Mike MacIntyre remembers the exact moment when he had his reckoning.
It was January, 3 a.m., and Colorado’s football coach was in Nashville visiting his parents who had been placed into an assisted living home just a couple months before.
As he stood there in that moment, months of pent up emotion and struggle washed over him. It wasn’t so much about the Buffaloes 4-8 football season — that, as strange as it sounds, had almost proven to be an escape — it was watching his parents, his once bright and lively parents, needing orderlies to help them with the most mundane things. It was the blood test results he had received the day before he arrived in Nashville that said he would likely be on a slew of medications thanks to poor diet and not enough exercise. It was the insurance company that deemed his health high-risk. It was the overweight and tired Mike MacIntyre that sadly looked back at him as he tried to wrestle all of his problems at the same time.
He knew things had to change.
“When I went home, it was the first time I saw them in the nursing home, and I came back and I was kind of depressed,” MacIntyre told Yahoo Sports. “So, I woke up that morning, about 3 in the morning, kind of walking around, thinking about, you know, life. When your parents are in that situation, it makes you reflect. And I said, I’ve got to do a change.”
For MacIntyre, who had constructed a reputation of being a rebuilder, his greatest challenge was rebuilding himself. While the mirror brought to light some things he might have avoided seeing, it also brought the realization that in order to get his players to follow him — players that had seen three coaches in the past four seasons — he needed to set a good example and that started with taking better care of himself.
MacIntyre, who is about to begin his second season with the Colorado program, sought out Peter Greenlaw, a former member of the Colorado ski team, who co-authored a book called “Why Diets are Failing Us.” Greenlaw had had a similar epiphany about 10 years ago. The two men worked together to come up with a plan to help MacIntyre get fit and more importantly, stay that way.
Eight months later, MacIntyre has lost almost 60 pounds and he’s ready to give Colorado a similar transformation.
The rebuilder starts again
It’s hard to look down MacIntyre’s resume and find a place he’s been that wasn’t down when he got there. From assistant coaching jobs in college and the NFL to his past two head coaching positions at San Jose State and Colorado, MacIntyre seems to be drawn to places that need rebuilding.
“We’ve been at a lot of hard places to win,” MacIntyre’s wife Trish said. “From beginning to end it hasn’t been easy throughout his career. I think he sees the possibilities instead of the obstacles. It’s not like he’s blind to the obstacles, but he chooses to look at the hope and the future instead of just focusing on the obstacles. And most especially, he doesn’t buy into the opinions of someone else. That’s not going to waver who he is or what he feels he’s called to do.”
In 2010, when MacIntyre began his first head coaching season at San Jose State, he walked into a program that was 2-10, had just three winning seasons since 1993, and he inherited a team that had been depleted thanks to APR penalties that slashed yearly scholarships from 85 to between 67 and 72. It was an unenviable job, especially in a WAC that was dominated by Boise State and a Nevada team that had Colin Kaepernick as its quarterback.
But MacIntyre was not deterred.
Even after he went 1-12 his first season and had a team that was so injury-stricken that he barely had enough scholarship players with which to practice, MacIntyre kept an optimistic attitude and it was infectious.
His second year, the Spartans improved to 5-7, the school’s first five-win season since 2008. In 2012, MacIntyre’s team went 11-2, won the Military Bowl and finished the season ranked No. 24 in the BCS standings, the first-ever BCS ranking for San Jose State.
He was a perfect fit for a struggling Colorado program that hadn’t had a winning season since 2005, muddled through the back half of coach Dan Hawkins’ tenure and gave up on first-time head coach Jon Embree after two seasons and a 4-21 record.
When MacIntyre came in, he didn’t try to change everything, but everything at Colorado started to change because of him. The university hired a new athletic director and the school broke ground on a much-needed $181 million facilities project to help the Buffs recruit and keep up with their Pac-12 brethren. Colorado saw what MacIntyre did with limited resources at San Jose State and knew that if it equipped him with all the right tools, MacIntyre might be able to build something amazing.
Like the facilities, MacIntyre’s rebuilding project with the Buffaloes continues to be a work in progress. The program went 4-8 last season and won just one Pac-12 game.
But like those early years at San Jose State, MacIntyre was not discouraged. In fact, with newfound energy from his weight loss, he’s become more driven than ever to make Colorado relevant again.
“Maybe some people would be scared away from rebuilding projects, but that’s where I think he’s able to see a little bit of the diamond in the rough,” Trish MacIntyre said. “He sees it differently, maybe, than someone else. He focuses on the diamond and he knows it’s going to come out and shine in time, but it’s a process.
“That’s the thing I think Mike has, he is an eternal optimist in that he’s going to do whatever it takes to find a way to be the most successful that he can be. I think that gets to be a little contagious, hopefully, amongst the people around him. He’s inspiring because of that. And he’s not expecting anyone else to do something that he isn’t willing to do himself first.”
Investing in the players, not just the program
At night, when no one else is around, MacIntyre walks the halls of the Dal Ward Center on the Colorado campus where the football meeting rooms and offices reside.
One of the things he wanted his players to do was take pride in themselves regardless of the team’s record, so he had wall-to-ceiling action shots of his seniors plastered throughout the hallway.
He’s made the football facility a safe haven for his players. A place where they can escape the negativity that has surrounded the Colorado football program for almost a decade and realize that if they believe in MacIntyre’s program, he’ll believe in them right back.
He looks at those players and they remind him that he’s not just building a program, he’s building boys into men and that, more than anything else, is what he loves about coaching.
In 1999, MacIntyre’s father, George MacIntyre, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As McIntyre’s family tried to deal with the tragic news, he saw his father’s former players become equally as sad about his father’s illness.
“I saw guy after guy come by and say, ‘Coach, I wouldn’t be where I am today without you.’” MacIntyre said. “A lot of them said, ‘I don’t even know who my dad was. You’re the only father figure I’ve had and every day I think of you.’ Are you kidding me? When I saw that, I said, wow, he really did make a difference.”
It was those moments that shaped the type of coach MacIntyre wanted to become. The kind of coach that could be easy to talk to, fair, but heavy-handed when he needed to. The kind of coach that didn’t boot a kid from the team because they were upset about the old regime getting fired and they didn’t want to abide by the new one. The kind of coach that looked himself straight in the eye at 3 a.m. and realized that he couldn’t change a football program until he changed himself.
“Their parents have handed us their baby and I’m in charge of trying to help that baby become a man and that’s what my whole goal is,” MacIntyre said. “That’s what really drives my engine as a coach. Now, I love winning, I love competition, I want to win every game and we’re going to eventually one day do that, but if you put all that in front, then all you’re doing is using kids. How shallow is that?
“I know I’ve got to win games to keep my job, but that’s not the true measure of how I measure success. It’s how these young men end up.”
Coping with mortality and leaving an impression
When MacIntyre sees his dad in the nursing home in Nashville, they don’t talk much football like they used to — the multiple sclerosis has hampered parts of George MacIntyre’s ability to communicate. But that doesn’t mean MacIntyre doesn’t want to impress his father with his coaching accomplishments.
“Now that he’s sick, it’s hard to talk to him as much,” MacIntyre said of his father. “I know he has pride in it, though. There’s no doubt.”
MacIntyre carries a Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award coin with his father’s likeness on it commemorating the award George MacIntyre won as a head coach at Vanderbilt in 1982. It allows him to share moments — good and bad — with his father and it also helps him keep perspective on why he does what he does.
MacIntyre said his players have taken a liking to his new appearance and are embracing his energetic attitude. A few weeks ago, MacIntyre was running with the team and as he passed players he yelled, “58 pounds ago you could have caught me, but you can’t catch me now.”
He almost revels in the moment.
“I think now, the players say, ‘Coach got balance now,’” MacIntyre said. “I’m showing them you can be successful, you can do all that, but you also have to take care of yourself. So, when I tell them, you have school work, you have workouts, you’ve got to do this, you have to eat right, you’ve got to take care of yourself all the time, they go, ‘Yeah, it can be done.’ So, I think it gives them that reinforcement and I think they understand that it’s an all-the-time thing.”
As Colorado opens up against Colorado State on Friday, MacIntyre refuses to put a number on the wins he thinks his team will have in 2014. He’s not expecting miracles — he knows they’re still building — but he’s also seen a greater comprehension of the playbook, a greater understanding of defensive reads, the ability to make changes on the field within a drive instead of waiting to come to the sideline, and most importantly, he’s seen his players start to hold themselves accountable the way he did eight months ago.
Who knows whether it will lead to Colorado’s first bowl game since 2007, but things are definitely in a much better place now.
“I guess looking in the mirror, you want to exemplify everything that you want others to do themselves,” Trish MacIntyre said. “I just think that’s how he is in life and that’s his perspective in life. He isn’t willing to ask anyone else to do any more than he’s going to do himself.
“He’s pushed himself harder than anyone and he’s achieved things. He’s just made for this.”
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