A sinking feeling overcame Mike MacIntyre as he reached into his pocket.
It was gone.
He looked in his bag. He looked everywhere, but it was gone.
MacIntyre was in his second season as the head football coach at San Jose State. Every day, he carried a special coin in his pocket that commemorated the Dodd Trophy national coach of the year award his father, George, won in 1982.
That coin gave MacIntyre a sense of security. It helped him through tough times. It reminded him of how to handle all situations. Earlier that day, Oct. 1, 2011, the coin was in his pocket during a 38-31 victory at Colorado State, a huge win for a San Jose State team trying to get off the ground.
Luckily for MacIntyre, the policeman who escorted him at CSU discovered that the coin had been left in the Hughes Stadium coaches' locker room. A couple days later, it was returned.
That was the only time MacIntyre ever misplaced the coin and it hasn't been out of his sight since.
Now in his fourth season as the head coach at Colorado, MacIntyre had the coin in his pocket when the Buffaloes (10-3) — No. 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings and No. 11 in the Associated Press poll — flew to San Antonio on Saturday to prepare for a date with Oklahoma State (9-3) in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Thursday.
"It's not a good luck charm; it's nothing like that," MacIntyre said of the coin. "It kind of calms my soul in the heat of the moment. It kind of gives you perspective and balance."
More than anything, the coin is a daily reminder of MacIntyre's late father, who passed away on Jan. 5 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.
George MacIntyre — as well as others along the way — helped to shape Mike into the man and coach he is today, and it's fitting that Mike is enjoying his first taste of success at CU in year No. 4 on the job. It was in George's fourth season at Vanderbilt that he won the Dodd Trophy after finally getting the Commodores rolling.
Mike has guided the Buffaloes in much the same way his father guided his teams — with passion for the game and a sincere love for the young men on the team.
"George MacIntyre was a great football coach, but he was a beautiful person, and special," said David Cutcliffe, the head coach at Duke and a close friend of the MacIntyre family. "Being a good person and living his faith is No. 1 on Mike's list. George always was able to do that."
Cutcliffe described Mike as a "relentless player" at Georgia Tech. That continued when Mike was an assistant coach at Tennessee-Martin, and Cutcliffe was at Tennessee.
"I watched him as a young assistant coach recruiting the state of Tennessee," Cutcliffe said. "I would bump into him and he was everywhere."
When the opportunity arose, Cutcliffe hired Mike as a position coach at Ole Miss. The two spent six seasons working together, including two years at Duke.
Mike has made 10 stops on his coaching journey, learning from his father, Cutcliffe, Bill Parcells and others. Each one of his mentors taught him different aspects of coaching, but perhaps the greatest lesson Mike learned came from how to treat his players.
To Mike, the young men who wear a Colorado jersey every day aren't just a number on a roster or a piece to the puzzle on the field.
"He's a great coach, but he's also a great man and a great mentor to us and he teaches us a lot about life," CU senior defensive tackle Jordan Carrell said. "It's not just about football. Like he said this whole year: Welcome to the fight. Life is a fight, and that's going to be with me for the rest of my life."
The fight is not easy, as Carrell learned in April, when his father died after a heart attack. Mike put everything else on hold the next day. He cried with Carrell. He consoled him. He helped him make arrangements to get home.
"I can't even explain it enough how much he helped me get through that time," Carrell said. "He was just that father figure that I needed."
Mike has put his arm around many other players over the years, and for a variety of reasons.
When defensive lineman Samson Kafovalu was arrested outside a saloon last spring, he was suspended from the team, but was not brushed aside by his coach.
"If they have a heart that wants to change and really wants to grow, I'll give them a second chance," Mike said. "If they don't, there's no way I can break that."
Kafovalu showed remorse and, as he prepares to play his final game at CU, said he will never forget how Mike helped him.
"I was just blessed to be in the position I am and to have a coach as amazing as coach Mac," Kafovalu said.
Mike's own son, Jay, is a redshirt sophomore receiver for the Buffs. For years, he's watched his father make an impact on players.
"Every player that's ever played for him has gone away knowing that he cares for them and loves them, more than just as a football player," Jay said. "I think that helps you play better on the field, honestly. When you have a guy that's there for you when you're doing bad or doing good, no matter what, it makes you feel more comfortable."
Mike always marveled at how his father was able to develop strong bonds with his players — bonds that continue to this day, as many of George's former players attended his funeral in Nashville in January.
"It is about relationships," Mike said. "The way you have a relationship, you have to care about them. The valley in life doesn't last forever, but when you're that age, sometimes you can't see that because you haven't been through it before.
"I still believe we're going to win a lot of games, we're going to be real successful. I enjoy that and that's extremely important, but I still believe I'm judged when they're 25-to-35. Have I made an impact enough to help them through some things? That's what it's all about to me."
Out of the valley
As a coach, Mike has gone through some valleys, too. In fact, he came into this season on the proverbial hot seat, at least publicly. While there was no question he had changed the culture at CU and was impacting the lives of his players, Mike was 10-27 on the field, including 2-25 in Pac-12 games.
Some questioned whether Mike could get out of that valley and find a way to win in Boulder. Blocking out the media noise was easy, but he knew the perception was there.
"I always had to answer that question with recruits constantly, and even friends," he said.
To get through the tough days, Mike leaned on his faith and his staunch belief that CU was climbing out of the valley.
"He kept positive and he knew that we were going to win at some point," Jay said. "He kept his faith in this team and the Lord's plan for him."
Rather than letting negativity seep in, Mike grew more confident in the Buffs.
"The leader can't flinch," Mike said. "The leader has to believe and believe it with his heart and soul. If you do, people see it in your eyes, they see it in your passion, they see it in your belief. The players understand it; they catch it."
Mike told the players in the offseason they could be Pac-12 champions. The players believed and expressed the goal publicly. After five consecutive last place finishes, nobody took them seriously at first.
"If Arizona State said it or Stanford said it, you're like, 'Yeah, that's what they should be shooting for,'" Mike said. "But when we said it, it's like, 'What are they talking about it?' Everybody else can say it, but we can't? I wanted our guys to realize they could do it."
The players believed and then put it into action. They beat traditional Pac-12 powers Oregon, Stanford, Arizona State and UCLA en route to winning the South division.
Cutcliffe, who knows first-hand that it can take several years to turn around a program, often stayed up late on Saturday night to watch the Buffs play. As his own team stumbled to 4-8 this year, Cutcliffe said it was rewarding to watch Mike's team win.
"He cost me a little sleep, but at the same time, if we hadn't played so well (that day), it made me feel much better when I'd see them win," he said.
Winning has made Jay feel better, too, because he knows the struggle Mike went through to get here.
"It's awesome to see him get the honors that he deserves," Jay said. "He put in so much work for this and it's been a hard road."
Mike has won several Pac-12 and national coach of the year awards this month. He's also a finalist for the Dodd Trophy (announced on Friday) and he could wind up getting a new coin with his name on it.
Dad's coin will always be the one in Mike's pocket, however.
Achieving the same type of success his father enjoyed is "really surreal to me," Mike said, given that this is the year in which George passed away.
It's made the value of that coin even greater. Memories of George fill Mike's mind every time he reaches in his pocket and feels the coin. George wasn't able to see Mike complete the turnaround at CU, but Mike has no doubt his father is there.
"I believe he's probably seeing it or understanding it from above," Mike said.
Brian Howell: firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.