By Bruce Plasket (Special to CUBuffs.com)
NEW YORK CITY — While on his way to building a national championship football team at the University of Colorado, Bill McCartney gained a reputation as a dynamic speaker who could take over any room.
Nearly 20 years removed from his last game as CU’s coach, Bill McCartney this week proved he’s still got it.
Speaking to an overflow crowd at the historic Waldorf-Astoria Hotel Grand Ballroom during his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame Tuesday night, McCartney – in a speech lasting less than five minutes — lit up a room to help cap a dynamic evening which, as always, was the only place to be if you were anybody in the college football world.
The National Football Foundation had asked McCartney if he would speak for the entire incoming class that numbered 14, a dozen playing greats and two coaches. That changed the dynamic of the speech to accepting on behalf of all, making it more general in nature and not necessarily specific to Colorado. He nailed it.
McCartney, who coached CU from 1982-1994, was inducted along with former Navy and Temple coach Wayne Hardin and became the first CU coach to enter the Hall. He is the seventh Buffalo overall – joining players Byron “Whizzer” White, Joe Romig, Dick Anderson, Bobby Anderson, Alfred Williams and John Wooten.
The induction banquet followed a reception that included a “Who’s Who” of college and pro football. The president and CEO of the NFF itself is Steve Hatchell, himself a CU alumni who worked in the athletic department before and after graduation and went on to become commissioner of the Big Eight and Southwest conferences and the executive director of the Orange Bowl ... the latter at the same time when McCartney led his two best CU teams to Miami to face Notre Dame in what were basically back-to-back national championship games well before the BCS era.
Romig and Williams were among several former Buffaloes present, which included the likes of two-time All-American Joe Garten and All-Big Eight performer Eric McCarty, now the head of CU Sports Medicine. And former CU coach and McCartney assistant Gary Barnett also traveled to New York to honor Mac. In doing so, all rubbed elbows with the likes of NFF Chairman Archie Manning, NFL Hall-of-Famer Roger Staubach, who was coached by Hardin, and well over 200 others who have been inducted into the College Hall.
The induction ceremony itself was replete with household names in the football world. ESPN personality Rece Davis emceed the event, while New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft delivered the welcoming remarks and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones introduced the other hall-of-fame coaches in attendance. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who received the NFF’s Gold Medal Award, was also among the evening's most electryifying speakers.
Although his hair has gone gray, McCartney’s booming voice and unbridled passion matched that of his coaching days when he spoke, whether it was to his team or booster function. He used his own moment to honor the principles he learned from his mentor and former boss, the late Michigan coach Bo Schembechler.
“Bo used to gather the team at the beginning of each season and ask three questions,” McCartney said.
“Who are we?”
“Where are we going?”
“How are we going to get there?”
“The answers to those questions will determine your course,” McCartney said.
He also paid tribute to Schembechler’s ongoing success at Michigan, which, by the time McCartney began his eight-year stint as an assistant coach, had won more games than other college football program.
“Fame can come in a moment, but greatness comes with longevity,” Mc Cartney said. “You may be able to win once, but can you do it again? It starts with the team. You can’t do this if you’re in it for yourself.”
McCartney also invoked a well-worn Schembechler story in which he asked his team how a redwood tree can grow to hundreds of feet in height with roots no more than a foot or two deep.
“Bo said it’s because the roots are intertwined and gain strength from each other,” he said. “Success comes from being part of something bigger than yourself.”
Coaches eligible for consideration for the NFF Coaches Hall of Fame must have coached for at least 10 years, must have coached in at least 100 games and must have a winning percentage of at least 60 percent. McCartney’s teams went to nine bowl games in 13 years. Among those were games with the national championship at stake in the pre-BCS era, a CU win would give the Buffaloes the honor. Both games were Orange bowls and the opponent each time a top five Notre Dame team, and a 10-9 win over the Irish on New Year’s night in ’91 gave Colorado the consensus national title.
With a record of 93-55-5, McCartney’s CU teams finished with a winning percentage of 62.4 and won three straight Big 8 championships.
During his time as assistant at Michigan and head coach at CU, McCartney coached 18 first-team All-Americans, including 1994 Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam. His Colorado teams posted three top 10 finishes and six top 20 finishes and sent over three dozen players into the National Football League.
McCartney stunned the college football world when, immediately after the final regular season game in 1994, he announced he was retiring to focus on his family and his faith. He went on to found Promise Keepers and still heads the organization.
Days before his induction, McCartney spoke of how his wife Lyndi, who died earlier this year, always wanted to see him inducted into the coaches hall of fame. “It’s a shame she didn’t get to be here,” he said, “but I know she was watching and I know I’ll see her again. She can congratulate me when we are together again.”
Bruce Plasket is currently a freelance writer from Boulder; he is a former reporter for the Longmont Times-Call, and authored the book “Buffaloed,” which took a hard, critical look at the media’s role in creating instead of unbiased reporting of events at the University of Colorado early last decade.