The Hiring of Bill McCartney – The Unlikely Choice

// Jun 9 - 1982


Fair weather Fairbanks

Despite compiling a 7-26 record over three seasons, and recording Colorado’s first string of three consecutive losing campaigns in almost twenty years, head coach Chuck Fairbanks still had a job as the 1981 season came to a close. With this record, when combined with the off the field difficulties the program had endured, few would have been shocked if Fairbanks had been sent on his way. Still, athletic director Eddie Crowder remained loyal to his coach.

As things turned out, it was Fairbanks who was to demonstrate a lack of loyalty.

Most coaching changes occur, if they are to occur, at the end of the regular season. Athletic Directors want to have as much time as possible to interview potential candidates, with the goal to have a coaching staff in place by the end of the January bowl games, when the recruiting race really kicks in. After studying films and making initial contacts with high school prospects during the season (and, in many cases, for several seasons), coaches start fanning out all over the country after New Year’s Day to personally woo high school seniors in advance of the February signing date. Assistants are sent out to strategic locations with the advanced planning of a major military campaign. “Signing Day”, when letters of intent are signed, is met (in places such as Athens, Georgia, and State College, Pennsylvania, anyway) with as much fanfare as the signing of any peace agreement in Washington. As the true fan knows, the major college programs win as many of their games with the stroke of a pen in February as they do with a crucial fourth down call in October.

The Colorado head coach for the 1982 season, however, was not to be afforded the opportunity to put together a staff and recruit his own players. Chuck Fairbanks recruited the incoming class, and took the team through spring football drills.

Then, when most of the football world was dormant, waiting for the opening of fall drills in August, Fairbanks quit.

Fairbanks surprised almost everyone with his resignation, and surprised absolutely everyone with his timing, resigning the day after Memorial Day, 1982. Fairbanks was returning to pro football, taking over as president and head coach of the New Jersey Generals of the newly formed United States Football League .

There would be no mourning. The headline in the Denver Post the next day, June 1, 1982, announced: “The End of An Error”. Although most of the Colorado student population had departedfor the summer, enough remained so that the Post could run an article entitled: “Students Display No Grief”.

Fairbanks’ leaving, while not met with sorrow, did place Colorado at a tremendous disadvantage. As noted, most coaching slots are filled by January, so all of the coaches who may have been interested in the CU job had already found a position.

Athletic Director Eddie Crowder was going to have to convince a coach to leave their present position to:

1) take over a floundering program;

2) find assistant coaches;

3) be willing to enter into a season with someone else’s players facing seven teams on the schedule who had gone to bowl games in 1981; and

4) be prepared to do it in three months.

A fair statement: The head coaching job at the University of Colorado in 1982 was not exactly a plum in the world of college football.

Yet, the search had to begin, and it had to begin in earnest. An early favorite for the job was Drake coach Chuck Shelton, who had beaten Fairbanks’ Buffs twice in the past three years. Another possibility was BYU’s coach, LaVell Edwards, who met with Crowder, only to return to the more stable situation in Provo, Utah.

Not convinced that Shelton was the answer, Crowder met next with the defensive coordinator from Michigan, who was offered the job lessthan 24 hours after coming to Boulder. The name of the new head coach was made public on June 9th, and the Bill McCartney era at CU had begun.

Bill McCartney – The Unlikely Choice
Bill McCartney was hired as the University of Colorado’s 20th head football coach on June 9, 1982.

The significance of the date cannot be understated.

June 9th … four months after the 1982 recruiting class had been announced, two months after spring practice had been concluded, and only three months before Colorado’s home opener against the California Golden Bears on September 11th. For a coach who had never been a head football coach for a program higher than the high school level (three years at Devine Child High School in Dearborn, Michigan) on-the-job training would not be a cliché but a way of life for the new Buffs’ head coach. (McCartney, while at Devine Child, did become the first coach in Michigan prep history to guide a football team and a basketball team to the state championship in the same season).

Coach McCartney did bring to the program a fine coaching pedigree, coming from Bo Schembechler’s program at Michigan, where he had been an assistant coach for the previous seven seasons. McCartney also brought with him a reputation for being a recruiter and a defensive strategist. In 1980, after devising a six defensive back scheme to stop Purdue quarterback Mark Hermann, McCartney was actually named the Big Ten’s Player of the Week (it may be the first – and only – time that a coach was named Player of the Week).

“Coach Mac” also brought questions. Contrary to Chuck Fairbanks, who came to Boulder with a big time reputation and high profile, McCartney was low key and a virtual unknown. At Michigan, McCartney was in charge of defensive ends from 1974-76, moving up to the job of defensive coordinator in 1977.

Though he came to Colorado from the tradition-laden Big Ten, McCartney was not unfamiliar with the Big Eight. McCartney played in two Orange Bowls while a linebacker at Missouri, being named second team all Big Eight as a senior in 1961. While at Missouri, McCartney letterd 11 times in football, basketball, and baseball. As a senior, he was captain of both the football and basketball teams. He gradutated in 1962 with a degree in education.

For his part, the man of quiet intensity did not back down from the daunting task which lay before him. On his introduction to the media on June 9th, 1982, McCartney said: “I promise you we will have a program built on integrity, honesty, and character”. Apparently the local media was quite taken with the new coach. Columnist Dan Creedon of the Boulder Daily Camera reported on June 10, 1982:

“Not since another Michigan native, Sonny Grandelius, swept Colorado committees off their feet 24 years ago (Grandelius coached the Buffs from 1959-61, compiling a record of 20-11, including a Big Eight title in 1961) has a coaching candidate made as favorable an impression here as McCartney did.”

McCartney was equally complimentary of Boulder as 1982 season opened. McCartney was quoted in the program for his first game as head coach:

“The thrill of getting a head coaching job has not worn off. The big thing has been the overwhelming response that we’ve received from the media, boosters, and most recently the players. I am more excited now than ever before.”

In preparing for the 1982 campaign, Coach McCartney understandably decided to simplify things. After all, the first opportunity for the new coach to meet the majority of his players came at the onset of fall drills. (Author’s Note: for those accustomed to programs with all-year weight and conditioning programs – as Colorado has now – this last piece of information may seem implausible. Yet, this was the state of the Colorado program at the time. Coach Mac was quoted in 1987, on the fifth anniversary of his hiring, as calling the conditioning of the players in 1982 “sickening. I couldn’t even believe these were Division I athletes”).

Still, McCartney promised the faithful an “imaginative and creative” new offense, with a “solid defense and a good kicking game”. Colorado fans were optimistic, failing to recognize the obvious …

The coach in 1982 would be new, but, unfortunately, the players were not.

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