When the Florida football team ventured into Tiger Stadium midway through the 2009 season, the story of the day was a quarterback named Tim Tebow who’d suffered a concussion two weeks earlier and entered the weekend a question mark.
On the Florida sideline, assistant head coach/defensive line coach Dan McCarney got his first taste of Death Valley.
“Truly one of the great environments in all of college football,” McCarney said. “It should bring out the best in everyone — it really should.”
Three years after watching Tebow lead the top-ranked Gators to a 13-3 victory, McCarney returns to lead his North Green Mean Green into a season opener scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday.
McCarney left Florida for North Texas after the 2010 season, a move that got him back into the head coaching ranks after three years as an Urban Meyer assistant. He had gone to five bowl games at Iowa State from 1995-2006.
The sight of LSU’s live tiger mascot on the field in pregame and the deafening roar of the LSU faithful are fresh in McCarney’s mind from the 2009 visit.
But he said he’d spend little time this week trying to prepare the Mean Green for anything that will happen outside the lines. He knows North Texas — a whopping 43-point underdog — has more obvious concerns.
“The concern is those guys across the line from you,” McCarney said. “That’s the concern a lot more than a live tiger or fans in the stands that are loud and (90,000) strong.”
The outcome of Saturday’s game is unlikely to affect the opinion McCarney has about the direction of the North Texas program.
The Mean Green set a school-record attendance mark last year as North Texas opened brand-new Apogee Stadium, a $79-million, 30,850-seat venue that replaced aging Fouts Stadium across Interstate 35. Next year, North Texas will transition into Conference USA, which will have the school in a league with longstanding Texas flavor and pit the Mean Green against more traditional rivals.
Beyond that, McCarney helped North Texas to a 5-7 mark in his first year on the job, nearly equaling the win total of former coach Todd Dodge (6-37) over the previous four seasons.
“We have a long ways yet to go here,” McCarney said. “But we’ve made some real progress in our first year.”
McCarney would love nothing more than to someday be compared with Hayden Fry, who led North Texas to a 40-23-3 record from 1972-78. The very man who gave McCarney his first full-time coaching job.
A former Iowa lineman, McCarney began working for Fry right after he left North Texas in 1979 to coach the Hawkeyes. McCarney was 22. He accepted a position coaching tight ends under Fry for $18,000 a year.
“I came off the chair,” McCarney said, recalling the job offer from Fry. “They almost had to scrape me off the ceiling.”
Fry went on to coach Iowa for 20 seasons, leading the Hawkeyes to a 143-89-6 mark and earning a place in the College Football Hall of Fame. A long list of future head coaches who worked for him at Iowa includes Bill Snyder, Barry Alvarez, Kirk Ferentz, Bret Bielema, Bob Stoops, Mike Stoops and Jim Leavitt.
Snyder and Alvarez were at Iowa with McCarney on Fry’s first staff.
“Coach’s first few months on the job, all we watched was North Texas tape,” McCarney said. “Learned his system. Learned what he wanted done.”
More than three decades later, McCarney hopes to turn Fry’s old school into a consistent winner once again.
Where the Mean Green stack up will be determined by how North Texas fares in its final Sun Belt race. But the focus for the immediate future is on trying to pull off an upset for the ages.
LSU has won 37 straight non-conference games in regular-season play.
It has not lost in Tiger Stadium since the last time McCarney was in town.
“You don’t have any trouble having focus from everyone in the program when you’re getting ready for a sensational LSU football team on Saturday night,” McCarney said. “If you got a pulse, you ought to be excited about this, now.”