Back in his day, Bill McCartney languished through three lean seasons to begin his career at Colorado.
The program showed patience with the former coach and he eventually led the Buffaloes to their only national title in 1990. And now, McCartney is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, an honor he claimed Tuesday.
But that was another age, when coaches had time to turn around a downtrodden program.
The newest Coach Mac in town, Mike MacIntyre, may not be given three years to resurrect the Buffs, who struggled through a 1-11 season last year that led to the firing of Jon Embree after only two years on the job.
This is an era governed by a win-now-or-else edict. That’s a frustrating way of life for McCartney, who’s convinced that Embree, a former player and assistant coach for him, could’ve gotten the Buffs on the right track had he been given more time and more support.
”It was premature,” McCartney said at a luncheon to celebrate his induction. ”I’m not bitter. I’m a Buff. But if you sign a guy to a five-year contract and you have integrity and he stays within the rules, you give him his five years. That’s what I believe.”
Had the Buffs not done the same for McCartney, they may not have earned a share of their only national title. McCartney was floundering in his third season in charge, only to have then athletic director Bill Marolt extend his deal. It was simply a show of faith.
Soon after, McCartney’s teams flourished on the field. He wound up finishing 93-55-5 in 13 seasons at Colorado.
”They took a chance and I’ve always been grateful for that,” McCartney said.
He thinks Embree deserved the same type of commitment.
”I’m always going to be in Embree’s corner,” McCartney said. ”But I’m also a Buff. I’m passed that now. The new Coach Mac, I’m 100 percent behind him.”
The new version recently got together with the old Coach Mac for lunch, just to discuss all things associated with Colorado football. MacIntyre took pages and pages of notes from McCartney, afraid he would miss something profound if he put down his pen.
”He’s very interested in what we’re doing,” said MacIntyre, who was hired away from San Jose State five months ago. ”He’s amazing.”
MacIntyre realizes the pressure on him to turn around a slumping program that’s coming off its worst mark in the program’s 123-year history. But he doesn’t feel he has to show immediate results, only steady improvement. That’s what he did at San Jose State.
After going 1-12 in MacIntyre’s first season in 2010, the Spartans had one of the best seasons in program history last year, finishing 11-2 for their first 11-win season since 1940.
”If you’re doing things the right way and putting the foundation and building blocks in place, people can see that,” MacIntyre said. ”You have to get academics in line. You’ve got to get them to change the culture, the work ethic, the attitude. It gradually starts happening on the practice field and daily in the weight room. You see their energy and their resilience.
”Once you start seeing that daily, you know it’s going to happen on the field.”
This spring, the Buffaloes went through seven days of practice with almost a ”clock in, clock out” mentality. On the eighth day, though, the attitude changed. One of his quarterbacks threw a long TD pass and there was something he hadn’t really seen: exultation.
”Watershed moment,” MacIntyre said. ”They’re starting to catch it — starting to catch the enjoyment of playing and the passion of caring about each other. To me, that was a big mark for us. That sounds like a small thing. To me, it’s a big thing.”
So is this: He may have quarterback Jordan Webb back in time for Pac-12 play this season. Webb suffered what was thought to be a season-ending ACL tear in his right knee on a noncontact drill last month.
Only now, it appears that he might be ready to step on the field by Sept. 28 at Oregon State. Webb was the Buffs’ starter last season and threw eight TDS and eight interceptions.
”He’s making good progress,” MacIntyre said. ”We hope to have him back. My goal, have him back before the Pac-12 season. He says even before that.”
On Tuesday, the Buffs had a chance to stroll down memory lane, reminiscing about the glory days of the program in honor of McCartney. Former CU great Alfred Williams showed up for the occasion. So, too, did Charles Johnson.
This induction completely caught McCartney by surprise. It was welcomed news in what has been a difficult past few months for him.
On March 21, McCartney’s wife of more than 50 years died of emphysema.
”In light of the fact I just lost my wife — I’ve been very sad — it has really helped me through a tough time in my life,” McCartney said.
His coaching tree is pretty extensive, with 12 assistants eventually moving up to head positions in the college ranks. The list includes names such as Gary Barnett, Jim Caldwell, Gerry DiNardo, Les Miles, Rick Neuheisel and, of course, Embree.
”I love Boulder. I love CU. I want that place to get acknowledged and recognized,” McCartney said. ”This gives me a chance to talk about Boulder, gives me a chance to tell anyone who will listen that I had a great opportunity to be in a special place.”