Dozens of football players stood on the University of Northern Colorado sideline near the end of a 35-0 senior day loss to Montana. At the time, at least one was demoralized, angry and fed up.
Head coach Ed McCaffrey did not pull his son, quarterback Dylan McCaffrey, or some of the other starters in favor of those who were graduating, despite being down 35 midway through the third quarter. For “Brian,” it was the final straw.
“I don’t want to be in a situation like that,” the outgoing transfer told the Tribune about his reason for leaving the program before graduating or running out of eligibility. “I want to find a place that cares about me as a player.”
In the weeks since that Saturday, it’s become clear that Brian wasn’t alone.
UNC is tied for the third-highest number of players in the NCAA Transfer Portal out of all FCS schools and leads the state in transfers with 28, many of whom declared their departures this week.
When McCaffrey was hired in December 2019, players were promised an incredible new opportunity under a Super Bowl champion. Instead, they allegedly experienced unchecked partiality, negligible communications and potential NCAA violations regarding financial aid.
These allegations came to light through statements and interviews provided by eight people who were part of the football program.
The sources represent a diverse group that includes graduating players, transfers, former players and former members of the athletic department. Some were recruited by former coach Earnest Collins, while others came to UNC under McCaffrey. They have been granted anonymity – and their names have been changed – due to concerns that their recruitment or final semester at the university would be negatively affected by speaking out.
“I wanted to take this call for incoming players to be able to see (what’s going on) and not say they haven’t heard about the program before coming,” said “Thomas,” an outgoing transfer who was recruited under McCaffrey. “I wish I knew how it was before I got here.”
McCaffrey said last week that it’s “unfortunate” players who are unhappy about their financial aid or playing time will transfer instead of “trying to work out a situation” with the coaching staff.
Not only did every player interviewed dispute that explanation, many pointed to running back Gene Sledge as proof why the statement is false.
The freshman, recruited by McCaffrey’s staff, entered the portal Thursday. Sledge logged 482 rushing yards, including a 99-yard game against Lamar, and four touchdowns. He was expected to be a major contributor in the program going forward.
“The fact that you’re seeing guys that they recruited leaving, getting opportunities and chances to play (elsewhere), really speaks for just what it is,” said “Jason,” a graduating player.
Players said the poor culture started with rampant favoritism that goes beyond what is expected in sports. Coaches typically have stronger connections with some players and often prefer their own recruits. They said that’s normal.
How excessive the preferential treatment ended up being was not. Several players emphasized they don’t hold grudges against their teammates and that they got along with the other guys. Their frustrations are with McCaffrey and the system they say allowed this divide.
“I think they were more invested with the guys that they brought in, like the transfers from FBS schools,” said “Mark,” who was recruited by McCaffrey’s staff. “They were more in tune with them. I wouldn’t say they were in tune with or cared about the younger guys. They wouldn’t really give us a lot of attention.”
Multiple players accused McCaffrey’s staff of deceit regarding financial aid. FCS programs can award 63 scholarships, according to NCAA rules. These funds can be broken up, meaning players can receive full scholarships or partial ones.
McCaffrey’s statement last week indicated players were leaving because they didn’t get enough tuition assistance.
Those who spoke to the Tribune denied this, saying they didn’t expect full rides and understood how FCS scholarships were awarded. They did, however, expect honesty and equity.
Several received a partial scholarship to attend UNC and were told they could receive an increase based on their performance. This is allowed at any time, based on NCAA rules.
Mark was one of those student-athletes. He was recruited by McCaffrey’s staff and awarded a 50% scholarship for his first year, but the amount was increased before his second semester. The increase was supposedly removed before his third semester began. Mark said neither he nor his family was notified. They didn’t find out until they received a larger-than-expected bill from the university.
“We asked the coaching staff, and they said they didn’t know anything,” Mark said. “We kept asking them what was going on, and they finally told us they brought it back down and didn’t tell us or give us an explanation.”
Jason and “Sam,” another outgoing transfer, said this happened to several players.
Universities, however, are required to provide in writing the terms and duration of scholarship awards. In the event of reduction and cancellation of awards, the university financial aid office is required to notify players in writing of the change. The reduction or cancellation cannot take place until the student-athlete has been given the opportunity to attend a hearing, according to section 15.3 of the NCAA Division I rulebook.
The players allege this did not happen.
Section 220.127.116.11 also says scholarships should be awarded in one-year terms or more and not reduced unless the player violates conditions, such as committing fraudulent misrepresentation, misconduct or simply not meeting academic standards. Scholarships should be disbursed during the agreed upon term regardless of athletic performance, and the NCAA says aid should not be reduced or canceled for athletic reasons.
Sam’s scholarship was slightly reduced when Collins was still coaching. The original amount was supposed to be reinstated the following semester. Then, UNC fired Collins.
When approached about getting the 15% reinstated, McCaffrey allegedly wouldn’t honor the agreement Collins had made. Sam said he brought information about his performance in spring practices, but McCaffrey asked how many 100-yard games and touchdowns he had. The answer: none. Sam had been a redshirt and experienced injuries early in his career.
“‘When you get some of those, then we can talk about getting your 15% back,’” Sam said of McCaffrey’s response. “It never happened. That’s the criteria I had to meet for him. If you look at my stats, it shows you that he didn’t play me a lot, so he never even gave me the chance to earn that money back.”
Multiple players, including Mark, believe this had to do with awards given to other players and they had no shot of an increase.
“I’m thinking because they had brought in more guys, they didn’t have money and gave mine to them,” Mark said. “I wasn’t the only one whose money they took, though. They took a lot of money away from people in our class, I’d come to find out.”
Another major example of favoritism came with the drastic inequity between the academic and athletic requirements for the FBS transfers and the remaining players.
Early in McCaffrey’s tenure, players had to earn the privilege of wearing school colors and receiving their numbers, Sam said. Everything was earned through their effort in the weight room and in practice.
The players had no issue with the requirement and believed it was a fair way of encouraging a strong work ethic. Then the new transfers came in and were given their numbers immediately.
Jason said his position coach told him at their first meeting he would never start and would not get to compete for the job.
“It’s just all geared towards what’s working best for them, rather than what’s working best for the entire team,” Sam said, noting experiences like Jason’s were fairly common. “Guys that know (McCaffrey) got offers here, or if your dad played against him, you might start or you might be a captain. A lot of stuff like that.”
Additionally, the players reported favored athletes were allowed to skip practices and have lower grades. If someone else missed practice, didn’t practice to the staff’s arbitrary standard or had a low grade, that was used against them, players said. Sam said some favored players with failing grades still started.
“A linebacker had to miss practice and he couldn’t show up to workouts because he had to get his grades right,” Sam said. “Then they used that as a reason for him not to play.”
Other examples the players gave included favored athletes getting new equipment, being awarded additional recovery days, additional film study with the coaches and treatment from health care specialists outside Colorado.
One injured player was told during fall camp he could return to activities after the medical staff cleared him to play. The staff never returned his communications, Thomas alleged.
During the team’s COVID-19 quarantines, the athletic department arranged for players to receive meals at their homes. Favored players, however, received more extravagant food packages, multiple players alleged. Other times, the coaches would bring extra meals for a treat. Though this is not an NCAA violation, it allegedly upset a lot of players. It made them feel like they were not valued or important to the staff.
“I sure as hell didn’t receive anything, as I was on the outside looking in,” said Jason. He could have stayed an extra season due to the NCAA COVID-19 eligibility rule but said he could not take another.
Another issue the players regularly mentioned was the lack of communication from McCaffrey or his staff.
McCaffrey has an “open-door policy,” has met with all players who requested a meeting, returned all phone calls and text messages, and spent “countless hours” speaking with parents, according to a statement last week.
Players and those close to them have disputed this. It’s all talk with no follow through, they said.
“He said he would meet with all of us one-on-one and get to know our families, our personal situations, our backgrounds, just really make that connection from coach to player; build a relationship and that chemistry,” said “Paul,” a player who left before the 2021 season. “Things like that never happened.”
The players said they understand new coaches often have deeper relationships with players they recruit. McCaffrey and his staff, though, made no real effort with the remaining athletes.
Even players who were recruited under McCaffrey’s staff said they have no relationship with him. They can count on one hand the number of conversations they had, and most of those were initiated by the players themselves.
Trying to get a meeting was like trying to connect with a celebrity, the players said. They had to go through other staff members to schedule something that typically didn’t happen.
Coaches were infrequently in the office and most lived in the Denver area, instead of Greeley. The players said they could tell which athletes and situations they valued, depending on if the coaches would actually commute to campus.
They relied heavily on digital communication, but those forms were just as inconsistent.
Thomas estimated his position coach told him six times McCaffrey would call. It never happened. He said some coaches for his group acknowledged him until he was stripped of his game-day duties.
“When you’re starting and you’re doing well for them, I think they do respect that and communicate with you a little bit,” Thomas said. “But once you’re not benefiting them. It’s kind of like, ‘Who are you?’”
Sam provided the Tribune with screenshots of messages sent to McCaffrey’s UNC-provided cellphone, McCaffrey’s personal cellphone and his position coach that went unanswered.
On the off chance that the players did ever connect with a coach, they said it was uncomfortable or unpleasant.
Brian claimed he caught defensive coordinator Scott Darnell in the office one day. Darnell allegedly walked out of the impromptu meeting and made another assistant speak with him.
Additionally, Mark said both McCaffrey coaches weren’t people players wanted to talk to.
“Personally, I never really liked talking to him; (I) always felt like it was awkward,” Mark said. “Ed didn’t seem like a person I wanted to go to for issues.”
This isn’t completely uncommon in the sport; players often connect with the director of operations. This person performs general management duties, such as organizing schedules, but is not a coach who can bench a player for raising concerns.
This role still exists at UNC, but it’s held by Kathleen Messier, who is dating Max McCaffrey.
In fact, Director of Sports Performance Tyler Hill was one of the few staff members players said they felt comfortable talking to.
“He’s probably the only person that everyone actually looks up to and respects quite a bit,” Thomas said. “Coach Hill keeps it straight. The coaches like to play around with their words. I feel like a lot of college coaches are like that, but here it’s a little more intense. Communication is not there.”
Players said group communication was poor, too. Coaches would allegedly give very little notice when they wanted to hold a meeting or change plans. They said it was disorganized.
The Bears won three games this season, a nominal step up from past years. Players said the additional victory wasn’t worth the coaching change.
Even though they lost a lot, the players knew that Collins and his staff cared about them and focused on discipline. They wanted to talk and didn’t make setting up meetings a challenge.
Players said the coaches personally congratulated them on graduation or other accomplishments. They were available to discuss anything, and even when players disagreed with Collins or an assistant, the athletes weren’t berated and iced out. It was an actual family culture and not just talk, they said.
“UNC, back in the day, was definitely a fun place to be; some place I highly encouraged and wanted people to go,” Jason said. “It was actually enjoyable.”
The university and McCaffrey said they were unaware of the allegations in statements to the Tribune.
“We appreciate you bringing them to our attention,” the university said in an email. “Some of the issues you mentioned could be serious, and we will look into them immediately to determine if we need to take further action. If there is a formal investigation launched, we won’t be able to comment until it is complete.”
McCaffrey said he and the program as a whole takes “these matters” seriously. The staff will cooperate if the university launches an investigation.
“As members of the University of Northern Colorado community, my coaching staff is committed to putting our players in a position to succeed on and off the field and create a culture where they feel supported and love playing football,” McCaffrey said. “College football is an extremely competitive environment. We do the best we can to ensure everyone on this team has a positive experience, but we know there may always be someone who isn’t happy with their role or thinks they have been treated unfairly. I respect every player I coach. My staff and I will continue to do the best we can to ensure all of our players have a great experience at UNC.”
Another major complaint players had against McCaffrey and Co. was the lack of investment.
Mark said he didn’t expect to be a starter and guys understood that only so many people can appear in games. Still, developing younger players is one of the basic requirements for a coach.
Several players said the less-favored athletes were put on the scout team, but the coaches gave little instruction on how to use that time effectively. Assistants would also criticize those players for doing something incorrectly without taking the time to help correct it, according to players.
Meanwhile, favored athletes could never do wrong, they alleged. If a mistake occurred, it was someone else’s fault, and corrections were few and far between. The interviewed players said they thought UNC would have won more games if the coaches had been willing to give the backups a chance.
When it came to game preparation, the staff’s philosophy was worse than that of smaller programs, the players said.
Student-athletes didn’t get scouting reports on their opponents, film sessions were hardly useful and position group meetings the night before games lasted maybe 10 minutes. The team could also be found installing plays one or two days before the game, they claimed.
“I came from a junior college, and I think we did way more preparation before games and meetings than this school does,” Thomas said. “We would get packets on the other team, like scouting reports and whatnot. We didn’t do any of that here.”
Road trips were even worse. Coaches were hardly around, they didn’t enforce any sort of curfew and left the team mostly to itself. It’s like they didn’t care, the players said.
“Justin,” an offensive player, cited these problems as a reason he is leaving.
“The reason I’m leaving is because there is a lack of structure, communication and respect for Big Sky opponents,” Justin said. “We do not prepare the way I want to.”
Players said a lot of the program’s problems came down to McCaffrey’s lack of qualifications and lack of experience in leading a team at the NCAA Division I level.
“I think a lot of people initially thought that because Ed had a recognizable name, he’d know what he was doing,” said “Don,” a former UNC Athletics staff member. “Unfortunately, a lot of the football people close to the program and around the state knew better.”
UNC has long been an institution willing to provide coaches with their first Division I head coaching job. It has given eight current coaches their first DI job, including Tim Barrera (soccer) and Lyndsey Oates (volleyball).
Northern Colorado also gave former basketball coaches Jenny Huth and Jeff Linder their first DI roles.
This being McCaffrey’s first DI head coaching job wasn’t a problem, the players said. Everyone starts somewhere. Instead, unlike the other coaches, McCaffrey had never been on staff at a DI program or the head coach of a lower-level team. When hired, his resume included a few seasons at Valor Christian and club ball.
UNC relied on his name and NFL career to market the program. Players were told his time in the league would translate to a winning environment, strong relationships and high expectations.
“What attracted me to the program was the addition of Ed McCaffrey. That was the biggest thing for me. That’s what brought me in,” Mark said. “I had other offers, but with Ed McCaffrey, I thought it would have been fine because of the NFL experience. I thought it was the best opportunity for me, even being far away from home.”
He said that has not been the case.
“It was just clear that he was in over his head running a Division I football program,” Don said. “Then, he made things worse by hiring almost exclusively people without much coaching experience as his staff.”
The players agreed. They said things could’ve been different had more experienced assistants been on staff.
One of the most experienced coaches was former offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin, before he was fired last April. UNC previously said he had retired.
Baldwin coached McCaffrey at Stanford, serving as the wide receivers coach, and joined the UNC staff after McCaffrey’s hiring. Multiple players spoke about Baldwin with respect, saying he wasn’t a “Yes man” and wouldn’t put up with how McCaffrey was running the program.
The players said McCaffrey and Baldwin had a disagreement in the office that led to Baldwin’s dismissal right before the spring game. Then, McCaffrey promoted his son, Max, to the position. He does not have prior coaching experience.
“It had no chance of being better than what it was just because a lot of them were inexperienced or their sole purpose isn’t to coach,” Sam said. “It’s hard for you to help me elevate my game when this isn’t the way you feed your family, this isn’t what you take seriously, or you don’t have experience.
“The university hired a name rather than hiring someone who was qualified or experienced at that level. I think Ed is doing the inside job to advance his family name rather than that of the University of Northern Colorado.”
The University of Northern Colorado could have prevented this situation, the players said.
Jason said coaches aren’t perfect, especially when they’re starting out, but there shouldn’t be 28 players leaving. The Tribune obtained documents from the portal to confirm the number of outgoing transfers.
Twenty three of the portal players were on the 2021 roster, with half of those being regular contributors.
Jace Bobo was one of the best tacklers in the Big Sky. Ben Raybon was a starter and kicked the longest field goal in program history. Jaren Mitchell made several starts and was considered a team leader. Sledge was a blossoming player whom many thought could be a star.
The university compliance office reported last week that Colorado State had 24 portal players and the University of Colorado had 25, but it did not specify that its numbers included players transferring into those institutions.
This means CSU, which is going through a coaching change this offseason, only has 16 outgoing transfers and CU has 22.
The players said trying to pin the large number of transfers at UNC on playing time and money is wrong. It’s because they didn’t feel like anyone was willing to listen and make changes. Jason said apologies, acknowledging wrongs and actually following through on promises could have made a big difference.
Instead, the players didn’t feel safe to report things or that anyone in power was protecting them. Now, the university is looking at replacing 40% of its roster when graduates are included. It signed 15 players during the early signing period in December.
“There’s always a negative backlash that could come back from reporting something,” Sam said of players’ hesitancy to speak up. “I was aware of that.”
Even if someone brought up a concern, players said coaches would ignore them or say changes would be made. Those allegedly did not come to fruition. Then, parents were told issues needed to be addressed with the staff when they approached administrators.
That hands-off approach clearly didn’t work, the players said.
Thomas said he might have stayed if McCaffrey wasn’t the coach. He personally didn’t mind his position coach and liked some of the others. McCaffrey’s alleged ego and micromanagement, however, ruined the opportunity for him.
“These coaches are scared to lose their jobs,” Thomas said. “They’re kind of just ‘Yes men’ for Ed, to be honest.”
Mark said players felt like their opinions and concerns didn’t matter. He wants to see future Bears players get an opportunity to compete for starting jobs, instead of having their careers decided for them, while no one in leadership pays attention.
In order to move forward, the players say the administration needs to investigate McCaffrey, his staff and listen to all players – not just captains. Their concerns and allegations should be taken seriously.
“Ask what’s going on,” Sam said. “‘How do you feel? How’s your mental health? Did you feel the coaches cared about you?’
“Ask them genuine, deep questions. They can get good feedback. I think that would open up a lot of insight to what’s really going on.”
Participating in college football is supposed to be an exciting opportunity. It’s supposed to help players mature mentally, socially, emotionally, academically and athletically.
They’re supposed to be leaving the program on a high. Even if the team didn’t win all of its games, they wanted to be appreciated and given a chance to play. Many feel the opposite.
Sam called his career a rollercoaster and said the last two years have taken a negative toll on his mental health. He focused on finishing his education and getting out quickly.
Jason, who said he still loves UNC and the opportunities he received, wants nothing more than for the football team to be a top program. He just doesn’t think that will happen if McCaffrey stays in charge.
Thomas simply wants to feel like he’s part of the team, whether or not he starts. He doesn’t want to be discarded and ignored if he’s no longer the best player at his position. He wants respect and the chance to succeed. It shouldn’t be run like a family business, he said.
“They failed their student-athletes,” said Paul, the former player. “There are many guys whose careers will be over, whose personal lives will never be the same because of the situation.”
Sign up for email newsletters
If you are interested in looking at real estate for senior living, you should get to know Realtor Fred Smith….
The team of personal caregivers at Cozy Country Care are qualified CNAs who provide long and short-term elderly care solutions…
Making a grocery list? Better add Your Butcher, Frank to your plans. They have the finest USDA Choice beef, hand-cut…
Are you considering a move to the Boulder area? There are so many questions, from quality of schools and health…
Twin Peaks Liquor wants to be your favorite beer store. They have the largest selection of beer in town—it covers…
Copyright © 2022 MediaNews Group