DENTON, Texas – The Heart of Dallas Bowl trophy sits in North Texas coach Dan McCarney's office on a coffee table near the door. It's impossible to miss. All two-plus feet of it tall, it takes up most of the table's surface.
Its prominent location isn't on accident either. North Texas' 36-14 win over UNLV on January 1 was the program's third bowl win. When something happens for just the third time in 100 years, you get the right to soak it all in.
The win gave North Texas its first nine-win season since 2003 and solidified the program's first winning season since 2004, a season that seems much further away than 10 years ago for North Texas fans.
"We set a goal last January ... and all we said was 'hit six' (wins). But what the hell is that, hit six?" McCarney told Yahoo Sports. "We said this, let's hit six, and we talked to our football team about it. Frank Winter, my strength and conditioning coach and I were the two that really kind of came up with it."
"If we can hit six, which means you're bowl eligible in Conference USA, anything after that is going to be gravy and it's going to be really, really good gravy."
It must have tasted like mom's homemade Thanksgiving gravy.
2013 was McCarney's third season at North Texas. When he was hired at the school before the 2011 season, the past six seasons had produced 13 wins. Total.
After winning five and four games respectively in his first two seasons, McCarney's 14th win at the school was, coincidentally, also the Mean Green's sixth win of the season. It came on Halloween against Rice. The original goal was accomplished before the calendar had flipped to November.
To drive home the goal of reaching a bowl game, McCarney and members of his staff who had been to bowl games before brought all their swag to the football complex after a session of two-a-days in August. With a roster full of players who hadn't gone to a bowl, he wanted them to see some of the incentives up-close.
"I didn’t do it my first two years here because I wasn’t confident enough as a head coach to do that and I didn’t want some phony display up there in front of the team when there really wasn’t much meaning behind it," McCarney said. "This was the first time in my gut that I felt like we could turn this thing because what had happened the previous few months; the leadership we were starting to get out of the senior class."
If anyone would have a good gauge for the turnaround timeline of a football team, it's McCarney. In 1981, his third year as a member of Hayden Fry's staff at Iowa, the Hawkeyes earned a trip to the 1982 Rose Bowl. In 1978, Iowa was winless. In his fourth season as Wisconsin's defensive coordinator, the Badgers won the Rose Bowl three years removed from a 1-10 season.
In his previous head coaching stint at Iowa State, the Cyclones had nine wins in his sixth season; the program's first nine-win season 94 years and first-ever and bowl win.
When the enthusiastic McCarney says he's feeling good, he also means more than just about his football team. In February 2012 he suffered a minor stroke. Then in April 2013, McCarney had heart bypass surgery.
“I went decades and decades and all I ever had was a few headaches and pounded a bunch of Advil," McCarney said. "And within 14 months, stroke, get on a helicopter and fly down there (to the hospital). I don’t know ‘Am I going to live?’ Am I going to be paralyzed? Am I going to be able to talk?’ You go through that whole thing."
"14 months later, I get through with the spring game last spring ... It felt like somebody laid this big cement brick on my chest. When they named me the honorary chairman of the American Heart Association and Stroke Association for Denton … it’s more than just having this stage of being a head football coach and hopefully bringing some positive exposure to it. I’ve experienced it. I’ve been there."
In March, McCarney penned a five-year contract extension with North Texas. While the leap from four wins to nine may seem like the toughest task is done, 2014 may be tougher than 2013. Not only will North Texas be working to sustain success after going 6-2 in Conference USA, the Mean Green are replacing 22 seniors.
“What are we going to do, disappear for another 10 years around this place and everyone keeps laughing at you and wants you on Homecoming from August through freaking December?" McCarney asked. "No, let’s defend that and let’s defend who we are."
His turnaround track record bears that out. After Iowa, Wisconsin and Iowa State tasted success, all three returned to a bowl game the following year. Making room on that coffee table for another trophy is more than a goal.
"Every one of those previous three years, we went right back to a winning season the next year after the program was turned and went to a bowl game again the next year because those guys had tasted success," McCarney said. "Everybody were as motivated as they’ve ever been. Now they knew what it was like"
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