We’ve heard from a lot of people offering tributes and praise for Fred McCain — a key figure in University of North Texas athletics for many years — since the announcement of his death Tuesday morning at age 90, but perhaps the most telling came from former UNT men’s basketball coach Jimmy Gales.
“He was a mainstay of North Texas athletics,” said Gales, who worked for McCain during McCain’s time as UNT athletic director. “All the guys who worked and played for him genuinely liked him. That says a lot about him.”
Most of us would be gratified to be remembered with words like those, but McCain earned them many times over.
During a long and productive life, he contributed to the development of the University of North Texas athletic department in just about every conceivable capacity. He 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.
During his playing career, McCain accomplished enough to be considered an integral part of the history of the school’s athletic program. His accomplishments included leading 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.”
As a coach, McCain influenced many players, including Abner Haynes and Leon King, the first black players to integrate a college athletic program in Texas.
“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.”
Some of the best seasons in the history of UNT’s football program came when McCain was an assistant coach. UNT won its 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, an All-American at UNT, was one of several players who went on to play in the NFL and is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As UNT athletic director, McCain successfully dealt with the department’s financial problems while keeping programs competitive.
Additionally, 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 as athletic director.
“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 told us. “We didn’t have much money, but he provided what he could.”
McCain will long be remembered, not just at UNT, but wherever former students, past associates and fans of the university gather to share memories and pay tribute to athletic accomplishments and human achievement. He made a difference.