Ed McCaffrey couldn’t cut the mustard. A lot of people outside Greeley knew it. More to the point, staffers inside the UNC football offices knew it, too.
“(He) had really no system, no organizational skills,” Dave Baldwin, the former CSU Rams and Bears offensive coordinator, told me earlier this year when I’d asked about his experiences working under McCaffrey in 2020 and ’21.
“He took pride in saying, ‘I do things last-minute and it seems to get done.’ Well, when you’re dealing with 105 kids, that’s a little different. And I think it’s taken him about a year, two years now, to understand. (But at the start), I was in the office every day. And he wasn’t. I never had a ‘snow day’ in my life in college football. Every college coach I’d ever met, he’s in the office, grinding. That just wasn’t the case (with McCaffrey).”
Let’s give UNC athletic director Darren Dunn credit for this much, in hindsight: He tried.
The Bears, who fired McCaffrey Monday after 22 games and a 6-16 record, probably have no business playing Division I football, especially given where the sport is heading. Name/Image/Likeness opportunities. The transfer portal. Players who now think of themselves as free agents at the ages of 17, 18 and 19. Poach or be poached. Go big or go home.
The Bears can only go so big, so they swung hard at a wild-card coaching candidate with no collegiate coaching experience. Someone who’d give an inconspicuous FCS stop instant buzz, instant name recognition, instant cache.
Ed McCaffrey, a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Broncos, opens doors. From a purely business perspective, it made perfect sense, especially for a program that’s become the Vanderbilt of the Big Sky.
But from a football purview, it was a disaster from the jump. As a name, Ed McCaffrey was too good for UNC. As a coach, he was still the guy from Valor Christian, convinced that talent would make up for a game plan’s gaps. Alas, what works against Mountain Vista or Rock Canyon won’t fly against Montana State or Eastern Washington.
“He’s hired everybody that he knows rather than going out and bringing in experienced guys,” said Baldwin, who was let go by McCaffrey in the spring of 2021 and eventually replaced by Ed’s son Max. “I think he really did something good (when) he hired two coaches that had been at Idaho, and that gives you experience (in the Big Sky).
“He hired coaches that had never been coaches at this level … you’ve got to have guys that have been around. Recruiting plans — how many offensive linemen, how many wideouts, you’ve got to (make) plans. And there wasn’t a plan.”
In the end, the problem wasn’t so much luring talent to Nottingham Field as much as keeping it. In January 2022, one tracking site pegged UNC with 28 portal transfer entries; by June 30, the Bears were reportedly up to 41.
There were whispers. Whispers of favoritism and family over NCAA familiarity. The decision to elevate Max McCaffrey, who’d originally been hired as a receivers coach and had never served as an offensive coordinator at the collegiate level before, only raised more eyebrows.
“It was a team investment, for sure,” the younger McCaffrey told me Monday. “A lot of people involved with this program … worked their (rears) off to help leave this place better than we found it.”
Nepotism is old news in college football. One of the privileges of royalty is the green light to hire friends and loved ones. Yet when said friends and loved ones — lookin’ at you, Nathaniel Hackett — also stink at their gigs, and everybody can see it, players start carping behind your back.
More whispers. That Dylan McCaffrey, Ed’s son, had transferred to UNC from Michigan with all kinds of tools. But that those tools — Dylan threw for 12 touchdowns and 12 picks this season after five scores and seven interceptions last fall — made him merely a solid, and not exceptional, Big Sky player. Whispers that the coaching staff’s default position was that it was never Dylan’s fault. Because his family name and recruiting profile, deep down, were too good for UNC, too.
“I didn’t feel like there was any favoritism that way,” Max countered. “We treated our players equally and treated them with respect.”
Still, the McCaffreys needed more outside voices. Seasoned voices. Voices who weren’t afraid to stand up to a Broncos icon.
“(UNC) hired a guy without any experience,” Baldwin reflected. “And that’s tough at the college level.
“It’s about relationships. If you’re in the community and you’re in the living rooms with them, you go to their classes, you check in on them, you go to their team meals — do everything (so) they know and can watch you care. At UNC, that’s the only way.”
Baldwin cared. Still cares about Ed, too, He was the elder McCaffrey’s position coach at Stanford in the late ’80s, under then-coach Jack Elway, John Elway’s father, and part of a staff that also featured future Rams icon Sonny Lubick.
As offensive coordinator under Jim McElwain, he helped to draw up some of the top offensive attacks in CSU history. Baldwin might’ve even done the same at UNC. If he’d been given a chance.