' Cinema Romantico: 30 For 30: The Gospel According to Mac

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

30 For 30: The Gospel According to Mac

“The Gospel According to Mac” is a title referring to Coach Bill McCartney who in the late 80’s and early 90’s took the long dismal Colorado Football program to the mountaintop even as his devout Christianity unleashed a myriad of battles with those who felt he was proselytizing in a place where it did not belong. Whether it did or not is of little concern to director Jim Podhoretz. Instead he puts the Coach on camera and has him proselytize at us, leaving each viewer to form his or her own opinion. McCartney incessantly tilts forward in his chair, like we are sitting directly across from him and he is so moved by what he wants to say that he wants to reach out and touch us, just like the word of God touched him. That’s McCartney’s origin story, the one he recounts with zest, becoming addicted to alcohol only to overcome it simply because “the Lord took it away.” From that point forward, he explains, he would forever wear his faith on his sleeve, and when he took the seemingly hopeless job at Colorado in 1984, he held true to his word, for much better and a whole lot worse.


At one point, McCartney trots out his recruiting philosophy, wherein he merely had to get potential players to see the majestic snow-capped Boulder campus and the place would sell itself. But that’s all just recruiting hokum, evinced by the many players on camera who don’t have much positive to say about the place. They do, however, heap superlatives on McCartney. Some have re-convened in his presence for the documentary, scenes in which they still seem to look at Coach like they’re his flock and he’s the shepherd. Indeed, if anything brought these young men to Boulder and kept them there, the film makes patently clear, it wasn’t the landscape, it was McCartney.

Family is a prominent theme. The players made clear they gained strength from being one and McCartney fostered this notion. The team’s significant success is rarely placed in a national context and you noticeably detect the players’ lack of proclaiming that success in the name of the university or community, and why would they? The portrait painted by “The Gospel According to Mac” shows the Boulder campus of the era as an unwelcoming environment, leaving the players’ isolated and out of place, enemies of the same people who would cheer them on the field, leading to tension and an assortment of arrests in which black players were always viewed as thugs and white students were always viewed as victims. (No mention, it must be said, is made of former McCartney players of this era, Miles Kusayanagi and Marcus Reliford, who were charged with rape. Nor is McCartney’s defense of their actions on account of not being, in his eyes, “violent” mentioned.)

Yet for all this familial rhetoric, McCartney often failed his actual family, brought home in the almost soap-operaish episode in which his daughter Kristi had a child with  team’s star quarterback, Sal Aunese (who would die, terribly, from stomach cancer in the fall of 1989). Kristi expresses genuine hurt on camera about her father neglect in offering full parental support. “I pray for my daughter every day,” McCartney says. “I’ve never missed a day.” Yet elsewhere in the documentary he confesses to his failings as a father, leaving us to deduce that, whether he grasps it or not, prayer alone is not enough.

“The Gospel According to Mac” lays bare its subject’s fascinating, if extraordinarily vexing, complications. He forms Promise Keepers, a Christian organization that ministers to men the need for traditional marriages, which McCartney himself violates by revealing an extra-marital affair. He speaks out against abortion and homosexuality, refusing to back down. And yet…for such a staunch conservative, McCartney’s attitudes on race, particularly in light of the current goings-on in Columbia, Missouri where acts of racist hate have unleashed a wave of protests, are rather quite progressive. He speaks now and he spoke then of white privilege. He argued for more black coaches, more black professors, more black community leaders.

Though the film does proffer on-field highlights during this period, particularly during the team’s national championship season of 1990, many of these memorable images Podhoretz acutely ties back to the Coach’s inner-nature. For instance, a game won against Missouri via an infamous fifth down was a lucky anomaly for which McCartney roundly refused to apologize. The documentary points out how some viewed that as his supposed Christian values being skewed. But if anything, it underlined McCartney’s tenets. For him, Christianity is not one foot in, one foot out; it’s all in, all the time, devoted and in your face. What he knows, he knows, and becomes readily apparent through his behavior and what he says that he has treated every aspect of his life with the same sort of rigid certainty.

Religion and football might not mix officially, as the ALCU declared of Mac’s program in the early days, and you might be able to eliminate the word of God from a coach’s lexicon, but “The Gospel According to Mac” makes plain that the zealotry and evangelism of Christianity still informs college football considerably. Look no further than the opening images, juxtaposing McCartney as he ministers and shots of McCartney paying homage to Colorado’s Folsom Field, and the line blurs and they blend together and you momentarily cannot help but recall how casually people refer to football stadiums as cathedrals.

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