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Fred McCain, key figure in UNT athletics, dies at 90

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By Brett Vito / Staff Writer

Fred McCain, who contributed to the development of the University of North Texas athletic department in just about every conceivable capacity, died Tuesday morning. He was 90.

McCain was a star quarterback for UNT in the 1940s, an assistant football coach from 1950-71, ran the UNT Coliseum from 1973-82 and served as the school’s athletic director from 1982-87.

He was inducted into the UNT Athletic Hall of Fame in 1987.

“He was a mainstay of North Texas athletics,” said former UNT men’s basketball coach Jimmy Gales, who worked for McCain during his time as athletic director. “All the guys who worked and played for him genuinely liked him.

“That says a lot about him.”

Two of those players were Abner Haynes and Leon King, who in 1956 became the first black players to integrate a college athletic program in Texas.

King and Ken Bahnsen, an assistant coach at UNT at the time, credited McCain for playing a large role in the successful transition the pair made.

“Coach McCain was very instrumental in our coming here,” King said Tuesday. “Abner and I came up and talked to coach McCain and [UNT head football coach Odus] Mitchell. They welcomed us with open arms.”

Haynes and King played for Bahnsen on the freshman team before moving up to the varsity team, where McCain was the offensive coordinator.

Bahnsen credited McCain for making the arrangements for Haynes and King when UNT went on the road. McCain had to make sure Haynes and King had a place to stay and places to eat before integration spread throughout the South.

“He had all that responsibility,” Bahnsen said. “He had to get with Abner’s dad, who was a preacher, so that he could find a place for Abner and Leon to stay when we went to Memphis. He had to make sure that they had a pregame and postgame meal on the road and that we had a bus we could use.”

Some of the best seasons in the history of UNT’s football program came when McCain was an assistant coach.

UNT won it first eight games in 1959, including a 39-7 win over Louisville, and was ranked as high as 16th before falling to New Mexico State in the Sun Bowl.

“Fred was a very good organizer and could get people to work around him,” said Bob Way, who coached with McCain. “That helped a lot in recruiting and coaching. He had the ability to recruit players, which helped us get players like Joe Greene.”

Greene was an All-American at UNT and was one of several players who went on to play in the NFL after playing for McCain. Greene now is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“He was a pretty sharp guy,” Mitchell said of McCain in 1987, when McCain announced he would step down as UNT’s athletic director. “He did a fine job for us as a coach. He did a lot to develop the players we had.”

Mitchell retired after the 1966 season, which seemingly opened the door for McCain to take over the program. UNT hired Rod Rust instead. McCain stayed on the staff for six more seasons before stepping down in 1971.

McCain then took on a temporary assignment as UNT’s athletic director before becoming the director of the North Texas Coliseum after the building opened in 1973.

McCain remained in that position until 1982, when he became UNT’s athletic director.

“I’ve always told everybody that we had one foot in the grave when Fred came in,” former UNT sports information director Doug Ray said in 1987. “The first thing Fred had to do was fix the department’s financial problems while at the same time still be competitive.

“The biggest thing he did was keep the athletic department from sinking.”

Gales credited McCain for helping lay the foundation for UNT to make its first NCAA tournament appearance in 1988, one year after he stepped down.

“He put more emphasis on basketball than what was there before and tried to make it so that we were not so far behind other people,” Gales said. “We didn’t have much money, but he provided what he could.”

McCain accomplished enough by the end of his playing career to be considered an integral part of the history of the school’s athletic program.

McCain led UNT to the first two bowl games in program history — the 1946 Optimist Bowl and the Salad Bowl after the 1947 season — as its starting quarterback.

“Fred is an icon going back to the era with Odus Mitchell and all those guys,” said C. Dan Smith, a UNT Hall of Famer who played for McCain. “They built the foundation for North Texas athletics. Over the years he has been extremely important to the history and overall growth of the North Texas athletic program.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is .