Dan McCarney had just left Iowa to join Barry Alvarez’s first staff at Wisconsin in 1990 when he and his new boss tried to pull off what would have been a coup in college football.
McCarney and Alvarez were friends with Nebraska running backs coach Frank Solich and hatched a plot to sneak one of legendary coach Tom Osborne’s trusted sidekicks out of town.
“We came real close,” McCarney said. “We had a plane ready to go pick him up so that we could spend some time with him and try to close the deal. Within two days he had a new contract that said he would be the next coach at Nebraska when Tom Osborne retired.”
McCarney wondered this week about what might have happened had he and Alvarez succeeded, while preparing for North Texas’ showdown with Ohio and Solich, his old friend who is now the Bobcats’ head coach.
Nearly 25 years will have passed since Wisconsin’s ill-fated attempt to lure Solich out of Lincoln when McCarney tries to lead UNT to its first 2-0 start since 1994 with a win over the Bobcats.
Hundreds of coaches have been hired and fired, offensive philosophies have come in vogue and faded away in that time, yet McCarney and Solich are still rolling along years after their first stops as head coaches.
McCarney spent 12 seasons as the head coach at Iowa State beginning in 1995 following five years with Alvarez at Wisconsin, while Solich was the head coach at Nebraska for six seasons starting in 1998.
So what is the key to their longevity?
Neither has a secret — at least not one that they were willing to share this week — other than an ability to adapt to the changing times in college football while sticking to the core values they developed in the days long before florescent jerseys and televised recruiting commitment ceremonies.
Both said that no matter how the game changes, success is still rooted in developing physical teams and finding a way to relate to the next generation of players.
“There are certain core values and beliefs that you know are important,” McCarney said. “When [former UNT and San Francisco 49ers defensive end] Cedrick Hardman was our honorary captain on Saturday, he talked about the same things I talk about, with toughness, heart and how physical you have to be.”
UNT’s players talked about how Hardman’s message resonated with them after they opened the season with a 40-6 win over Idaho.
McCarney, 60, and Solich, 68, still have that same ability to connect with players.
“It probably helps him that his son, Shane, is our age,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said of McCarney. “He gets the scoop from him. When we sit in meetings, he always has something different on the radio. I heard Celine Dion the other day; other days it’s the Bee Gees or country. He enjoys what he does and can relate to players.”
Solich also makes a conscious effort to find better ways to connect with his players and adjust to the times.
“The players know more about the game and want to understand what you want them to do,” Solich said. “It’s important to relay that to your players. If you do that, you can reach them.”
The players McCarney and Solich welcome into their programs today often are different than those of a few generations ago. What McCarney tries to keep in mind is that while they often have been exposed to more in life by the time they get to college, players have had the same problems since he started as an assistant coach at Iowa in 1977.
“The players have changed a lot in how they look, the size of them, the music they listen to, the way they dress and the way they interact, but they are still young boys when we get them,” McCarney said. “We are trying to help them grow into men.
“That is one of the great challenges and opportunities of this profession.”
McCarney and Solich see constants in the way the game is played as well, even as offenses become more wide open.
Nebraska rarely threw the ball in the days of the triple option. Solich set a Nebraska record for rushing yards by a fullback with 204 yards in a game against Air Force in 1965 but isn’t afraid to throw the ball these days.
Bobcats quarterback Tyler Tettleton threw for 2,844 yards last season, his second straight with more than 2,500 passing yards. Thompson threw for 2,649 yards for UNT in 2012 and finished with 349 passing yards last week against Idaho.
Despite those changes, McCarney and Solich still drill on the basics.
“The game and the players have changed, but it all goes back to the same things: blocking, tackling, execution, a lack of penalties, don’t beat yourself, play great defense, win on special teams and score in the red zone,” McCarney said. “How you get there and the personnel are different now. You didn’t see the tempo and personnel changes you do now and the rules have changed some, but it still gets back to what we learned as young coaches.”
What Solich said he learned from Osborne during the days of the wishbone offense is similar to what McCarney learned from legendary former UNT and Iowa head coach Hayden Fry.
Solich’s Nebraska teams were tough and physical, a philosophy he took with him to Ohio.
Solich sees similar attributes in UNT’s teams under McCarney that he admires.
“Dan takes a great approach to the game,” Solich said. “His teams are physical.”
More and more of UNT’s players are buying into the philosophy McCarney and Solich share.
“They are still able to get players to buy into what their plans are,” UNT running back Brandin Byrd said. “Of the three years that I have been here, this year we have had the most players buying into what he wants to do.”
The results are a key reason why.
A win Saturday would give McCarney an 11-15 record in his first 26 games at UNT, which would be a dramatic improvement over the 5-21 record the Mean Green posted in the 26 games before his arrival.
Solich also has Ohio on the rise. The Bobcats are looking for their fifth straight bowl berth and have won bowl games in each of the last two seasons, a feat only 15 teams have pulled off.
Saturday’s game will be a key point in each team’s plan to reach the postseason this year. Ohio is looking to bounce back from a 49-7 loss to No. 8 Louisville.
The game will be another in a long line of showdowns between McCarney and Solich that have helped foster a friendship that dates to their days in the Big 12.
“Dan and I are really good friends and have known each other for a long time,” Solich said. “There was that immediate relationship that grew. I had a lot of respect for him.”
That respect was developed in some tough games between Nebraska and Iowa State in the 1990s. The Cyclones lost five straight to the Huskers during Solich’s tenure before Iowa State’s 36-14 win in 2002. McCarney picked up a second win over Nebraska two years after Solich left the school.
McCarney and Solich have made a point to get together over the years during the offseason because of the respect they developed for each other on the field.
“He and [Solich’s wife] Pam are tremendous people,” McCarney said. “He’s one of those guys you don’t have to get together with every two or three months to feel like he is a close friend.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.