Biggest game of his career
Coach MacIntyre returns to his past in Bay Area
Six years before he was named the top coach in college football, Mike MacIntyre came to this Silicon Valley town and told one of the worst teams in the country that he could help it change its fortunes.
MacIntyre took his first head coaching job at San Jose State in 2010. The Spartans finished 2-10 the prior season. Their academic progress rate scores were among the worst in the NCAA. But before MacIntyre told his new players, still skeptical about this new guy with the Southern accent, about how they would win games, he told them about the kind of team they would become.
“It was all about the family aspect,” said Noel Grigsby, who became one of the most prolific receivers in school history. “You
grow up with Coach Mac, and we grew with him. We felt like we were a part of his family. When you deal with a coach and you feel like you’re a part of everything he’s doing, every decision, then that’s somebody you definitely want to play for. It’s more than just football.”
When MacIntyre, the newly minted 2016 Walter Camp national coach of the year, leads No. 9 Colorado (10-2) into the Pac-12 championship game Friday night against No. 4 Washington (11-1) at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, he will be just 9 miles from where he grew up as a head coach.
San Jose State is where MacIntyre laid out a vision and asked his players to trust him. It wasn’t always easy. In MacIntyre’s first season, the Spartans went 1-12 and were winless in the Western Athletic Conference. Some of the older players, Grigsby said, resisted change.
But even amid the struggles, MacIntyre had reached the heart of the team, players such as Grigsby. They saw MacIntyre’s vision taking shape, noticing the incremental improvements in practice. In MacIntyre’s second season, the Spartans finished 5-7.
San Jose State was ready to take the next step by 2012. The Spartans lost their opener to Pac-12 power Stanford by a field goal, then lost only once the rest of the season. San Jose State’s 11 wins were the most in school history.
“There were a lot of great young men at San Jose State who gave everything they had,” MacIntyre said. “When I went there, if there were 121 teams in Division I, we were No. 121. They were terrible academically at the time. All of that completely changed in a three-year period.
“We went from the worst APR to the best APR in the league. We went from the worst team in the history of the school to the best team in the history of the school. It just proved that if you care about young people, get young people who are committed … and you set high goals and don’t budge from them, great things can be accomplished.”
Connecting football to family isn’t a manufactured ideal for MacIntyre. For him, there are no lines that separate the game from his family. They feed off one another. Just ask his mentor. Duke coach David Cutcliffe first met MacIntyre when he was playing for his father, George MacIntyre, at Vanderbilt in the mid-1980s. Cutcliffe was an assistant at Tennessee at the time, and it was evident how close father and son were.
Later, when Mike MacIntyre worked for Cutcliffe at Ole Miss and then Duke, it was Jay MacIntyre following his dad around at practice, bonding with the players like they were his older brothers. Cutcliffe still smiles when he thinks of those generational bonds.
“To see him have this success is better than me having success,” said Cutcliffe, who took a break from recruiting this week to reflect on his former assistant. “I know how committed Mike is to the process and to the profession and how hard he has worked, with his family there every step of the way. My favorite part is that he and Jay are sharing this opportunity. To see those two sharing that is beyond words.”
Cutcliffe would rarely see MacIntyre without his family around, a rarity, he said, in a profession that can consume and at times strain those bonds. It also gave his players an insight into his relationships and how he worked at them, which has paid dividends on the recruiting trail.
“You can’t just hustle to be a great recruiter,” Cutcliffe said. “You have to be a relationship builder. I don’t know that I’ve ever been around anybody who has done it as well as Mike. Once you do that, you can coach them tough and coach them hard.”
Once MacIntyre solidified those relationships at San Jose State, the next step was pushing his players beyond themselves. When he told his CU players they would be Pac-12 champions before this season, it wasn’t a random declaration. It was born of something deeper he learned while coaching the Spartans, perhaps the biggest lesson he took from his time at San Jose State.
“If they could believe it,” MacIntyre said, “then they could achieve it.”
The CU coach wiped away a tear this week when Grigsby’s name came up. He thought of Grigsby’s mother, who ripped into her son harder than MacIntyre ever could have when the receiver dropped a key pass early in the coach’s San Jose State tenure. MacIntyre has a habit of thinking of the families behind the players in their biggest moments. When Ahkello Witherspoon made a win-saving interception during CU’s statement victory at Oregon this season, MacIntyre said thoughts turned to Witherspoon’s parents and the joy he imagined they were feeling at the time.
“People say you build a ‘winning culture,’ and I don’t think that’s the right term,” Cutcliffe said. “You build a ‘strong culture,’ and you build every aspect of it. Everything you do is important in a strong culture, and winning becomes a byproduct of that culture.”
Grigsby, now working in business development and serving as an assistant coach at Crenshaw High School, won’t be able to make the trip to Santa Clara on Friday like many of his former teammates. He will be watching, though, his old coach’s lessons always at the forefront of his mind.
“His first game at San Jose State was my first game,” Grigsby said. “I was always going to ride with Coach MacIntyre. We grew together. He taught me when you work hard, you stick to the process and you believe, you always win.”
Coach Mike MacIntyre has worked wonders at CU, but the story is just a sequel. He performed a similar feat at San Jose State.