile, his marriage was falling apart. Lyndi McCartney plunged into a severe depression in 1993; her husband, caught up in reviving men, had ignored her for decades.
"For years I permitted this crucial teammate--by God's own definition the most accurate reflection of my true love for Him--to lie dormant, without clear leadership or direction," Coach Mac later wrote. "My pride, my deep-seated rugged individualism, got in the way of seeing what God intended for the marriage partnership--'I will make a helper suitable for him' (Genesis 2:18)."
And what of the other female in his family? Daughter Kristy, too, had been neglected by Coach Mac--but not by his players. She was impregnated out of wedlock twice, first by a quarterback and then by a lineman.
Recalling her childhood under Coach Mac, she writes in Sold Out: "The biggest thing for me was he just wasn't around. He was never there to really know me. Growing up, his absence spoke rejection of me, that I didn't really matter much to him. That was awful. Now I realize he probably just didn't know how to relate to a girl. He definitely related better to my brothers, because they were boys."
In 1994 McCartney dramatically announced that he was sacrificing his coaching career so he could spend more time with his family, particularly his wife. He quit his high-paying CU job and vowed to repair his marriage.
Instead, he responded to the entreaties of his prayer partner Randy Phillips, who came to him in stocking feet with a message from the Lord that he should become the CEO of Promise Keepers. Much to his wife's chagrin, Coach Mac continued to pour all of his energy into changing other men's lives. Well, almost all: He also became a motivational speaker for waterbed salesmen. McCartney's main focus, however, was Promise Keepers. He continued filling stadiums full of men, built a $100 million operation and launched a remarkable revival that swept the nation.
It all culminated in last October's Stand in the Gap rally in Washington, D.C. Beneath the towering Washington Monument, McCartney asked hundreds of thousands of men to join hands and pray and hug one another and proclaim their undying, obedient love for Jesus.
"Interestingly," he writes in Sold Out, "I can see how God lifted me to an unmerited position of national prominence in sports, first, in order to provide the public platform to launch Promise Keepers."
Now 57, Coach Mac has a life that more than ever revolves around men. Last year's rally thrust him even further into national prominence. From its north Denver office, Promise Keepers has spread into a highly intricate national network of men's groups. Like McCartney's own Face to Face group, these men are supposed to pray together, take control of their families and work together to change society. That scares Coach Mac's critics, who fear a political agenda.
And even on the home front, the women in Coach Mac's life sometimes don't know what to think about his life's work.
"At first, I didn't understand the impact of Promise Keepers," Kristy writes in Sold Out. "Once I did, I was just in awe of what God was doing with men. But I confess, at times I've felt my dad was a hypocrite. Sometimes I thought, 'You've got a lot of nerve saying those things. You don't have your own house in order.'"
A single mom raising two biracial kids, she now works in the Promise Keepers Racial Reconciliation Department. "I know Dad has always done his best," she writes. "I know he loves me, even though it's still hard for him."
Mired for years in the background of her husband's life, Lyndi McCartney finally got to have her say in Sold Out--and even got her name in small type on the cover. "Men, go ahead and call yourself a promise keeper, even though you will fall short of that ideal repeatedly," she writes. "My husband was on the stage, speaking at ten PK conferences before he realized how much he needed to change his relationship with his family. It took ten times, but he finally got it!
"I vowed to take him 'for better or for worse.' I didn't know it would take over thirty years for it to start getting better.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.