It was Monday afternoon, and the North Texas football team had concluded its final practice in preparation for today’s Heart of Dallas Bowl against UNLV. The Mean Green gathered at the center of a local high school field, which in these parts tends to resemble your typical major college stadium and then some.
Dan McCarney began speaking to his team, began thanking everyone for their effort and commitment this season, began talking about what this moment meant to the program, began getting emotional in a discourse that grew louder by the syllable.
“(UNLV) is planning on winning this thing and taking the trophy back on its plane to Las Vegas!” McCarney bellowed. “Well, (bleep)! Why not us, men? Why not North Texas? Let’s win the damn thing! Let’s win the son of a bitch! I believe in you men! This is what we’re here for! This is what we’re meant to do!”
I last saw McCarney in 2006, when he was the coach at Iowa State and the Rebels lost to the Cyclones 16-10 in Ames, the night former UNLV coach Mike Sanford went cuckoo after the final whistle. I always wondered where McCarney was when Sanford came storming back onto the field, tripping over TV cables and screaming to speak to athletic directors and essentially alerting all men in the vicinity wearing white coats to be on standby.
“I might have been inside having a little Grey Goose,” McCarney said.
I wondered if he had some on Tuesday, when at the final bowl news conference, McCarney referred to UNLV coach Bobby Hauck as one of the country’s best special teams coordinators.
I suppose that’s good news for the Rebels today, given it appears the Mean Green haven’t watched a lick of UNLV film from the past four years.
McCarney is 60, and in a 14-month span in 2012 and 2013, he suffered a major stroke and underwent quadruple bypass surgery but returned to work five days after the latter procedure.
That’s him. Tough as nails and a little wacko.
But his is a similar journey as Hauck’s in that when he assumed control of the North Texas program, it existed square in the middle of the nation’s worst teams.
In the six years before McCarney was hired, North Texas went 13-58.
In this, his third season, it is 8-4 and in a bowl game.
“I told the players before the season that God didn’t bring me back from a stroke and bypass surgery to go 4-8 or 5-7,” McCarney said. “I was brought here to get this thing turned around right now. I asked them, ‘Why did God put you here?’ They really responded to it. It really hit home.
“It’s the same with UNLV. You overcome so much — the negativity, people looking down their nose at you, the expectations being so low — that when you accomplish things no one thinks you can, it’s a great feeling.
“It should be a hell of a game.”
He was disgusted at the academic results he first found at North Texas, where McCarney said more than 40 players at one time or another had dropped below a 2.0 GPA. It was his first order of business — clean things up off the field before improving them on it.
It’s no secret why his players have bought in, why those listening intently to McCarney’s impassioned speech on Tuesday so firmly believe in all that he sells. It’s hard not to. The guy owns whatever room he walks into. He also has been a head coach in the Big 12 Conference and assisted at stops such as Iowa and Wisconsin and Florida. He even owns a national championship ring from his time as defensive line coach with the Gators.
“He has,” North Texas quarterback Derek Thompson said, “enough skins on the wall from his previous stops to really make you believe he can do big things here.”
That’s what the Mean Green needed most.
Skins on the wall to believe in.
Much like those at UNLV, players at North Texas sought an established leader at the top, someone who over time could change a culture and create a level of confidence all good teams own.
Someone who had been there, done that.
“(McCarney) is a crazy old man,” defensive back Marcus Trice said. “He’s always talking about being so tough because of his Irish blood. I don’t know anything about that. I have a bunch of St. Louis blood in me. But he’s a winner. He’s competitive. He tells it like it is. He always bounces back. He cares about every person in our program.
“Each of us would run through a wall for him … as long as we had our helmets on.”
McCarney was about to finish his speech on Monday, having thanked everyone from the senior class to the kid who folds towels after practice, when I wondered: If this is how he addresses a team two days before the season’s biggest game, what will he do for an encore come his pregame remarks minutes before kickoff?
“He will think of something,” Thompson said. “He’s the crazy Irish captain.”
And here I always thought Sanford was the only one.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.