ESPN 30 for 30: The Gospel According to Mac (2015)

Directed by Jim Podhoretz

Religion and politics are often two of the most hot-button topics to come up in conversation. Tradition tells us to never bring them up at work or at the dinner table, as the ensuing arguments will, more times than not, sour the mood or relationship in question. In lieu of such topics, sports can be a much more entertaining argument to be had, as there will always be arguments when it comes to sports, especially as it pertains specifically to College Football, and while toes can be stepped on, at least slightly more civil arguments are usually had over sports than religion and politics. But what if you happened to combine an argument about college football with religion? No, I’m not talking about Notre Dame being graced by God to be the greatest program in the country. (For the record, I am Catholic, but have a disdain for Notre Dame football).

I am talking about ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 installment, The Gospel According to Mac, which outlines the pretty remarkable story of former University of Colorado head football coach Bill McCartney. McCartney, a former assistant at the University of Michigan (this is a reason I should dislike McCartney given my roots in Columbus), was hired to a dilapidated Colorado program who was perennially in the dumps of the Big 8 (now the Big XII) conference. With no true rival, McCartney developed ones with powerhouse programs like Oklahoma and Nebraska, using a unique combination of religion, confidence, and hard work to bring in top end recruits to Boulder, Colorado, building a national program that would go on to compete not just for Big 8 titles, but national titles. McCartney wore his religion on his sleeve, but that didn’t necessarily mean his program was without sin or fault, as his tumultuous tenure at the university proved.

Sin and college football often indicates recruiting violations or improper benefits of some sort. However, McCartney’s Colorado program was in the news for other reasons. Principally, many of the new top recruits McCartney was attracting to Boulder were from lower income African American families. These young black student-athletes were often caught in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong profile. Players were arrested at an alarming rate, concerning university personnel and fans of the program. But instead of discarding a “crooked” coach along with his “thug” players, the university gave McCartney a chance, and with that chance, he gave his players a chance to develop into not just a great players on the field, but great students in the classroom, and great men in life.

The controversy and unbelievable stories that seemed to surround McCartney during his time in Boulder mostly come from star quarterback Sal Aunese. Not wanting to spoil the most interesting elements of the story, I will leave it at that (watch the film or look up Sal Aunese/Bill McCartney for more information if so inclined). The years when Aunese was involved in the Colorado program, and even those when he was not, bring a sharp focus to Jim Podhoretz’s film. Podhoretz profiles McCartney in a very open and honest way, very similar to how McCartney seemed to live his life as a football coach. Podhoretz shows us the faults, of which there are plenty, but he also shows us the redemption. In this profile, we see a sinner who is aware of his faults, looking for ways to correct them, make them right, and be redeemed in Jesus Christ his Lord and Savior.

Whether you agree with McCartney and his religion is somewhat irrelevant to Podhoretz’s honest portrayal of the man. McCartney seems genuine, in the best possible ways. However, he also is a flawed man who showed neglect to his family in more ways than one. Considering religion is such a sticky topic of conversation, and how involved religion, and specifically Christianity, is in McCartney’s story, Jim Podhoretz delivers The Gospel According to Mac in a very confident and open manner, laying bare the skeletons in McCartney’s closest while giving him the benefit of the doubt, showing us firsthand the great, lasting relationships he built with his players (in perhaps the only effective roundtable setting I have seen in the 30 for 30 series). It is refreshing to see a documentary like this not shy away from the topic of religion. Podhoretz doesn’t take a stance or judge his subject, choosing instead to just show McCartney as he was, and as he is.

*** – Very Good


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