Kinnick a 'perfect' homecoming for Dan McCarney
IOWA CITY, Ia. – The last time an Iowa football team turned in a perfect record, Dan McCarney was a starter at offensive guard.
Perfect, as in 0-11 perfect. That infamous 1973 season ended with a 15-6 loss to Michigan State at Kinnick Stadum.
Eight seasons later, in the same stadium, McCarney was an assistant to Iowa coach Hayden Fry and watched roses fall from the sky.
The Hawkeyes' final regular-season game with Michigan State was in the first half when Ohio State knocked off Michigan. Iowa then sealed a trip to the Rose Bowl and a share of the Big Ten title with a 36-7 victory.
"Roses were being thrown out of the press box," McCarney said. "From winless to Big Ten champs."
That 1981 team snapped a string of 19 consecutive non-winning seasons and completed McCarney's rags-to-riches, black-and-gold journey.
"We didn't win a lot of games back when I was playing, unfortunately, and it sure makes you appreciate the days when you do get to win games," he said.
McCarney returns to Kinnick Stadium, his personal playground as a kid, when his North Texas team plays at Iowa on Saturday.
"I'll always be proud of my Iowa City roots, and I'm always proud to tell people that I'm an Iowan," he said.
McCarney, 62, used to crawl under a snow fence and sneak into Iowa games at Kinnick Stadium as a kid. Later, he used tickets his mom, June, got through her job at the dental school.
"Then they started giving me tickets because somehow, some way, I fooled them into thinking I was a Division I player," said McCarney, who graduated from City High.
Growing up in Iowa City had other advantages. Dan's father, Patrick, was a policeman who worked his way up to chief.
"I've been known to have a lead foot, and I'd get pulled over for speeding," McCarney said. "(The officer) would tell me, "I can either give you a ticket or call your dad. I always told them, "Hey, call mye dad, will ya?' "
McCarney was small by today's standards. He was captain and started his senior season as a 227-pound right guard. Jordan Walsh, who will start at right guard for Iowa against McCarney's team, weighs 290.
McCarney stuck around after graduating in 1974 to work as a graduate assistant at Iowa. He became a full-time assistant in 1977 and was one of two coaches Fry retained when he left North Texas to replace Bob Commings at Iowa following the 1978 season.
Fry reversed fortunes in a hurry with a staff that included future head coaches like McCarney, Kirk Ferentz, Bill Snyder, Barry Alvarez and Bob Stoops.
"You cherish the relationships you have through all these years, the players that you coach, the opportunities that coach Fry gave us," McCarney said. "He saw things in each of us we probably didn't see in ourselves."
McCarney left after the 1990 season to join Alvarez's staff at Wisconsin.
"I don't know which was more emotional, telling my mom and dad I was leaving or telling coach Fry and (defensive coordinator) Bill Brashier, because they had given me so much more than I could ever return. But I just knew that to become a head coach, it was a move I had to make."
McCarney got his chance in 1995, when Iowa State hired him. He was there 12 seasons, getting fired after the 2006 season.
He worked as an assistant at South Florida and then Florida, being part of the Gators' 2008 national championship team. North Texas hired McCarney as head coach after the 2010 season. He is 22-29 there, coaching the Mean Green to a victory in the 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl.
McCarney has been unsinkable. He suffered a major stroke in 2012, and had quadruple bypass surgery in 2013.
"Either one of those could have brought me down for good," McCarney said.
His older brother, Mike, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, passed away unexpectedly in January.
"I miss him so much," McCarney said.
McCarney has run onto the Kinnick turf from the visiting locker room as the head coach at Iowa State, an assistant coach at Wisconsin and now the head coach at North Texas.
"You run out of the tunnel, they play the fight song, you're the opponent and you're supposed to win the game," McCarney said. "That's why you are there. Fortunately, I've been able to do that a few times in my career. And yet when the play the "Iowa Fight Song," I get goosebumps. It's probably not supposed to be that way. But you never lose the love of the university and the loyalty you have."