Dan McCarney could sense by the end of his third season at North Texas that he and his team were in the midst of building something special.
McCarney, 60, wasn’t the only one at UNT who felt that way. Athletic director Rick Villarreall could sense it. So could a host of other school officials, all of whom played a role in UNT locking up its head coach Thursday morning when McCarney finally signed off on a five-year contract extension.
The deal had been in the works since late last season before a presidential change, a New Year’s Day bowl game and a host of other factors slowed the process of finalizing the contract.
McCarney’s new deal replaces the initial contract he signed with UNT before the 2011 season that still had two years remaining.
The deal includes a base salary of $600,000 with guaranteed incentives that will push its value to $725,000 per season. Other incentives in the contract, including those for reaching bowl games, could push the value of the contract to $850,000 a year.
The contract has a buyout clause that would require McCarney to pay one year’s base salary to UNT if he leaves the school before April 1, 2017. After that point, McCarney’s buyout would drop from $600,000 to $400,000.
McCarney and Villarreal said that the deal will give the program the stability it needs to continue its upward trend.
“I feel good about it,” McCarney said. “It provides stability and continuity and shows loyalty. It’s a sign that the culture here has changed, that people are proud of it and want more of it.”
UNT began talks with McCarney, who is 18-19 with the Mean Green, about an extension months ago. Those discussions picked up steam during a breakout year that saw the UNT finish 9-4 and cap its season with a 36-14 win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
The bowl win was just the third in program history and also marked UNT’s first appearance in a postseason game since the 2004 New Orleans Bowl.
Villarreal and McCarney say the continuity the new contract provides will help the Mean Green build on its historic win over the Rebels. McCarney has dealt with some health issues, including a stroke and heart bypass surgery, but has shown no signs of slowing down.
“It felt good from the first day that Dan and I talked about the terms,” Villarreal said. “I have always said that continuity is a key to success. What Dan has done in three years is impressive. He doesn’t show any signs of changing how he approaches things, how he does things or what the expectations are. This is great for the university and a sign that our program is stable.”
Villarreal announced to UNT’s players after Thursday afternoon’s practice that the new deal that will keep McCarney at the school long-term was in place. The news drew a thunderous ovation from UNT’s players.
Several of those players helped McCarney resurrect a program that had fallen on hard times. UNT had suffered through six straight seasons in which the Mean Green had not won more than three games when McCarney arrived.
UNT immediately improved, going 5-7 and 4-8 in McCarney’s first two years before breaking through.
UNT started 2-3 last fall but then ripped off a five-game winning streak, the program’s longest run since 2004.
McCarney said throughout his first two years at UNT and at the beginning of last season that he was laying the foundation for the future. The base was one UNT used as a springboard during its run to the bowl.
“It’s a world now of fast results or fast changes,” McCarney said. “We all know that. People were patient here. They knew that we stepped into a really, really tough situation, but we built this thing right.”
McCarney and Villarreal think it’s built to last.
Villarreal cited several examples of coaches who gradually built programs and saw them take off and become consistent winners, including the UNT men’s basketball program under Johnny Jones. UNT finished at .500 twice, a game over .500 once, two games below that mark once and went 7-21 once before breaking through for five straight 20-win seasons and an 18-win campaign.
UNT advanced to two NCAA tournaments in that stretch and narrowly missed two more before Jones left for LSU.
“It’s continuity that allows you to have success,” Villarreal said.
UNT believes that by locking McCarney up, it is setting itself up for a similar run of success at a time when the program has more to work with than ever before. UNT will play its second season in Conference USA and third at Apogee Stadium this fall.
The moves to a new league and into a $79 million venue have bolstered UNT’s program.
“I really think we can keep building this program,” McCarney said. “I have such high hopes, aspirations and confidence that we can keep being successful now that we have built what we have built. The standards are in place; the expectations are in place.”
McCarney is as well after signing his new contract — a move UNT officials see as a vital step in the program’s growth.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.