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North Texas’ Dan McCarney is savoring life, even a test like Kansas State

By Blair Kerkhoff, The Kansas City Star –

In a different time, Dan McCarney’s teams faced Bill Snyder’s by rule, when Iowa State and Kansas State shared a conference. That mostly didn’t turn out well for the Cyclones.

Saturday, the confrontation is optional, when North Texas goes to Manhattan for the Wildcats’ final nonleague tune-p.

Either way, McCarney expects to feel the way he always has when taking the field across from his old friend.

“Like we’re in for a major challenge,” McCarney said. “That’s been the case every single time.”

There have been plenty of them. Saturday marks the 12th meeting between the former members of coach Hayden Fry’s staff at Iowa. Ten were in the Big 12.

They are each other’s most frequent coaching opponent, and in the history of the Big 12, only the Bob Stoops-Mack Brown rivalry has a longer run than Snyder-McCarney.

Both of their head coaching careers were interrupted — Snyder by a brief retirement, McCarney by an athletic director’s decision — but they’re back. McCarney said this week he might as well be breaking down tape of the Michael Bishop or Ell Roberson teams as he studies this squad led by Collin Klein, coming off a 39-point trouncing of Miami.

“The coaching staff there has come and gone; players come and go,” McCarney said, “but it looked like the same things we saw when they were playing for championships and going to BCS bowls.”

When McCarney arrived in Ames in 1995, Snyder was six years into his incredible turnaround at Kansas State, and the Cyclones were starting from scratch. All of the early meetings went the Wildcats’ way.

The breakthrough came in 2004, when Iowa State won at Kansas State, touching off a wild celebration scene with the team and their fans in the corner of the stadium.

Despite five bowl seasons in his final seven years and more Iowa State games coached and won than any in school history, McCarney was fired in 2006. He quickly landed on the staff of South Florida, where the 2007 team was ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation.

After that season, McCarney received a call from then-Florida coach Urban Meyer, an old friend who knew he was sitting on something special in 2008 with returning Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Tim Tebow. But the Gators were coming off a Capital One Bowl loss to Michigan in which they had surrendered 524 total yards. McCarney was invited to coach Florida’s defensive line.

“Urban said, ‘One time in your life, you need to win a national championship,’ “ McCarney said.

Florida did, beating Sam Bradford and Oklahoma 24-14. “If there’s a chance, every coach, player and fan should have that feeling once in their lifetime,” McCarney said.

But the desire to again guide a program remained strong, and the opportunity arrived in 2010, when North Texas called. McCarney knew the place, having recruited Texas throughout his Cyclones tenure, and there was a nice piece of symmetr . Denton, Texas, was Fry’s last stop before headed to Iowa, where he took along his offensive coordinator, Snyder.

McCarney was already on the Iowa staff, getting his resume in order. But Fry kept the young coach on, and for much of the 1980s the staff also included Barry Alvarez, Kirk Ferentz, and Mike and Bob Stoops.

Two Big Ten titles and Rose Bowls were the high points for that staff. Now, McCarney wants to get the Mean Green back to a competitive level. The program is spending its final year in the Sun Belt before moving to Conference USA, and last year, McCarney’s first, North Texas finished 5-7. It was the program’s best record since 2004.

McCarney, 59, says he’s enjoying coaching as much as ever, and also life. In February, he suffered a stroke and took inventory when he was laid up in the hospital.

“I really have always been very appreciative of what I’ve had,” McCarney said. “In mind, I’ve thought I’ve had opportunities I didn’t think I’d ever get or deserved. Good things have happened to me.

“But strokes are serious, and you’re on a helicopter flying to a hospital, you think about your family. Are you going to have say goodbye? But coming out of it, I love life more than I ever thought I could. My family, this profession, this opportunity. You never know how long it’s going to last, and I appreciate now every day I get this chance.”

Even on a day when he confronts an old nemesis.

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