After allegations last winter of an unhealthy culture, the University of Northern Colorado stood by football coach Ed McCaffrey and assured that it was all a big misunderstanding. Things would improve, university officials said.
McCaffrey’s era ended this week after UNC went 6-16 in two seasons and 4-12 against Big Sky opponents. Some close to the program say nothing changed from last year.
UNC fired McCaffrey on Monday, effective immediately, after three years and two seasons at the helm. At the time of publication, the university had not provided reasons for his termination.
“This is never an easy decision,” UNC Athletic Director Darren Dunn said in the announcement, released shortly after 1 p.m. Monday. “We appreciate all the work, time and energy coach McCaffrey has put into the program and we wish him the best in the future.”
By 5 p.m. Monday, McCaffrey deleted all tweets related to UNC, including the one congratulating graduate student Elijah Dotson on his record-breaking season.
The Tribune asked McCaffrey on Twitter if he planned to provide any further comment about the termination or public responses from those associated with the program. He said no further statement would be released.
Senior Associate Athletic Director David Sabolcik said at 12:18 p.m. Tuesday that UNC “will not comment on our former coach or former players.”
Northern Colorado hired the former Denver Bronco in December 2019 after Earnest Collins was fired. Collins struggled to find success on the Division I level but left highly respected by players and staff.
Fans and players hoped McCaffrey would bring a similar culture but more wins to the program.
McCaffrey — without college coaching experience on any level — coached the Bears in 2020 for brief periods. His debut was postponed until fall 2021 due to COVID-19.
“I was kind of shocked, but I felt a relief for the players,” said an outgoing senior player who was granted anonymity due to concerns about retaliation and employment. “I just feel like if it would have been another year of what was going on, then it wouldn’t have gotten any better.”
Former player Justice Littrell celebrated the termination. He sent the Tribune a detailed accounting of his experience with the program.
Littrell played for UNC from 2015 to 2020, before effectively being cut from the team. He served on the UNC Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, as president of the Big Sky Conference committee and as the vice chairman of the national Division I committee.
“Today, I can smile. I can breathe deeply,” Littrell said Monday. “I am so relieved that his reign is over. And while many of my brothers have already chosen to leave UNC and will feel the effects of him getting fired for months to come, I truly believe better days are ahead.”
‘I can finally cheer for my school again’
Littrell came to UNC in 2015 and redshirted. He tore his ACL, MCL and both menisci in the first game of the 2016 season. He needed major surgery in 2017, forcing him to miss that season.
In 2018, Littrell played fullback to limit his risk of further injury and received All-Big Sky honorable mention. The graduate played the entire 2019 season, back on defense, with another injured meniscus. He did not receive medical testing until the season concluded.
Then, Northern Colorado fired Collins. Littrell said the administration asked him to join replacement interviews, ask some questions and provide his opinion to the selection committee, which featured President Andy Feinstein, Dunn, Senior Woman Administrator Rachel Walton and Sabolcik.
Littrell said he looked through the candidates’ information and studied them like a playbook. McCaffrey was not included.
“I had a pretty good feeling of what our team wanted in a coach,” Littrell said. “I fully submerged myself in the process, not only for me, but for the other 100 dudes in the locker room and the countless others who would follow.”
Littrell sat through multiple interviews, lasting three to five hours each, for three days. During discussions about final candidates, Dunn took a phone call from McCaffrey. Littrell said McCaffrey expressed interest in the job, but the group agreed to select from the interviewees. The athletic department was supposed to release the final decision at 10 a.m. the next day, Littrell said. That did not happen, and Dunn allegedly agreed to interview McCaffrey.
“It went about as bad as it could have gone (for) anyone who never coached college football,” Littrell said of McCaffrey’s interview.
He said McCaffrey focused on complaints about Valor Christian, including benching players for bad grades.
“He rambled on for hours on this and had no plans on how to make UNC football great again,” Littrell said. “Some questions included recruiting, coaching, staff and player development.”
McCaffrey did not provide a coherent answer that showed a plan, while the other candidates provided graphs about their recruiting plans, which development skills they wanted to target and potential coaching staff hires, Littrell alleged.
The former team captain said the committee overlooked the lack of preparation, citing the last-minute nature.
Littrell said the group discussed the finalists again. This time, the conversation mentioned potential ticket sale increases, profitability and resident approval. There was no decision at the end of the meeting. The next day, Dunn and Feinstein announced McCaffrey as the head coach.
A former sports performance employee said Littrell shared the same information in 2020 as he did in the statement given Monday. The staff was also notified of the planned 10 a.m. announcement, but that did not happen, and events progressed as Littrell described.
A few days later, the university announced the McCaffrey hire.
“Coach McCaffrey was selected after a nationwide search that included input from multiple stakeholders,” the university said in a statement on Tuesday. “As with any hire, many different factors were considered during that process.”
To ease concerns, McCaffrey promised when hired to meet with each player individually. Littrell, mirroring claims from other players, said that did not happen, and said he jumped through hoops to get a meeting.
“He was literally never at the school,” Littrell said, agreeing with what some of his teammates told the Tribune in January. “He lived in Denver an hour away, and only came up when absolutely necessary.”
Littrell said when he finally connected with McCaffrey in early 2020, the now-ousted coach assured him his scholarship and place on the team would remain. The captain remained involved with meetings, tutoring young players on the defensive scheme and participating in the virtual workout challenges when the COVID shutdown occurred.
He was told during COVID that he would play at fullback. Littrell wanted to play offense and defense and was told no. It wasn’t ideal, but he accepted it. He continued to contact McCaffrey with no returned calls or texts.
About three weeks after being notified of the position change, Littrell received a meeting request. His former roommate, also an older player with injuries, had been cut already.
At the meeting, without McCaffrey or athletic trainers, Littrell received notification of what he called a “forced medical disqualification.” This meant he could keep his scholarship to finish school, but his athletic career was over. Littrell wanted to talk with McCaffrey and was promised a phone call.
“I still, to this day, three years later, never received that call,” Littrell said. “I didn’t want to admit it, but truthfully, I was cut.”
Sabolcik told the Tribune that doctors, none of whom are employed by UNC, determine medical disqualification. No coaches and administrators join the evaluation that would lead to a disqualification. There have been instances when coaches wanted players back, but they were unable to return, he said.
“Player safety is of the utmost importance,” Sabolcik said. “UNC can’t make that call. We don’t pressure student-athletes into that.
“We have no control, Ed has no control. No coach nor administrator has a control over a student-athlete being medically disqualified. We have no say so in it whatsoever.”
If someone is deemed medically ineligible, they can opt to transfer programs and seek another opinion.
Littrell said he did not have contact with doctors on the day he found out about the disqualification. It was an issue that was previously discussed, he said, but he was cleared.
He agreed he could have sought another university, but that is not easy. The disqualification “ruined” his athletic career and affected his post-graduate career goals.
That was disappointing, but the bigger issue was McCaffrey’s inability to truly lead the program.
“I don’t think Ed handled himself in the right way in any one circumstance I have read,” Littrell said. “While Collins was not perfect, he at least always cared about us as people off the field and made the hard calls to our face — not by sending someone on his staff to do the dirty work.”
‘I feel for the players’
The 2022 outgoing senior, who was known for his strong work ethic, positivity and compassionate demeanor, said offseason promises did not come to fruition. What happened within the program this fall and the public image did not align. It was difficult for him to pretend everything was fine and that UNC resolved the issues.
At first, it looked like things would improve, too, but nothing was long term. Most of what drew complaints from last year still occurred, he said.
“It’s just one of those scenarios where you tell someone the issue, they fix it, and then they go back to who they were,” the player said. “As time went on, you just noticed, it was kind of like a facade; it was kind of fake. (You) just put on this front as if things were going to change and things are going to be better. At the end of the day, it’s not that way. That’s what happened. You try to be positive about the issue and the situation, but there’s only so much you can do.”
Another Bears football alumnus and booster said it was difficult to see what happened within the program, calling it “embarrassing.” He was part of the 2015 and 2016 teams that went 6-5, the only two winning seasons in Division I history.
That wasn’t anything spectacular, but the players found some success and had fun, he said. All three sources said McCaffrey — and the family affair he turned the program into — was unhealthy.
“I feel for the players, because those were two of the best years of my life … It could have been a home-run hire, but it was a huge strikeout,” the booster said. “For a while, I was embarrassed to even say I played football at UNC.”
The sources said consistent structure did not really exist. McCaffrey cut players regularly and treated it like a professional team and not a small FCS program that helped young men receive higher education.
“It just wasn’t the way a DI program should have been run,” the player said.
The booster claimed it was all about the numbers and what each player did immediately for UNC, not how UNC could develop them into great athletes and people, alluding to Littrell.
There were ongoing concerns that he didn’t truly invest in the program or community — that was a major point of contention with players who departed last season — and with nepotism.
Dave Baldwin said as much to The Denver Post. Baldwin coached McCaffrey at Stanford, worked as the Colorado State offensive coordinator and briefly at UNC.
“(He) had really no system, no organizational skills,” Baldwin told the Post.
Baldwin shared similar sentiments, reflecting what others told the Tribune: McCaffrey was not in the office. He procrastinated. Most of the coaching hires had little to no experience on the collegiate level. He wasn’t invested enough.
Players practiced outside in the winter, the player said, in temperatures far below what they probably should have been training at. He claimed the turf would sometimes be frozen.
The booster said seeing nearly 40 players enter the transfer portal was the “biggest red flag (he’s) ever seen,” as well. Transfers happen, especially with the new rules, but losing that many worried supporters.
“Those guys, a lot of them, bled UNC, did not want to leave but left because they were so miserable and because of how little Ed cared,” he added.
Baldwin said a lot of success on the collegiate level comes from relationships, being in the community, checking with the players, going to team meals. All of the little stuff.
“Do everything (so) they know and can watch you care,” Baldwin said. “At UNC, that’s the only way.”
Littrell experienced depression and feels pain when the team plays. He shouldn’t hate his alma mater or root for the team to lose, but he does. Walton was one of the people who helped him keep his scholarship and finish his education.
He holds no ill will for them, the other terminated staff members or the players who transferred or quit. Littrell said they loved UNC and did what they could to help the program thrive.
“I will forever be indebted to all of these people, and I will also forever feel guilty for being part of the group that ruined so many people’s lives by hiring Ed,” Littrell said.
Littrell said McCaffrey stole the opportunity to have a senior day with the knowledge it would be his last game. He won’t put on another Bears helmet and play with his teammates or get tell to his future children he graduated with a specific UNC football class. .
He is only now coming forward because he did not want to cause additional damage to the school while McCaffrey was employed. Littrell did not mince words in his final message.
“ I pray you never get hired as a coach of anyone ever again,” Littrell said Monday. “I hope you realize the pain you have caused. I hope it eats you alive. But, mostly, I hope you feel sorry for your actions. That way, everyone burned along the way can ghost you, just like you did to them.”
What comes next?
The university announced it would begin a national search for the next head coach. There are rumors already about who UNC would be interested in, but the booster said he’s not sure who would actually want the job.
In fact, he said, UNC should have hired Marty English or Jed Stugart, both former assistants, instead of McCaffrey. English coaches at Wyoming, and Stugart led Lindenwood through a transfer to Division I and into the FCS polls this season.
Whoever UNC lands, the booster said the Bears program may not ever be a powerhouse. It may operate more like a junior college, where players develop and go to larger programs.
That, however, is not shameful, he said. It would speak to the training and development they received while in Greeley. Two of Collins’ recruits who left last year are contributing regularly on the Power Five level.
“I think the most important thing moving forward is that the young alumni community has their support — UNC and the players — and is excited to see who they get,” the booster added.
Northern Colorado will pay the contract buyout, the university said.
“Coach McCaffrey will be paid his base salary through Feb. 28, 2023, as set forth in Paragraph 9 of his Employment Contract with UNC,” the statement said. “Under the same term, McCaffrey will receive any Incentive Compensation earned as of his last date of employment, which was Nov. 21, 2022.
McCaffrey received $190,000 as a base salary and was eligible for performance incentives.
Had the university terminated McCaffrey “for cause,” he would not have received any salary or benefits.
The contract approved in 2020 listed four broad reasons McCaffrey could be terminated for cause:
- If he or his staff violated NCAA, Big Sky or university constitutions, regulations or policies;
- Being convicted, pleading guilty or pleading no contest to breaking local, state or federal law;
- Betting money or “anything of value” on the outcomes of UNC games;
- Or the “unwillingness to perform the duties of head football coach, as specified in writing” by Dunn.
Termination without cause includes any reason that does not fit into the “for cause” section. The contract states if he is terminated before Dec. 31, 2022, the university would be required to pay his base salary to Feb. 28, 2023, minus any earnings he receives from any role with a collegiate or professional football team.
The outgoing senior, a McCaffrey recruit, said his younger teammates expressed concern about what comes next. They built relationships with McCaffrey and his staff, but he compared that to a toxic romantic relationship. You can love the person, he said, but that doesn’t mean the relationship is healthy. Even though many know this move was the best for the program, he added, it’s disappointing and hard to digest.
Multiple players announced on Monday intentions to transfer. Based on Twitter announcements, nine players entered the portal since Nov. 2.
The outgoing player still believes in UNC, though, and he believes in his teammates. The senior encouraged his teammates to stay confident and reminded them that everything happens for a reason.
Additionally, he hopes the new coach will see all the work they’ve put in. Things went awry, but the Bears have talent and drive. They just need someone who will truly believe in them and work on development.
“I do want to see UNC win, because they deserve it. It just wasn’t there with the staff, so hopefully they can bring in someone who really appreciates these players, appreciates the work that they put in and can give them a chance to win,” the senior said. “They have the talent to do it, and if they get that guy who can lead them to success, they will.”
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