Almost immediately after Colorado's 41-24 Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame on Jan. 2, Bill McCartney vanished. He took the coach's communion of Gatorade and disappeared, evaporating into some religious ether of his own making. He was in Sedona or Tahiti, or maybe in Boulder, still packing up. He was leading his Promise Keepers, one of the fastest-growing Christian groups in the U.S., to salvation. You heard different things. But he was no longer available for football, that was for sure. Quit, retired, gone nuts, take your pick.
How else do you explain walking away from a job like McCartney's? What man gives up such power and prestige as he enjoyed after 13 remarkable years at Colorado? He won a national championship four years ago and nearly did it again this season. Put another way, what man walks out on a $350,000-per-year contract with 10 years remaining? So that he can spend time with his wife and his god? There is a word for this behavior. "Un-American," says McCartney, laughing softly.
Unreal is more like it. Ever since McCartney announced at a press conference in Boulder on Nov. 19 that he would resign after the Fiesta Bowl, his Colorado constituency has gone crazy trying to figure him out. The Buffalo faithful have long learned to accept McCartney as complicated; his forays into religion and conservative politics have pained many, including the school's administration. But there wasn't any blemish on McCartney's public record that couldn't be redeemed by, say, an 11-1 season and a good thumping of Notre Dame. So what could this so-called retirement really be about?
There were rumors, of course: A native of Riverview, Mich., and a former Michigan assistant, he is angling for the Wolverine job; he's embarrassed that his unmarried daughter, Kristy, having already given birth to a son fathered by former Colorado star Sal Aunese, has borne another child out of wedlock, by a current Buffalo player; he's burned out; he's at odds with the higher-ups at Colorado; his marriage is in bad shape; he's on a weird religious mission. The stories are all out there, and at least one of them is apparently true—in November 1993, Kristy gave birth to a son, Derek, whose father, she says, is Shannon Clavelle, a junior defensive tackle from New Orleans.
But McCartney says the explanation is simple. He is quitting to spend more time with his wife of 32 years, Lyndi, and he waves all other explanations aside. He does admit that all is not perfect with his family—his concern about Lyndi would indicate as much—and he blames only himself. As a religious zealot whose standards for others are impossibly high, he is accustomed to suffering criticism when his own life is less than righteous. "Has Bill McCartney done everything right?" he has said. "No, [he's] just a sinner saved by grace."
Before he scheduled his disappearance, telling the local media at his press conference that "not one of you will be able to find me," McCartney sat for one last interview. It took place in his office overlooking Folsom Field, and he affected an air of hopeful resignation. He knew that by speaking of his reason for leaving, people would think him a head case. His notions were too radical for many. Then again, the idea that a man's marriage might take precedence over all else might make sense to someone. You just never knew.
He was also aware of the possibility that nobody would believe him. There was evidence that his own house was in disorder and that his exit was a desperate move to invest his personal life with the storybook qualities that his religious beliefs demand. Even Kristy, 26, whose relationships with McCartney's players have produced a measure of small-town shame, wonders if there is something to that. "I'm not saying what has happened with me made my father quit, but it's probably apart of it," she says.
In the spring of 1989, in an event that has become part of Boulder lore, Kristy bore the son of Aunese, the team's quarterback. It was a messy affair in that Aunese disdained her and only acknowledged paternity after a blood test. It was made all the more painful when cancer was diagnosed in Aunese. He died on Sept. 23, five months after Timothy was born.
McCartney did not publicly discuss his grandson until Aunese's memorial service, when he praised Kristy for not having had an abortion or leaving town. He has since spoken only warmly of Aunese and remains supportive of his daughter.
Then in February 1993, Kristy told her parents that she was again pregnant by one of McCartney's players. "I had been dating Shannon for a while, which they didn't like," she says, "but I was a grown woman, 24 years old. They couldn't tell me what to do. When I did tell them I was pregnant, they were hurt and upset, but completely supportive."