Transfer Portal Turmoil at Northern Colorado: Subpar Culture or Changing of the Guard?

PC: Andy Cross, Denver Post

What the heck is going on at Northern Colorado? 27 days into the new year and UNC had already accumulated 28 players on the transfer portal. Typically this is a red flag that a program is in trouble, but what does it mean for a team that has not had a winning season since 2016?

To be fair; UNC has a newer head coach with only one college season under his belt, a transfer quarterback that had only thrown 35 passes ever, and did not compete during the 2020 season. Regardless, 28 is a crushing blow to a team who wants to turn it around. While not all of these players were on scholarship FCS teams are only allowed 63 per team for comparison.

In an effort to understand the feelings of current, former, and graduated players I reached out to see what they had to say about the culture, leadership, and direction of the program.

Former Players

Former players were concerned about all three of the topics discussed. The problems for players from the Earnest Collins Era started before Ed McCaffrey even stepped foot on campus. While some players were excited for a former NFL-star to come to Greeley others were concerned about the inevitable cuts and the administration ignoring a player-led initiative to get two-time former defensive coach Marty English a chance.

Former two-time UNC Team Captain Luke Nelson was particularly frustrated as he told us “Coach E had a plan for the program and he laid it all out in front of Darren (Dunn). And instead Darren hired a high school coach with two years of experience.” Nelson explained how most of the players already on the roster had a positive relationship with English and they would “run through a wall for him“. Nelson graduated before McCaffrey started, but commented that “the problems run deeper than Ed“.

the problems run deeper than Ed

Another player who did play under Collins and McCaffrey had some very passionate comments for us, but chose to stay anonymous. Out of respect for the graduated player his quotes will be Player X.

Player X provided us great detail between the change of the Eras good and bad. X explained how things felt more genuine and relatable from Collins who had UNC playing experience compared to McCaffrey trying to impress with success stories for motivation.

"Hands-down Collins was way more involved than Ed ever was. Collins made his presence known in Greeley to attract people to the games, which is absolutely a great thing of him to do. Whereas it felt like Ed was only in Greeley when he had to be up here. It’s kind of a bad look when you host a kids camp named after yourself and you don’t even show up to it."

While Player X had many good things to say about Collins he did say “His coaching style was filled with heart but definitely felt was a bit too aggressive at times.” Comparatively he felt that McCaffrey was “treating this like high school ball when there’s so much more to it at this level.

When asked why so many of his former teammates were transferring he explained “this is a political affair at UNC… McCaffrey just looked at our old record and assumed all players were bad, thus needing to replace every position, even though we had some ‘Ballers’ on this team regardless of how bad the record was in the past.”

Despite his negative experience with McCaffrey, Player X absolutely enjoyed his time at UNC and had glowing remarks about all other staff positions outside of coaching and administration:

"Our academic support staff is some of the best group of people I have ever met who genuinely care about us and I’m so thankful for all they have done for me, my teammates, all athletes at UNC. Our athletic trainers are genuine and kind people who not only care about my health but also my well-being as a person and will create relationships and try to get to know me as a person outside of sports. Our strength trainers are great at their job, they get the best of us in the weight room and know how to do it outside of the lifts, they create relationships and get to know us which makes us motivate even harder to work to be successful because we want to for them from the relationships established with them."

Current Players

Freshmen tight-end Kurt Gallup currently plays for McCaffrey and had rave reviews of coach. Gallup has no hesitation that the culture, leadership, and direction of the program are heading in the right direction. “He’s a players coach… Coach is a guy that I wouldn’t think twice about going to battle with.”

When asked about how the program helps players Gallup said, “As far as player goals go, Coach has us fill out our goal sheet each semester as to what our overall goal is and smaller stepping stones with weekly goals in the weight room, our diet, our sleep, and our academics as well as how we plan on getting there. The motto that coach says is always “If people aren’t laughing at your goals then they are not set high enough. Prove ’em wrong.”

“If people aren’t laughing at your goals then they are not set high enough. Prove ’em wrong.”

As for direction, Gallup is confident that the goals of “championship football returning to Greeley will happen” under McCaffrey’s leadership. “We are truly building something great here but things take more than one year to mature. We are going to turn this thing around I promise that.”

A second current player who agreed to go on record is Sophomore fullback Zach Angelillo. Zach stated “I’m very confused to hear these reports of players feeling like they couldn’t approach coach.”

Angelillo has had a positive experience from transferring from FBS University of California to FCS Northern Colorado. “My experience has reflected exactly what he explained to me during my recruitment. My conversations with Coach Max and Coach Ed have been straightforward, genuine, and meaningful whether they were about football, school, or life in general. I know that they genuinely care about me not only as a football player but as a person.”

The goals of championship football coming back to Greeley were echoed again with McCaffrey’s “vision and leadership” being the cornerstone to the players inspiration. Despite some not connecting to the NFL success stories McCaffrey shares in efforts to teach and motivate Angelillo thinks it adds to coach’s credibility since he’s “walked the walk”.

When asked about favoritism Angelillo admitted that McCaffrey may spend more time with the offense, but that he interacts well with all three phases and encourages competition from everyone, no matter the position. Angelillo also shared a story from a previous coach of his that reminded him well of Coach McCaffrey when asked about favoritism:

"The favoritism question is funny to me because I remember something that my old HC at Cal, Justin Wilcox, said to the team in a team meeting once that was something along the lines of: I have favorites. My favorites are the players that show up on time, ready to work, and give it their all every day, and that I don’t have to worry about making mistakes in school or in their personal lives that would jeopardize their football commitment. Coach McCaffrey is the same way. He treats people fairly, not equally. If you aren’t handling your business, obviously you’re not going to get the same treatment as someone that is. That’s the way it should be in any organization in my opinion."

Angelillo agreed the team did not meet as many of their goals or progress as they had hoped, but echoed that it takes time and “concrete accountability” to get where they plan to be. Angelillo believes that coach is the right person for the job on and off the field. Angelillo shared a story where he played through an injury, ultimately missing a game and leaving one towards the end. When he got called to coaches office later that week he was not worried at all and shared a great conversation of Coach checking on all aspects of his life including this quote:

“'I’m proud of you for the way you carry yourself, the way you come out and practice hard every day with great leadership and enthusiasm, and the way you have handled playing hurt this season.' It was short and simple, but it meant more than I can put into words to me. It was an affirming moment for me and it made me feel valued and appreciated."

The Verdict

While the number of players transferring out and their complaints are concerning it does not appear McCaffrey should solely accept blame. Any changing of coaches and leadership will be difficult, but in this current form of college football change is harder than normal. Coaches have to make tough choices, but should all players from a previous staff feel like they will get left behind? Players have the ability to transfer basically at will now days, but is that fair to programs they committed to previously? These are strange times in college football and the best thing each program can do is give the chance to each player to feel value or a chance to succeed despite the outcome.