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, CU 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.

Major college programs win more of their games on Signing Day in February than they do with any 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 Recruiting Class of 1982, then led the team through spring football drills.

Then in late May, 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, yet 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 departed for 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.

Most coaching slots are filled by January, so any of the coaches who may have been interested in the CU job had already found a position for the 1982 campaign.

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 less than 24 hours after coming to Boulder.

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 Buffs’ new 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).

The hiring of “Coach Mac” also brought questions.

McCartney was the polar opposite of Chuck Fairbanks, who had come to Boulder with a big time reputation and high profile. McCartney, by contrast, 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 lettered 11 times in football, basketball, and baseball. As a senior, he was captain of both the football and basketball teams. He graduated 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.

Upon 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 at the University of Colorado would be new.

The players were, however, were not.


10 Replies to “The Hiring of Bill McCartney – The Unlikely Choice”

  1. If you’re trying to make a comparison the reality is Mac could recruit and motivate…..KD not so much

    1. No comparison attempted. This essay is from the CU at the Game Archives for the 1982 season, and was written in 1996 …

  2. Stuart, I found the results of today’s poll very interesting. Perhaps, KD has a bit more support than everyone thinks. Certainly, this is a different era of College Football with NIL and I think things will be weird for the next couple of seasons, but stability and incremental progress could be a recipe of sorts to overcome these trying years.

  3. More than anything he had a vision and identified a target (Neb). Not sure what the vision is today and certainly need a tangible target to work towards….

      1. Deal, I am in for 12.50…. This is mostLy for fun anyway. I think the buffs have a legitimate shot at 6 wins but they have to avoid core injuries, the line has to play like I expect them to, the corners have to play well, and Lewis or Shrout have to play 100% better than last year.

        1. Ok then yur in for 12.50

          I certainly want to keep at least 12.50
          if anyone else wants in for 12.50 let me know.

          We will siphon it all through legally with our lawyer………….hmm Stuart

          Bowl Bound Buffs = 2500

  4. Kudos to A.D. Eddie Crowder for identifying the right candidate. Coach McCartney, as evidenced by coaching football and basketball teams to high school state championships in the same academic year, AND leading the C.U. program from the depths he found it in 1982 to a National Championship, was a brilliant hire. He could recruit and motivate players as well as ANY college coach in the last forty years.

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