A Conversation with Coach McCartney

In September, the Buffalo Sports News interviewed former CU football coach Bill McCartney about the current program's ability to recruit the black athlete for a story that appeared in the November issue. McCartney was outspoken on the issue of diversity at the university. The following are excerpts from the interview with McCartney.

For the past decade-and-a-half, University of Colorado administrators has spoken about the need to increase diversity on the CU-Boulder campus. However, the number of black students at CU continues to hover under 500, less than two percent of the entire student body.

As a coach at CU, McCartney was on the vanguard of hiring African-American assistant coaches. Four former McCartney assistants — Jim Caldwell, Ron Dickerson, Bob Simmons and Karl Dorrell — eventually landed head-coaching jobs at NCAA Division IA schools. That's a big number considering even today there are only five black head coaches among the 117 IA programs, while 45 percent of the NCAA DIA football players are African-American.

When McCartney began his national religious men's group Promise Keepers, he made it one of the organization's goals to include leaders and members from both black and white Christian churches across the country — two groups that share basic philosophies, but that have historically worshipped separately.

In the wake of the off-field controversy surrounding the Colorado football team last spring, questions were raised about the environment at the university and its appeal to black student-athletes.

Further, the Boulder Faculty Assembly took advantage of the heightened political climate at CU last spring, and the intense scrutiny on the football program, to call on administrators to make it more difficult for student-athletes who don't meet the regular academic admissions requirements to enter the university.

CU has a history of admitting students (including some student-athletes) through a so-called admissions window if they haven't met normal academic requirements, but show a great aptitude in a discipline such as the arts, and if they show promise of being able to keep up in the classroom.

Critics of those wanting to close the academic window say it will keep some student-athletes out of the university, including some black student-athletes, who would otherwise enroll and become successful both on the field and in the classroom.

It was in that context that the following interview was conducted.

Once McCartney understood the issue the story would cover, he didn't even wait for the first question from the interviewer to being talking about it.

Bill McCartney: Diversity has been such an important part of the culture of America. It's embarrassing, it's shameful that the University of Colorado is virtually last (in the Big 12 Conference in terms of student population) in the area of diversity. There's no way you can defend that. There's absolutely no way that you can examine the numbers and then say we're doing everything we can.

It tells everything about you, the fact that you would be an overwhelmingly white campus or community in this day that we live. It hurts my heart to see them try to explain it away. The picture tells the whole story.

Why can't we just recognize that we've missed the mark and say, ‘We're so sorry, and we're going to do everything we can to rectify it.' And then what you need to do is swing the pendulum to the other way. If you're going to err, err on the side of a good heart.

I knew the numbers were meager, but I didn't know we were last.

Buffalo Sports News: Yeah, the number of African-American students at CU is under 500.
It's an indictment. How can you defend that? You can't defend that. All you can do is say, ‘We're so sorry, and we want to do so much more.' And then do it. That's it. End of discussion.

BSN: How did you come to this conviction? It's not typical of a man of your age, your generation, your race.
That's probably a fair statement. You know, when you coach the great black athlete and you go into his home and you see there's a discrepancy. They don't have the same privileges, they don't have the same resources. It's a tougher road. When you wake up to that, you want to be part of the solution. At some point, I began to see the obvious contradiction and wanted to rectify it.

I watch as some of these guys get a chance to be head coaches, like Tyrone Willingham or Karl Dorrell, and, man, I pull for ‘em. I pull for them because it's so hard for them to overcome the obstacles. And when they make it, they create the hope in the next guy.

I'm aware how difficult it is for people of color to overcome the disadvantages. And so I want to be part of the solution.

BSN: Do you think Gary Barnett is in a difficult position on this issue? Because there's only so much a head coach can do.
First of all, you have to understand this: Gary Barnett has great credibility in the black community. The reason he has it is because the black kids that he coaches trust him.

If ever a guy was expendable, it was during this recent time (this past spring). And yet, look how the black kids stuck with him.

Bottom line is does he have a heart for these kids? He does.

Now to answer your question -- is he at a disadvantage? If the university in an effort to display righteousness, in an effort to say, ‘We're only going after the great student-athlete and that's who we are. If that's what they do, then, yeah, he's at a disadvantage and the university is filled with hypocrisy. Because the numbers are not going to be the same because they don't have the same opportunities from birth. You can't not examine that and factor that into the equation.

This would be fair if they were to take the black athletes that Barnett had recruited and see how they were doing. If some of them came in with inferior test scores, are they graduating? Are they contributing? Are they making a difference? If they are, then I'd say, ‘Hey, we've got a solution here.' But to just go on numbers without regard to race, knowing that there are disadvantages, that there is tremendous oppression in one area, that's hypocrisy.

I just think that any university today that is going to err, err on the side of a generous spirit, err on the side of an open and a willing heart.

You know, the word "nobility" means willing hearted. We need a noble university today that recognizes that this is wrong.

Buffalo Sports News: How many success stories were there during your time of guys that came in that were given an opportunity because they were athletes and who made the most of the opportunity in the university?
I'm so proud of so many of those guys. They're leading such productive lives. They're making contributions, not only to society but to their culture. They're raising the hopes, they're setting the standards. They raise the bar in their own communities. These are wonderful success stories.

Football played a part in that. Because they had some athletic prowess, they were given the opportunity. They represented the university well, they helped play at a high competitive level, they earned their degrees, they're raising their families, they're staying married.

There's just story after story.

Buffalo Sports News: Is there a misperception of people in the Boulder community that football players at Colorado are there just to play football, not study?
That perception exists. And I do think that these kids because of how they grow up, they grow up in predominantly inner city environments, and then they come to a place like Boulder, which is a radical adjustment for them, that there is a time when they're searching for themselves. But if you work with them and you help them through a few skirmishes, what happens in the end is, man, they pick up speed, and they make it happen. That's my experience.

I would be a hypocrite if I said there aren't problems, there aren't issues to deal with. And it isn't just the black kid. But Boulder's overwhelmingly white. If you're a kid from a completely different cultural experience, it's going to be an adjustment.

What was in my heart is that the whole community would recognize that and they would all say we're going to make it work here. Why? — because we want to be diverse. We don't want to be just white, we don't want to be just exclusive, we don't want to be holier than thou. We want to be part of helping these kids.

And there were a lot of people in Boulder with that spirit. There are a lot people that are so proud of these kids. They get to know ‘em a little bit and they see that they're really great kids. There's a time when they may have sports out of perspective and they may think they're going to the big time. But then reality sets in, and touchdowns don't come as easy. And there's a lot of good players out there. So they start to get a grip on a more balanced perspective.

Buffalo Sports News: How rewarding was that for you to watch that process?
The longer I coached, the older I got, the more I understood, the more rewarding it was. I grew up too during that time. Meaning, I matured. I didn't always see it as clearly as I do know.

Buffalo Sports News: What's it going to take for the school to really put its money where its mouth is with diversity?
It's going to take a group of people who sit down and say, ‘You know what, this is shameful. Things have to change. We can't alibi, we can't excuse what the numbers are shouting. Let's change our strategy, let's develop a new plan, let's take responsibility for what it looks like today, and then during our time here, let's make sure it changes.'

It's rectifiable. It's just a willingness to stop making alibis and stop trying to justify what is shameful.

I'm sure I'm not going to make a lot of friends here, but somebody's got to say it.

I'm not being paid by the university now, so it's a little easier for me to say what it so obvious. And what I'm saying is not profound, it's not new information. It's just: ‘Quit trying to explain away what is shameful. You can't explain it. Change it!' That's my take on it.

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