BOULDER — Bill McCartney first set foot on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder in June 1982; little did he know at the time that just over a dozen years later he would retire as the winningest coach in CU football history.
And now the turnaround “Mac” orchestrated in Boulder with a program that won just 14 games over a six-year span to one that claimed three Big 8 Conference titles and the 1990 consensus national championship is being rewarded on college football’s biggest stage.
McCartney has been selected by the National Football Foundation for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame this December 10 in New York City. He will join 12 players and two coaches in the Class of 2013 (complete list at end of release).
He will become the seventh Buffalo enshrined in the Hall, joining Byron White (inducted in 1952), Joe Romig (1984), Dick Anderson (1993), Bobby Anderson (2006), Alfred Williams (2010) and John Wooten (2012). He is the school’s first coach to be so-honored.
“It’s a surprise and it is very humbling when you look at the men that have been recognized with this honor over the years,” McCartney said. “It’s very gratifying and rewarding. Keep in mind I’ve been out of coaching almost 20 years, so to be remembered after such a long absence was a complete surprise to me.”
McCartney was 93-55-5 in 13 seasons at the reins of the Buffaloes, guiding the program to its first and only national championship in football in 1990, doing so by playing the nation’s toughest schedule, just the second time that feat was ever accomplished. He coached CU in more bowl games, nine, than anyone before or after him, as well as to three consecutive Big 8 titles in 1989-90-91 during a run of 10 consecutive winning seasons in league competition. After a 4-16-1 start in conference games, the Buffs finished 58-29-4 against Big 8 competition, going an impressive 54-13-3 over his last 10 seasons.
In the six-year span from 1989-94, Mac’s last six seasons, Colorado was 58-11-4, the fifth-best record in the nation behind Miami, Fla. (63-9), Florida State (64-9-1), Nebraska (61-11-1) and Alabama (62-12-1). CU’s 36-3-3 record in the conference games in the same period was the nation’s best. CU finished in the nation’s top 20 each of those six years, including a No. 3 ranking his final season.
All 93 wins came against Division I-A/FBS competition, with just nine against so-called non-BCS schools (though five of those versus in-state rival Colorado State). He coached the most games ever (153) at Colorado, with his 13 seasons are second to only the legendary Fred Folsom (15) in the number of seasons working on the “hilltop.”
“This is one of our strongest classes of Hall of Famers,” said Steve Hatchell, the president and CEO of the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame. “Mac had tremendous support and received a strong vote from the Honors Court. We’re very proud to have someone like Bill McCartney make it into the Hall, and he will be part of the first class to be enshrined in the new Hall of Fame in Atlanta in the summer of 2014.”
“Bill McCartney is the seventh Colorado affiliate to be recognized by the College Football Hall of Fame,” said Philip P. DiStefano, chancellor of the Boulder campus. “This honor is both a testimony to the legacy of our program and to the hard work and vision that culminated in the 1990 national championship. We wish him all the best in receiving this award.”
“Coach McCartney possesses a relentless passion for his profession and the Colorado Buffaloes,” CU athletic director Mike Bohn said. “We join his coaching staff, players, loyal fans and alumni in congratulating him on this national recognition."
Mac was quick to credit two specific groups for his election to the Hall.
“It all started with my first recruiting class, that winter of ’83,” he recalled. “I asked all the in-state players not to make a decision until they visited CU, and we wanted them to come in the last weekend before signing day. They gave their word and most of them held to it. They stuck together, and they helped recruit our great class in ’87 that made up the core of the national championship team.
“That’s how I am in the Hall of Fame,” he said boldly. “This means something to the state of Colorado, it’s part of our history. What led us to the national championship is that seven years earlier, the in-state kids stayed home.”
He also had great assistant coaches through the years, coaches he only hired because they could recruit; he would pass on coaches they were great with X’s and O’s if they couldn’t recruit.
And those who worked under him formed a pool that eventually would produce 11 future collegiate head coaches: Gary Barnett, Jim Caldwell, Ron Dickerson, Gerry DiNardo, Karl Dorrell, Les Miles, Rick Neuheisel, Bob Simmons, Lou Tepper, Ron Vanderlinden and John Wristen.
McCartney, 72, had coaching in his blood almost from the get-go.
“When I was 7 years old, I knew I was going to be a coach,” he said. “My friends, other kids at that age were going to president, businessmen, attorneys, firemen. Ever since I was a little kid, I imitated my coaches, critiqued them, always followed and studied them. I was a student of the great coaches. I was a disciple of Bobby Knight’s when I was (high school) basketball coach.”
McCartney attended the University of Missouri on a football scholarship and lettered three times as a center-linebacker for the Tigers. He played in two Orange Bowl games and was named second-team All-Big 8 as a senior.
He graduated from Missouri in 1962 with a degree in education and immediately turned his attention to coaching. His first job was as an assistant at Joplin (Mo.) High in 1963 and 1964. He then returned to Michigan to coach the basketball team at Holy Redeemer High School in Detroit. He coached there from 1964 to 1968.
The next stop for Mac was at Divine Child High in Dearborn, where he was the head basketball coach from 1969 to 1973 and the head football coach from 1971 to 1973. His ’69 hoops team won the Detroit Catholic League title, and his ’73 team won the state class B crown. His three Divine Child football teams compiled a 30-5 record, winning the DCL title all three years and the state championship in ’71 and ’73.
His feats of winning state title in football and basketball in 1973 made him the first coach ever in Michigan high school history to win both the same season, and it would serve as his entry into the college ranks.
“After we won the state championship in both sports, (the University of Michigan’s) Bo Schembechler and Johnny Orr both offered me an assistant’s job within one week of each other,” McCartney said. “I played college football but wasn’t good enough to play college basketball, so that settled that,” he jested. “My first love really was football, and being a Michigan native (born and raised in Riverview), to become a part of Schembechler’s staff was the opportunity of a lifetime.”
He joined the Michigan coaching staff as a defensive aide in 1974, coaching outside linebackers for the next three seasons. In 1977, he took over the chores as Michigan’s defensive coordinator, a position he held until he departed for CU. One publication had Mac rated as one of the top five defensive coordinators in the nation in 1981, and he was considered one of the finest recruiters in the country.
McCartney gained national recognition at Michigan in 1980 when he devised a scheme to stop Purdue quarterback Mark Herrmann (using six defensive backs to neutralize Herrmann and his receivers). He was named the Big Ten’s “player” of the week for his plan.
He points to Schembechler as the coach he owes the most for his successful coaching career.
“Bo won more games in a 20-year stretch than any other coach in history,” he said. “Fame comes in a moment, but greatness comes with longevity. I had the privilege of serving under him for eight and half years, and that’s what prepared me for the Colorado job.
That call came the first week of June in 1982. The late Chuck Fairbanks abruptly resigned on June 1 to become president and head coach of the New Jersey Generals in the fledgling United States Football League. (The late) athletic director Eddie Crowder was faced with hiring a new coaching staff with the season opener just 102 days away.
Mac had started entertaining thoughts about becoming a head coach.
“I went in to talk to Bo, and I told him that if the right opportunity came along, I’d be interested. He said, ‘Okay, when the right job comes along, come see me.’ The Michigan State job opened shortly after that, and I went in to see him and he said, ‘You do not want to go there and I am not considering helping you get there. Get that out of your mind.’ And I did. So that was the first one that came along I was interested in and I didn’t pursue it.
“When the Colorado job opened, it was the perfect time for me,” McCartney recalled. “Because of the timing, there was really no head coach in America who could have applied for the job, because if you didn’t get it, you would have been run out of town because you were willing to abandon your team. Chuck Shelton interviewed from Drake, which had just beat CU twice, but I didn’t have to fight several head coaches who would have been interested had the job opened at a more opportune time. When I saw that Chuck resigned, I was immediately interested, I went in and saw Bo. At the appropriate time, Bo called Eddie Crowder. He was instrumental in my getting strong consideration.
“It was my good fortune, the timing was such that I was in position to be a candidate because of the success Michigan had had and the fact that I worked for Bo.”
“Colorado was one of the premier jobs in the country,” he continued. “It was in a prestigious conference, the location, the history, and there was something about raising your family in a college town. All the opportunities you can ask for in a dynamic collegiate environment. Boulder is just the right size, not too big, not too small and has access to a major city in Denver. The populace and all that goes with that, the professional teams, the arts, a major airport providing access to wherever you’d want to go. The aesthetic beauty of Boulder, Colorado is that it has no parallel, and offers what I call the ‘maximum experience.’
“You look at its extraordinary beauty, when every day you wake and say, ‘All right, let’s get up and get it on.’ When you look at the academic experience, there’s none better. But when you look around at everything, raising your family, tell me there’s a safer place than Boulder. We have more winter sunshine than Phoenix, Miami or L.A. You look at the whole experience and not just focus on football and say, ‘What do you want out of life?’ When you add all those things up, Boulder and CU can’t be matched. I’ve been looking around all these years, and nobody else can match what Colorado can offer—the premier college experience in America. And I say that not trying to recruit anybody—I’m done.”
On a roll, he continued on: “When I was recruiting, I would say there are other schools that have won more games, others that have better academics, others that might have a better campus. But not all three in a package like the University of Colorado. I personally believed I had the greatest product to sell, and I truly believed what I was saying. I never had a kid say to me even once, ‘Coach, you oversold me on Boulder.’”
It wasn’t a slam dunk that Crowder was going to hire him, though. In fact, he was the longshot. He wasn’t even contacted until six days into the search. He told the story best to CUBuffs.com back in 2007:
“What happened was that Eddie Crowder called me on a Sunday night (June 6) and asked if would I be interested; I said absolutely. He said ‘When can you be here?’ And I said the next morning. So I took the first flight out of Detroit and got to Colorado pretty early in the day, but I got here so fast that they weren’t ready to interview me. It took him until Tuesday morning to put together an interview panel. That gave me a day here where nothing was happening and I was able to get acquainted. I had been here before as an assistant with Michigan and as a player with Missouri, so I had a little familiarity with the place. Eddie assigned me to (the late associate AD) Fred Casotti; when the interview took place Tuesday morning, there were about 15 people representing all kind of factions on campus and the alumni. About 15 minutes before I was going to go before them for the interview, I said to Fred, ‘What do you think my chances are?’ He said, ‘Coach, it’s third and long. You’d better make a big play.’
“That was the best thing he could have told me, otherwise I might have tip-toed into the interview. But after Fred told me that, I threw caution to the wind, decided to get aggressive and put my best foot forward. The format was for them to ask me questions, or that’s what they had in mind. But I stood up, and I said before I take any questions, I want to make a statement. I spoke for about 20 minutes and told them who I was, my background, what I had done at the University of Michigan, my philosophies and values, and what I would bring to the University of Colorado if I was to get the job. I was the only one talking, and after I was done speaking, nobody asked me a question.
“I went from there to meet the president, Arnold Weber, and he had already gotten a phone call following the first interview. He was energized and anxious to see me, and was warm and welcoming. Later that night, they took me to meet the Board of Regents, as by chance they were having their monthly meeting in Denver. I was waiting with Casotti in the car, waiting for a break in their meeting to be introduced, and I asked Fred again, ‘What do you think my chances are?’ And Fred said, ‘Coach, fourth and short. You just need to make a first down.’ So I just needed to move the chains. That Tuesday night, Eddie offered me the job. Really it all happened so fast, we didn’t have a lot of time because of the unusual circumstances.”
McCartney was hired as the 20th head coach in CU history on June 9, 1982, taking over a team which had just suffered through three of its worst seasons in an otherwise tradition-rich football program.
Upon his arrival in Boulder, he had but 94 days to hire a staff and prepare for his first season. When the season opener against California rolled around some three months later, he had only 77 players on scholarship, and only 73 in uniform to line up and play.
His first three teams posted records of 2-8-1, 4-7 and 1-10. The offense came alive his second season, primarily the passing game, helping CU to improve its record. His third team was better than the record showed (four of the ten losses by seven points or less), but was also injury plagued. Though those three teams passed for over 6,700 yards, the rushing game was almost nonexistent and the defense nowhere near McCartney’s standards.
The foresight of athletic director Bill Marolt, just two months into the job, also played a tremendous role. Despite a 1-7 record at the time, Marolt extended McCartney’s contract. Mac was now working with a net, and it led to one of the boldest and most daring moves in CU history, if not college football’s.
He announced in March ahead of the 1985 season that the Buffaloes were switching to the wishbone formation on offense. What did switching from a passing to a running game do for CU? Colorado posted a 7-5 mark, the most wins in seven years at the school, and netted the Buffs the NCAA’s Most Improved Team honor. CU also went from last to ninth in rushing offense and from last to first in net punting, two of the most dramatic turnabouts in NCAA history. And CU’s 4-3 league mark, which tied the Buffs for third place, helped McCartney gain the Big Eight’s “Coach of the Year” award. Colorado also earned its first bowl appearance in almost a decade in 1985, opposite Washington in the Freedom Bowl, but dropped the contest by a 20-17 count.
In 1986, the Buffs staggered to an 0-4 start, but McCartney’s fifth team never threw in the towel. Colorado rebounded to post a 6-1 mark in the Big Eight, finishing second in the league’s race, CU’s best effort since winning it in 1976. And McCartney’s Buffs became the first at CU to defeat Nebraska (20-10) since 1967. Colorado made its second straight bowl appearance (a 21-9 loss against Baylor in the Bluebonnet Bowl). His 1987 team posted a 7-4 record, but the team was left out when the bowl committees made their selections.
The 1988 Buffaloes posted the best record at CU since 1976 by going 8-4 (with a new-fangled “I-bone” offense), which included a win at No. 19 Iowa. Mac’s team again battled the Big Eight’s top two to the wire, losing 17-14 to Oklahoma and 7-0 at Nebraska; CU placed fourth with a 4-3 mark. However, the Buffs fell short again in postseason play, losing 20-17 to Brigham Young in the Freedom Bowl. The biggest stride the 1988 team made was a return to the national Top 20 for the first time in over a decade.
As the unanimous National Coach-of-the-Year selection for 1989 (UPI, Kodak/ AFCA, Bear Bryant/ FWAA, The Sporting News, Dodge/ Maxwell Football Club, CBS/ Chevrolet), McCartney’s eighth CU team roared to an 11-0 regular season record and the first ever No. 1 national ranking in CU’s 100-year football history. The Buffs won their second outright Big Eight title, to go with 1961, which earned McCartney unanimous Coach-of-the-Year honors in the league. Colorado became the first team since 1969 to defeat Oklahoma and Nebraska in the same year and all told the Buffs defeated five top 25 and three bowl teams. Only a 21-6 loss to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl kept CU from being crowned the national champion, but the No. 4 final ranking was still the second best ever for the Buffaloes at that time.
His ninth Colorado team won the biggest prize possible in college football: the national championship. The 1990 team, with an 11-1-1 record, was also the first Buffalo team to claim back-to-back Big Eight titles. He was once again named as the league’s Coach-of-the-Year, the third time he was afforded that honor.
Colorado’s 10-9 win over Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl paved the way for the Associated Press along with most of the other recognized organizations to select the Buffaloes as the 1990 national champion. Nine members of the 1990 team were drafted into the NFL, and three players earned Colorado’s first ever unanimous All-America honors (Eric Bieniemy, Joe Garten and Alfred Williams). Williams won the Butkus Award, with Garten finishing second for the Outland Trophy and Bieniemy third in the Heisman Trophy race. With wins over Stanford, Texas, Washington, Oklahoma and Nebraska among others, CU played the nation’s toughest schedule and joined the ’82 Penn State team as the only schools at the time to win the national championship while doing so.
His 1991 team became the first at CU to win three straight Big Eight titles, going 6-0-1 in league play. He did this despite having the second youngest team in the nation’s top 25, as he started nine freshmen or sophomores and utilizes 24 of the pups in each week’s game plan. Center Jay Leeuwenburg earned unanimous All-America honors, Mac’s fourth unanimous selection in two years. His 10th team went 8-3-1 overall, earning McCartney’s sixth bowl appearance (the Buffs lost to the following season’s national champion, Alabama, 30-25, in the Blockbuster Bowl).
McCartney and his staff did another excellent coaching job in 1992, leading the Buffs to a 9-2-1 record, despite a total overhaul in the offensive system. The Buffs switched gears to a one-back, more pass-oriented attack, and the season produced a school and conference record 3,271 yards passing. The team was also McCartney’s best defensively, surrendering only 278 yards a game and boasting the Thorpe award winner in cornerback Deon Figures. The ’92 squad also featured tackle Jim Hansen, CU’s first Rhodes Scholar in 30 years. The 9-1-1 regular season mark was the fifth best in school history, and CU went to its seventh bowl under McCartney, a 26-22 loss to Syracuse in the Fiesta Bowl.
In 1993, he assumed the responsibilities of coaching the quarterbacks, the first time during his head coaching career that he worked with a specific position other than special teams. This team posted an 8-3-1 mark, the losses by a combined 14 points. The team earned a sixth consecutive bowl appearance, defeating Fresno State by a 41-30 count in the Aloha Bowl. The offense continued to evolve, finishing 10th in the nation, averaging 470 yard per game. It was the first CU team in history to average over 200 yards in both rushing and passing, and the first time since 1975 that Colorado led the league in total offense. A youthful defense matured during the league season, overcoming five seniors’ graduation from the previous year’s team into the NFL.
What would be his final CU team in 1994 posted an 11-1 record and was ranked in the nation’s top 10 the entire season (17 consecutive weeks, a school record). His 13th and last Buffalo team had several memorable moments, from Kordell Stewart’s 64-yard touchdown pass to Michael Westbrook (via a Blake Anderson tip) to beat Michigan, 27-26, on the final play of the game, to Rashaan Salaam’s dramatic 67-yard touchdown run in the season finale against Iowa State that pushed the eventual Heisman Trophy winner’s season rushing total to 2,055 yards. The Buffs finished second in the Big Eight with a 6-1 record, losing only at Nebraska, which cost CU a chance at the national championship in what would eventually be the last year McCartney strolled the CU sideline.
From 1985, when he made the bold move to the wishbone, until the end of his career, McCartney’s teams posted an 86-30-4 record in registering 10 straight winning seasons, both overall and in league play. His 1988 to 1992 teams went 25 straight games (23-0-2) without a loss in the Big Eight, the fourth longest streak in the now-defunct conference’s history.
He worked under four contracts at CU, with a 15-year deal signed in 1990 one of the longest contracts ever in college football history. It would have expired in the year 2005, but he had the option after five years of stepping down if he so chose. He did just that on November 19, 1994, deciding to retire after that team’s final game, a New Year’s appearance in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Buffs were inspired to send him out a winner, and Stewart, Salaam and company had huge games as Colorado routed the Irish, 41-24, the game literally over in the second quarter after CU built a 31-3 lead.
Mac’s two favorite games during his CU tenure resonate with most of the fan base. “Without a doubt, when we beat Nebraska in Lincoln when we were behind 12-0 going into the fourth quarter. We scored 27 in the fourth quarter. And then the second Orange Bowl against Notre Dame, because it was our only national championship. That Notre Dame team was as good a Notre Dame team as (coach) Lou Holtz had. We lost our QB at halftime and still found a way to win that game.”
In 1999, he was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame, just the sixth coach at the University of Colorado to be honored so. He was enshrined in CU’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006.
Born on Aug. 22, 1940, McCartney was raised in Riverview, Mich., and graduated from Riverview High School in 1958, having earned 11 letters in three sports (football, basketball, and baseball). He was captain of the football and basketball teams his senior year.
Bill was married to the former Lynne (Lyndi) Taussig of Santa Monica, Calif., for just over 50 years until her death this past March 21. The couple has four grown children, Michael, Thomas, Kristy and Marc, and 10 grandchildren, two of whom are currently in the CU football program, brothers T.C. (a graduate assistant coach) and Derek (a freshman defensive lineman).
McCartney was extremely active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and was voted the FCA’s “Man-of-the-Year” in Colorado for 1986. He was also one of the co-founders of “Promise Keepers,” one of the nation’s fastest-growing Christian organizations in the late 1990s and whom he worked and represented for almost a decade after retiring from coaching.
“All you have to is recruit, and if you recruit the right kids and get them, you’ll find yourself playing in a lot of big games,” he concluded. “So it’s not about me, it’s about the University, what a great place it is, it’s about all the good assistants we had, and it’s about that first recruiting class that got things going for us.”