In the years that we've known and loved Bill McCartney, one absolute has been clearly established: Nothing the man does should come as a surprise.
Yet when McCartney announced his resignation following the Buffs' regular-season-ending victory over Iowa State, it was as if Newt Gingrich had thrown his support behind clothing allowances for transsexuals.
Remember, people, this is not your average cheat-'em-and-beat-'em football coach we're talking about. This is Bill McCartney, Coach Mac. The man who once tried to hypnotize his players before a game. You expect rationality?
From his first moments on the CU campus, McCartney let it be known that his style would be, shall we say, unique. While most coaches poor-mouth their teams' chances in the meaningless preseason media rounds they must endure, McCartney would make outrageous predictions and guarantees, usually based on nothing more than that vision thing he is famous for.
You remember. He once had a vision about changing a vaunted Buff running attack to a pro-set passing offense. It was a reasonable enough idea, except that it came at a curious time--two weeks before the Blockbuster Bowl. This particular vision went down hard for those most directly affected by it--the players--who went on to be smoked by Alabama.
"You can only work on so much in two weeks," McCartney explained afterward.
Then there were his players. Subjected to everything from Boulder's constitutionally shaky "fighting words" ordinance to a mostly Caucasian community mindset that never has gotten the hang of L.A. African-American, McCartney's players seemed to beat a path to the police station. The headlines alone were enough to drive a normal man into hiding, but McCartney simply carried on as if the impressive rap sheets his recruits were compiling were nothing out of the ordinary. "What price glory?" asked Sports Illustrated, opining that "there are a few things a University of Colorado campus policeman won't leave the office without: handcuffs, his copy of the Miranda warning and a University of Colorado football program."
The rape charges and burglary incidents were particularly embarrassing, especially when one player stole $10,000 worth of equipment from the athletic department and several championship rings from his teammates' lockers. No one seemed surprised, though, when McCartney angrily defended his players and blasted the media for having the nerve to write about these incidents. In 1989 he stood up for two players who had been arrested for alleged rape, saying the definition of rape should be limited to "a violent act whereby real physical violence is involved." Thank you, Coach Mac, for that bit of enlightenment.
Then there were the political battles. McCartney may be the only coach in America to have been both vilified and defended by the ACLU. In his first season, before he renounced the Catholic religion and went fundamental, he brought in a bishop to offer a team mass. The ACLU viewed this as a violation of the First Amendment, since it promoted religion in a publicly funded university setting. And in 1985 McCartney was forced to abandon his pre-, post-, and mid-game prayer sessions as well as an unconstitutional drug-testing program. By then, however, his successes on the field allowed him to assume a kind of Super-Christian aura that precluded calls for accountability. In both ACLU victories he dismissed the Constitution as irrelevant to his purposes, yet when he was defended in 1989 by the ACLU for speaking at an Operation Rescue rally, he embraced his constitutional rights to free speech. Expediency, don't fail me now.
When he called a press conference in 1992 to declare homosexuality an "abomination" and to say that men and women who don't reproduce are sinners, he was reprimanded by CU president Judith Albino, but by then it had become quite clear that McCartney would do and say as he pleased. What did he have to lose? After his national championship in 1990, CU had given him a fifteen-year contract that allowed him to opt out after five years (the clause he recently exercised) with a ten-year, $140,000-per-year golden parachute in hand. He had endured the pain and embarrassment of his daughter's liaison with the late Buff quarterback Sal Aunese that produced a child. But equally significant, he had achieved control of the media and was rarely criticized or even questioned about either the workings of his team or his own actions, including his heavy involvement with the neo-Christian, right-wing group called Promise Keepers, which McCartney is credited with founding and for which he almost certainly will assume a more prominent role.
When asked to explain the reasons for his resignation, McCartney trotted out the one he has used for years: family considerations. But after the birth of his daughter's baby in 1989 and the 1990 national championship, he lamented his failures as a husband and father in his book From Ashes to Glory in terms almost identical to the ones he used in his resignation.
The difference between then and now is Promise Keepers and its stunning success. In 1991, when McCartney joined forces with Colorado Springs Christian-radio mogul James Dobson and other Christian evangelists to form a group that would encourage men to take control of their families through whatever means necessary, he managed to attract a meager 4,200 mostly white males to Folsom Field. In 1992 attendance was 22,000. In '93, it was 50,000, and last summer 52,000 wailing men rose to do The Wave, shouting "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus." Backed up by a Christian rock band playing "Born to Be Wild," featured speaker Chuck Swindoll roared onto the stage on a motorcycle to deliver his speech on the glories of marital fidelity.
Not to be outdone, McCartney, described by Newsweek as the hit of the weekend, mounted the platform surrounded by members of his football team and delivered a rambling, Hemingway-esque speech about risk-taking, death and winning, punctuated by anecdotes from sports and the Bible. He called his wife to the podium "to show 'em how the Black and Gold do it," and promptly bent her backward and planted a big kiss on her mouth.
The success of Promise Keepers has been nothing short of phenomenal, even by evangelical standards. According to copies of the group's 1992 and 1993 tax records obtained by the Dallas Morning News, Promise Keepers had revenue of $4.1 million and expenses of $3.8 million for the fifteen-month period ending December 31, 1993. The 1994 budget has grown to $22 million, and the group has opened offices in Texas, California, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and Washington, D.C. They expect to attract 600,000 men to twelve or fourteen rallies next year and have plans to go international. They hope to lure 1 million men to the Washington Mall in the summer of '96, just in time for the presidential election, which is by no means an accident of timing. In a speech that parallels Jesse Helms's recent warning to the president to bring a bodyguard with him should he visit military bases in North Carolina, Swindoll sent his message to the White House last summer at Folsom. "Mr. Clinton," he said, "we're going to come visit you at your house in '96." Who better to lead the charge than the Elmer Gantry of the gridiron?
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The religious right has developed a nice little plan to attract ex-athletes to its fold, sponsoring former football stars J.C. Watts and Steve Largent for Oklahoma congressional seats, and it has apparently made overtures to Phoenix Suns star Charles Barkley about coming aboard. Largent's campaign manager worked for former Bush education secretary William Bennett. McCartney for senator isn't beyond comprehension.
In the meantime, surprise is hardly the appropriate response to McCartney's resignation, and there are few good reasons to look beyond the obvious, since Coach Mac probably doesn't really know why he up and quit. It's kind of like he told the Promise Keepers last summer: "There is no end to this. We've only just begun. We have a bond we can't explain and the world can't understand."
Former Westword columnist Teri Thompson writes from New York City, where she's a law student. Bill Gallo returns from vacation next week.