Dan McCarney spent the early stages of his coaching career hunkered down behind his defensive line, matching wits with a wily veteran across the practice fields at Iowa.
Legendary head coach Hayden Fry watched those battles up close to see if his young defensive assistant could hold his own.
That wasn’t as easy for McCarney as it sounds, not with Bill Snyder, then the Hawkeyes’ offensive coordinator, trying to counter his every move for a decade.
More than 30 years after they started grinding it out on a dirt patch in Iowa in 1979, McCarney and Snyder will be at it again, this time as head coaches when North Texas visits Kansas State on Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
“I will always cherish the time I spent with Bill Snyder,” McCarney said. “Every day in practice, he was on offense and I was on defense. We were going head to head working against each other. He didn’t want to get beat on offense. I didn’t want to get beat on defense. We were working in the trenches together.”
Snyder essentially has completed his second rebuilding project with the Wildcats, who are back in the top 25 in his latest stint as the head coach at the school, while McCarney is in the early stages of his second rebuilding project.
McCarney turned around a struggling program at Iowa State and is aiming for a similar turnaround at UNT.
That fact that both McCarney and Snyder are still in the game at all, long after they could have retired, is a testament to their love of coaching, their focus on remaining healthy and an ability to relate to players a third of their age.
Both coaches credit the passion they share, not only for the game, but also for their players, as being their fountain of youth.
McCarney turned 59 this summer, while Snyder will be 73 next month.
“Dan’s a young pup, comparatively speaking,” Snyder said this week, a comment that drew a hearty laugh from McCarney when it was relayed to him. “He has remained successful because he cares. It’s important to him, and young people are important to him.
“As I have said many times, if you have young people who care, young people who want to be the best they can be and understand the value of discipline, then there is no generation gap.”
There certainly hasn’t been one at UNT since McCarney arrived before the beginning of last season and immediately fostered a connection with his players.
“He’s not afraid to have fun with us and will dance in the locker room,” UNT defensive lineman Tevinn Cantly said. “He stays hip and knows what’s going on. I heard him talking about the [MTV Video Music Awards] the other day. I don’t know if he likes it as much as we do, but he knows what’s going on. He doesn’t sit in his office and listen to old-time radio. He stays up to date and wants to know what we are into.”
What McCarney and Snyder have always been into is rebuilding downtrodden programs while following the principles they learned from Fry.
Fry led UNT to one of the best runs in school history from 1973-78, when the Mean Green posted a 40-23-3 record, but is best known for his accomplishments at Iowa. Iowa’s program suffered through nine straight losing seasons before Fry arrived in 1979 and quickly turned it around. The Hawkeyes posted their first winning season in 19 years in 1981, when they shared the Big Ten title with Ohio State and played in the Rose Bowl.
That was the first of eight straight bowl games McCarney and Snyder coached in together at Iowa.
“When you are part of something like that and see the foundation laid from the very first day, as we all did with coach Fry, you see how it’s done, why it’s done, the reasons behind why it’s done and purposes behind it,” McCarney said. “When you are part of history, as we all were together, then you can’t help but take those things with you when you get an opportunity to go take your own program and run with it.”
That is just what McCarney and Snyder have done during careers that in a lot of ways are mirror images of each other.
McCarney took over an Iowa State team that went 0-10-1 the year before he arrived in 1995 and led it to five bowl games in six years beginning in 2000. Snyder inherited a Kansas State team that was on an 0-26-1 run when he arrived in 1989 and led it to 11 straight bowl games beginning in 1993.
Both left the ranks of head coaches — Snyder went into administration at Kansas State, while McCarney served as an assistant coach at South Florida and Florida — before taking over programs again. Snyder returned as Kansas State’s head coach in 2009, while McCarney took over at UNT in 2011.
Both have been up to their old tricks ever since.
Snyder led Kansas State to the Cotton Bowl last season, while McCarney had UNT on the upswing to a 5-7 finish, the program’s best mark since 2004. Snyder was named the Woody Hayes National Coach of the Year.
The Wildcats are 2-0 and ranked 14th after hammering Miami of Florida 52-13 last week, while UNT has a chance to move to 2-1 for the first time since 1994 with a win over the Wildcats.
“The game is so much better for having him back,” McCarney said of Snyder. “Anyone who knows him or coached against him is not surprised one bit. It’s who he is and what he does.”
In a lot of ways, McCarney is in the midst of a comeback of his own.
Not only is he in his second stint as a head coach, he also is a few months removed from suffering a stroke. McCarney fell ill at a Denton gym in early February and was rushed to the hospital. He was back at practice a few weeks later.
“One of the first two calls I got was from Bill Snyder,” McCarney said. “That’s not by accident. That’s who he is and one of the reasons he has been so successful.”
McCarney has said on numerous occasions that he hopes UNT is the last stop in his coaching career, while Snyder surely will retire from Kansas State.
Both are making the most of their second chances.
McCarney has always been conscientious about his health and was running the stairs at Apogee Stadium again this week. He says working out is a key part of his efforts to remain young at heart and make sure he is at his best while guiding UNT’s program, a task his players can tell he takes seriously.
“Coach McCarney loves waking up every day and coming here,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “He tells us that. He wanted this job and doesn’t want to be anywhere else. Hearing that motivates us as players. We want to go play for him because he cares about us and wants what’s best for the program.”
The same could be said about Snyder.
He returned to the sideline in 2009 to rebuild the program yet again after three years off. The Wildcats suffered through 5-7 seasons in 2007 and 2008.
The challenges they face in their own programs and their lives have prevented McCarney and Snyder from talking very much over the years. There were several years in which McCarney’s Iowa State team and Snyder’s Kansas State team played on an annual basis as Big 12 rivals.
The two have not talked often recently because their teams will play this week.
It’s too easy for both to fall back into talking about their teams that are such a big part of their lives.
They do watch each other from afar and have remained close through the years, despite all they have going on with their own programs, and respect what each other has accomplished.
“It was always a hard preparation when we played,” Snyder said of facing McCarney’s Iowa State teams. “He was always able to get his players to play above and beyond what their capabilities were.”
Snyder has warned his players about that.
“You guys are well aware of what he [McCarney] did at Iowa State,” Kansas State wide receiver Curry Sexton told the media this week while talking about the challenges of facing UNT. “They are a team that plays fast, plays tough and plays hard.”
That has been the case since McCarney and Snyder first started matching wits at Iowa so many years ago. The old friends will match up once again Saturday — maybe for the final time.
“As long as we live, we will be proud of the connection and the time we spent, the memories, the experiences and the relationships,” McCarney said. “As time goes on, I think you cherish those times even more.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .