McCartney knows that coming from a football coach this sounds like oddball stuff. His apparent sincerity is winning, but, as with any person of outsized convictions, you must wonder if he has gone off his head. What in the world had he been thinking about, up in this office? Wasn't he diagramming plays? How had he gotten his bowl-bound team to 10-1? At one point in the interview, struggling to make a point, McCartney sprang from his chair and took a Bible from a cabinet. It was stuffed with notes, scraps of paper, junk. You realized that his fervor had carried him to another realm, perhaps made him useless for this one.
His passion is now single-minded, ever since he was forced to recognize the neglect—"the pain, struggle, sacrifice and denial"—in Lyndi's face. Although it's clear that he and Lyndi have not always been completely in step (though she declined to be interviewed for this article, in an interview with SI in 1990, Lyndi noted that she smoked and drank, adding lightly, "Somebody in the family has to"), McCartney insists that there was no crisis that compelled him to a career change. Rather, at the semiyouthful age of 54, he recognized an opportunity to make up for his selfishness. "Many of our best years are ahead of us," he says. "I don't want to be [spending time with her] as a result of some adversity, some catastrophe. I want to do this while we both have a lot of energy and excitement about our lives."
If Colorado boosters or school officials tried to talk McCartney out of his decision to quit, they must have been profoundly frustrated. His devotion to this new idea appears to be total. During this interview assistants scurried in and out, one of them handing McCartney a sheet of paper that actually had X's and O's on it. McCartney would not be distracted. Notre Dame was small potatoes next to the larger issue that consumed him.
"I see an opportunity to put everything on a back burner and have a marriage become all it's capable of being," he says. "That's what's in my heart, and nothing else. I know it's almost un-American to quit your job, and I know it sounds arrogant, because not everybody can do it. But not everybody has a job as demanding or taxing as being a head football coach. I recognize this is not conventional thinking, but it's very much my thinking. And I wasn't always in touch with that. But now that I am, it's the most compelling, convicting thought that I have."
If McCartney's departure is as simple as that, it would be truly amazing, because nothing else in his life has ever been organized around a single principle. His life has been a veritable battleground, the imperatives involved in running a big-time college football program clashing with those of a would-be spiritualist. In fact, it has been great sport in Colorado these past few years to measure the coach's pragmatism against his religious convictions. McCartney-watchers point to his graceless reaction to Colorado's victory at Missouri in 1990, the school's national-championship season, in which the winning touchdown came on a "fifth down," courtesy of the game's befuddled officials. McCartney said he might have considered allowing the Big Eight to reverse the outcome had Missouri not maintained an unfair advantage during the game with "unplayable" turf. And were his moral standards somehow suspended during that period in the late 1980s when he recruited a team better known for its rap sheet than for its on-field record?
McCartney is immune to such accusations of hypocrisy, though possibly not to criticism from his bosses. He recently lost a prized recruit, Rafael Cooper, a running back from Detroit, when the Athletic Review Committee turned down his admission on academic grounds. And then there was the censure from Colorado president Judith Albino in 1992 when McCartney, in a team sweater with a school banner flying behind him, used a press conference to voice antigay views. The confusion of personal beliefs and football was trying the patience even of boosters.
"The feeling is that his agenda has become pretty crowded lately with his right-to-life stuff, the family values, Promise Keepers," says a longtime member of the Buff Club, the school's booster organization. "To be a football coach takes a great deal of energy, and the feeling is that he doesn't have it anymore. He deserves tremendous credit for what he's done here, but his decision is timely, and I'm not mourning his departure, nor are, really, most people I know in the club."
Never mind that McCartney was still delivering the goods. He was too consumed by this idea of his to fit in with this old life much longer. "Over the last three weeks, I've seen a woman radiant." he said. "She knows I love her more than football. If you could just see the glow on Lyndi's face, you'd understand. Because it's real clear now, what's more important. Lyndi's more important."
This is a hard-won realization. His old friend Tom Versaci says, "Mac has always put football first. Lyndi has had to contend with a lot of late meals, a lot of missed meals, and she's been hurt a lot.
"Trust me. Mac wants to be coaching right now. He could have written his own ticket to several big programs, but he has said, 'No, I want this time with my wife.' He's trying to play catch-up with his family, to make up for the last 30 years."