If anyone ever constructs a museum dedicated to the life of Bill McCartney—the former Colorado Buffaloes football coach, and founder of the Christian men’s group Promise Keepers—the first stop on the tour should be a little theater, where visitors can sit on a bench and watch “The Gospel According To Mac.” Everything about the latest 30 For 30 episode functions as a simple, surface-level salute, right down to a score and narration track that sound like they should be popping out of tinny speakers in a room around the corner from a gift shop. McCartney fans will probably love it. But skeptics may spend the two long hours of “The Gospel” wondering why this particular story needed so much of ESPN’s primetime real estate.
Then again, what actually is this story? There are about a half-dozen or so avenues that the episode’s director Jim Podhoretz could’ve followed here, and rather than spending a lot of time on any one, he breezes through all of them. At any given moment, this is a documentary about…
- … how McCartney turned the Colorado football program into a perennial national title contender between his arrival in 1982 and his surprise retirement in 1994.
- … how the inner-city black players that McCartney recruited had trouble adjusting to life in Boulder, where the locals treated them with suspicion, and where many kept getting in trouble with the law.
- … how the team persevered through the loss of its starting quarterback Sal Aunese to stomach cancer.
- … how the Buffaloes endured a rollercoaster ride to two consecutive national title games in the Orange Bowl against Notre Dame.
- … how McCartney got in trouble for his outspoken Christian conservatism early in his career, and then became a divisive national figure when he started Promise Keepers.
- … how Promise Keepers’ message of personal responsibility, dedication to family, and racial reconciliation has often been overshadowed by McCartney’s anti-gay and anti-feminist beliefs.
- … how McCartney’s religious views have at times seemed to be in conflict with both his personal life and his professional behavior.
Podhoretz previously produced and edited one of the best 30 For 30s, “Survive And Advance,” about Jim Valvano’s NC State team and its improbable run through the NCAA basketball tournament. “The Gospel According To Mac” at times follows a similar format. The players who were part of both Notre Dame games gather in a room with McCartney, to swap jokes and anecdotes. They make fun of the University of Nebraska, relive key plays, and talk about how McCartney’s emphasis on discipline had an impact their lives. These are some of the best parts of this episode. The scenes are loose and funny, and they’re in line what this series does so well: showing how major athletic accomplishments give people something they can bond over for decades.
But how many folks actually think that what Colorado did under McCartney constitutes a “major athletic accomplishment?” (Besides Buffalo die-hards, that is?) Because it’s a little strange to see the usual 30 For 30 clips-and-comments rah-rah applied to games and moments that don’t really seem all that objectively special. It’s inspiring how McCartney’s team came together in the wake Aunese’s death, but they actually lost the championship game that year, and in the following year they won—or, more accurately, shared the title with Georgia Tech—thanks to a referee blunder that granted them a fifth down on a game-winning drive in a key midseason contest, followed later by a dicey clipping call in the Orange Bowl.
The only real reason to make “The Gospel According To Mac” then is to grapple with McCartney… and the only real way to do that is to consider all of the man’s contradictions. Podhoretz doesn’t shy away from the negative, exactly. This episode does cover how McCartney’s daughter had a child out of wedlock with Aunese (though it doesn’t mention that she had a second child years later with another Buffalo), and it also touches on his marital problems, and his overly glib response to those who said it wasn’t exactly Christian of him to accept the victory in “The Fifth Down Game.” But all of the McCartney nay-sayers are confined to old news-clippings and archival footage. No one in the room with the coach or in new interviews really pushes him on whether he has the authority to lecture people about morality.
And that’s a shame, because there’s a lot to be said about the entanglement of religion, politics, and football in American culture, and how a tendency toward self-righteousness sometimes undercuts all the good that men like McCartney do. By no means should Podhoretz have taken a hatchet to this subject—not given everything McCartney has accomplished on and off the field. (Inspiring millions of people to improve themselves and to think more deeply about racism is something to be applauded, regardless of a person’s politics.) But at one point coach says of his daughter’s pregnancy that, “For her to give herself out of wedlock was an indictment of my leadership,” and it’s hard not to wonder what kind of ego it takes to believe something like that. That’s a question worth asking. Don’t look to “The Gospel According To Mac” for the answer.
- Given that two of Colorado’s most important football games under McCartney came against Lou Holtz’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish, it would’ve been nice if former ESPN employee Holtz could’ve been tapped for a comment or two. If nothing else, I’d like to hear what he has to say about the controversial clipping call that gave the Buffaloes a share of the national championship, and about his own statement to his team before the 1990 Orange Bowl that Colorado was “living a lie.” Really just one new interview offering someone’s alternate perspective or dissenting voice would’ve given this doc a boost.