Ann Arbor — Bill McCartney was a leader in coaching, an expert motivator and communicator.
For those who were recruited by or played for him at Michigan while an assistant on Bo Schembechler’s staff between 1974-81, McCartney made an unforgettable impact.
“Mac was just a special guy, a special coach,” former Michigan quarterback John Wangler said. “You talk about certain guys come through your life who leave a great impression and who change your life and who you have the highest respect for, Mac’s one of those guys. Anyone he touches, they remember.”
His family recently announced that McCartney, 76, has late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The Riverview native who went on to lead Colorado to a share of the 1990 national championship and was enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013 mostly has issues with short-term memory, Wangler said.
A large number of former Michigan players who were recruited and coached by McCartney attended a reception for him Friday night. McCartney was expected to be in attendance. In total, about 150 former Michigan players and nearly 50 former Colorado players will honor him this weekend.
The former Michigan players will wear T-shirts that read: “Thanks Coach Mac”.
McCartney will be Colorado’s honorary captain for today’s game against Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“He believed in the holistic development of his students and grounded in core values,” said Boston College athletic director Brad Bates, who played defense at Michigan under McCartney. “Just an amazing communicator.
“I studied how he communicates. He was a genius communicator and his ability to inspire and motivate was amazing. I learned so much on a communication level from him.”
Bates, who will not be able to attend the function or game, said McCartney adhered to detail when coaching the Wolverines defense.
“He was a student of the game, very creative,” Bates said. “He was grounded as a high school teacher and coach (he led Dearborn Divine Child to state titles in basketball and football), and he had this unique sensitivity to an individual’s potential. He wasn’t going to let you get away from not realizing that potential.”
His first few seasons at Michigan, Wangler was frustrated because he wasn’t getting playing time. Each Monday, the players ran a mile, and McCartney, an avid runner, ran with him and talked to him.
“He was 25 years older than me, and I was struggling to keep up with him,” Wangler said, laughing. “Mac was always keeping an eye on me because he recruited me. It took me a few years to get on the field, so Mac would always try to motivate me and keep me going when I would get bummed out and depressed because I wasn’t playing that much.
“He was always great about inspiring you and challenging you to hang in there and stay the course.”
Rick Neuheisel was on McCartney’s staff in 1994 and then became the Colorado coach after McCartney retired.
Neuheisel, now a host on SiriusXM College Sports, drew plenty from his experience coaching with McCartney.
“You could not have spent a year and not learned a great deal,” said Neuheisel, now a host on SiriusXM College Sports. “He was not always right, but he was never uncertain. This is a leader and then some. You can’t always agree with everything that came out of his mouth, but you knew he believed it.”
Neuheisel vividly remembers having a conversation at Colorado with Elliott Uzelac, who also had been an assistant at Michigan, about wanting to take the quarterbacks and receivers to another practice field to work on plays. He felt Folsom Field was too small for what he wanted to do.
“Elliott said, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ which was like Bo Schembechler’s way of saying no,” Neuheisel said. “Bill McCartney came into my office, and I thought, ‘What did I do now? Was I too aggressive asking for that?’ I was ready to take my beating.
“And Bill said, ‘I didn’t hire you here to agree so easily,’ and I said I thought I was pretty clear. ‘You weren’t clear enough,’ he said. I went back in there and Mac comes in and it was like his two sons in the ring together. I said, ‘Elliott, we should talk more about this.’ It almost came to a fist fight. It was comical.”
But, Neuheisel learned that day from McCartney.
“He’s as good a guy as ever walked on this planet,” Neuheisel said. “He truly loved his players.”
Wangler was a Michigan graduate assistant, and along with Les Miles and Bob Thornbladh on the staff, McCartney would take them on five- or six-mile runs.
“He would talk to us and motivate us every day,” Wangler said. “You had to keep up with Mac. You talk about a ball of energy, just a guy you loved being around. He was that kind of guy. I always loved him because he always believed in me and he recruited me and stuck with me in all the good times and bad times.
“There’s not a finer man than coach Mac. He’s the best.”