Game Day

McCaffrey right at home off beaten path

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The second Ed McCaffrey signed his contract to become the head coach of the University of Northern Colorado he became the most accomplished football player to ever be a head coach in the Big Sky Conference.

McCaffrey was an All-America wide receiver at one of America’s most prestigious colleges, Stanford, and went on to be a third-round draft choice of the New York Giants.  A one-year move close to his college stomping grounds of San Francisco yielded a Super Bowl XXIX ring. 

His most famous work came when he went to the Denver Broncos where he became a fan favorite for his hustle and clutch play. He would win two more Super Bowl rings (XXXII and XXXIII) in Denver highlighted by a five reception, 72-yard performance in SB XXXIII to help Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway cap his career with a crescendo.

Which begs the question: what’s a man who’s lived that football life doing in Greeley, Colorado coaching at a place that has struggled mightily after joining the Big Sky Conference.

“I love football and I love being the head coach,” McCaffrey quipped during an interview on ESPN’s Nuanez Now last summer. “I certainly could’ve been a receivers coach at a lot of different places at higher levels, but I like being the head coach.”

McCaffrey didn’t take a short cut to this job.  He started out coaching little league football and worked his way up to the high school level where he led prominent Denver-area private school Valor Christian to a 26-2 record and a state title in just two years at the helm.

“I did coach in little league and learned a lot more than you’d think coaching little kids, ” he said. “Learned how to coach and create good experiences for the players.”

Coaching at UNC, however, will be a whole other matter for a man who played in 185 games, caught 565 passes for 7,422 yards and 55 touchdowns at the pinnacle of his sport.

The Bears have never contended for a Big Sky crown since joining the league in 2006. Scott Downing went 9-47, including losing 35 of his 40 Big Sky games as the head coach at UNC from 2006 until 2010.

Earnest Collins Jr., who was an all conference defensive back and kick returner at UNC in the early 1990s, went 28-72 during his tenure from 2011 to 2019. Collins did lead his alma mater to consecutive winning seasons in 2015 and 2016 (each 6-5 campaigns that included a 7-9 Big Sky record) served as the best campaigns in the program’s Division I history.

Northern Colorado has been chasing the pride and tradition of a program that advanced to the NCAA Division II playoffs nine times between 1980 and 2002, including runs to the 1996 and 1997 national titles under the guidance of Joe Glenn, who went on to become one of the most beloved coaches in University of Montana history.

Northern Colorado is making moves to entice higher end players to Greeley recently.  A new state-of-the-art sports performance center is in the works and Nottingham Field has a new turf.  Change in the win-loss column isn’t apt to come rapidly.

Ed McCaffrey/ contributed

McCaffrey took the UNC job after all his children had graduated high school and moved on.  He consulted his family before accepting the position.

“They were so excited for me, because they know how much I love football and how much I love coaching,” he said. “It was heartwarming for me to know that they were excited for me to have this opportunity.”

McCaffrey has brought some of his family with him. While most fantasy football owners bemoan and resent the loss of Carolina Panthers superstar running back Christian MCaffrey, Ed spends every day with two other of the four total McCaffrey brothers.

Max McCaffrey, the oldest of Ed’s four sons, was one of the great Colorado high school football players of the last decade, at least, leading Valor Christian to three Colorado state titles. He went on to start for three years at Duke at wide receiver. He is now Northern Colorado’s offensive coordinator.

Christian suffered a hamstring injury earlier this season on Thursday Night Football. Meanwhile the other two McCaffrey brothers have been on the move recently.

Dylan McCaffrey, a 6-foot-5 prototype quarterback, was a four-star recruit, ranked as one of the top six quarterbacks in the country. The two-time Colorado and Gatorade Player of the Year started his career at Michigan, earning 2017 scout team Player of the Year. He appeared in 13 games and threw for 242 yards in 2018 and 2019 combined before electing to graduate transfer to UNC to reunite with his dad.

Northern Colorado quarterback Dylan McCaffrey/ contributed

So far the results have been upbeat for the Bears, who stand at 2-2 overall and 1-0 in the Big Sky.  This for a team that won team games in each 2018 and 2019 before electing to skip the recent 2021 spring season.

UNC is coming off a huge league win over Northern Arizona, which occurred just one week after the Lumberjacks knocked off the Arizona Wildcats of the PAC-12. Northern Colorado outlasted the Lumberjacks 17-10 in overtime a week after NAU knocked off UA in Tucson for the first time since 1936.

The Bears have looked strong defensively as they’ve only allowed over 17 points in one game and that was against the PAC-12’s Colorado Buffaloes. The offense has struggled, however, despite a strong showing in a 45-13 win over Houston Baptist. UNC has managed just 34 points in the other three games combined. 

Saturday’s game at Montana State will be another tough test for McCaffrey and his staff and team. Ironically, the family affair that Northern Colorado has become visits MSU on family weekend at Bobcat Stadium.

A win there would definitely be the jump start UNC and McCaffrey are looking for. Montana State and Northern Colorado.

“I still think we are improving as a football team,” Ed McCaffrey said on Wednesday. “Some of that might be we didn’t have a spring season, we didn’t have a fall season, we haven’t been on campus for the majority of the last year so it’s probably to be expected.

“We are still trying to put together our best football game. It hasn’t been done yet. It would certainly be great timing for that to happen this week.”

About Thomas Stuber

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