Ed McCaffrey’s Bears are the kings of turnovers. Just not the good kind.
From Aug. 1, 2021 through this past June 30, UNC saw a reported 41 players leave via the transfer portal. And some, as the Greeley Tribune chronicled via anonymous sourcing, did not go quietly.
“Look,” McCaffrey told me at the annual Front Range Huddle in LoDo last week when I asked about the assertions that he, and UNC, had “failed their student-athletes.” “Anonymous is synonymous with pusillanimous as far as I’m concerned.”
Pusillanimous: Adjective. To show lack of courage or determination; timid.
Hey, regime changes in college football have rarely been bloodless affairs. Promises from previous staffs are routinely broken. Offensive systems flip from run-happy to pass-happy, and vice versa. The new guy’s a jerk. Happens all the time.
But come on, Ed: 41 guys?
“Look, there were a lot of unhappy players (at UNC),” the former Broncos icon continued. “Last year was rough. In anybody’s defense who left here unhappy, it was a rough year.
“If I was a player, and I’m like, ‘We don’t get to practice or meet in person and I gotta wear a mask and our schedule keeps changing,’ I’d have been frustrated too.
“It was through no fault of mine. I didn’t do that to (them). But that was the coaching change, and guys that have been here for five years that are used to doing it a certain way (disagreed). Look, if you’re the type of player that speaks out about a program once you leave, then you weren’t the type of player we wanted in our program, right?”
In McCaffrey’s defense, he signed up for UNC football in December 2019 when the program had hit the skids at about 95 miles per hour, the double whammy of bad and irrelevant. Then COVID wiped out pretty much an entire calendar year. McCaffrey didn’t make his coaching debut in a game proper with the Bears until September 2021 in Boulder. In the meantime, he’d already switched out two assistants, one of whom he replaced by installing son Max, who’d never been a college play-caller before, as UNC’s offensive coordinator.
A bad CU bunch that would score a total of 34 points over the next four weeks handed Ed’s guys a 35-7 thrashing at Folsom Field. While the Bears would wrap up September at 2-2 thanks to a home overtime win over Northern Arizona, they dropped six of their last seven to finish 3-8, and 10th (2-6) in the Big Sky Conference.
But it was the off-the-field stuff that made a weird hire weirder. During a 40-7 loss at Montana State, the aforementioned Max broke a clipboard on the sidelines and then tossed it into the crowd, hitting an opposing fan who needed medical attention. Montana State police reportedly logged the incident as an assault.
“We had high expectations, you know, (and) maybe didn’t completely understand the challenges in front of us,” the elder McCaffrey explained.
“And then after that second game, we lost 25% of our team and coaching staff. Some of our coaches never returned for the rest of the year. We couldn’t hire new guys, so we were scrambling … we knew when we had about a 50% vaccination rate, that it was gonna be a long season. And it was. But I was proud of the guys that took the field.”
If you don’t recognize the guys who’ll take the field for Saturday’s visit from Houston Baptist in the Bears’ season opener, well, join the club. Of the 104 players listed on the Bears’ website as of Aug. 26, 44 of them (42.3%) transferred from another college.
And 27 of those 44 (26%) landed from an FBS program somewhere else — a club that includes tight ends Alec Pell (ex-CU) and Kyle Helbig (ex-CSU). The ’22 Bears are slated to open the season with nine grad students, just five seniors or redshirt seniors, and a whopping 45 players who are either freshmen or redshirt freshmen.
“People tend to forget that our net is positive in terms of what we got from the portal,” McCaffrey said of the Bears’ free-flowing transfer traffic. “(2021), that (was) a COVID year for me as a coach. It was a phenomenal experience living through a global pandemic, living through a new transfer portal, one-time transfer rules, living through the (new) NIL legislation. I feel like I got my doctorate in coaching.”
He’s still learning on the job. Which is how you end up with assistant coaches throwing clipboards. And former players throwing stones.
“I mean, I feel like I’ve done everything the right way,” McCaffrey continued. “I’ve got absolutely nothing to hide.
“I’m happy to talk with anyone about any specific situation. One thing I don’t do is throw even former players under the bus. Because I easily could mention every name of every player. I lived it, right? Because (athletic director) Darren Dunn has been with me the whole time, he’s seen everything that I’ve done. I’ve done everything the right way.”
People dig kibitzing with Ed McCaffrey, because he’s Ed McCaffrey. On a fundraising level, that’s always going to bring the juice.
But a successful, sustainable football program isn’t built on the number of people who want to be photographed with your coach. It’s built on the caliber of athletes who want to actually play for them. And that last bit in Greeley, some 32 months in, still remains to be seen.