MANHATTAN — Dan McCarney was just beginning his career, but he already understood one of the basic tenets of coaching.
When you’re an assistant on a staff that goes 2-8 and the coach gets fired, consider your fate also sealed. Such was the case at the Iowa in 1978.
“We saw a lot of cowboy hats coming into our place,” McCarney said. “We knew a change was coming.”
That change was Hayden Fry, a native Texan whom Iowa hired away from North Texas State to replace Bob Cummings – and Fry was bringing the majority of his staff with him from Denton, including offensive coordinator Bill Snyder.
“Coach Fry, out of courtesy, was meeting with all of Cummings’ staff,” McCarney said. “I’d played at Iowa, been cut in the NFL then came back to be a graduate assistant … I was only making about $12,000 per year.
“I knew (Fry) was bringing in guys and letting them go, and I was the youngest of the entire staff, so I thought I was going to walk in there, it’d take about five minutes, and I’d be done.”
But Fry had other plans.
“We were all impressed with (McCarney),” Snyder said. “He was a young coach, an intense coach, very good with his players.”
Instead of firing McCarney, Fry offered him an $18,000 salary to stay at Iowa and coach tight ends, full-time.
“I almost jumped out of my chair, I was absolutely shocked,” McCarney said. “Nobody knew who I was outside of Iowa City. I couldn’t believe it … the rest is history.”
Snyder and McCarney would spend the next decade coaching together on a virtual all-star roster of assistants who would go on to carve out careers as head coaches — Barry Alvarez, Bob Stoops, Mike Stoops and current Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz all were on Fry’s staff in those years.
Snyder left to coach at Kansas State in 1989, where he stayed until 2005. He came back to coach the Wildcats in 2009.
McCarney took over at Iowa State in 1995 and faced Snyder 11 times, going 2-9, with the only wins coming in their last two meetings in 2004 and 2005. McCarney led the Cyclones to five bowl games and resigned after the 2006 season. He spent several seasons as an assistant at South Florida and Florida before being hired as North Texas’ coach after the 2010 season.
Saturday, the Mean Green takes on No. 15 K-State in Manhattan. And more than 30 years after their first encounter, the impression Snyder made on McCarney remains crystal clear.
“Coach Fry did such a good job of unifying the staff and keeping us humble, we were always on edge and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way at all,” McCarney said. “It was an around-the-clock job, and you never felt like the work was quite done.
“Bill was immensely organized and he had such a tremendous attention to detail. In the 10 years we spent coaching together, every last night Bill was the last one out of the office. He was always looking for another idea that might help us win, and he never lost that work ethic. That’s why he’ll be remembered as one of the best to ever coach the game … how could you not remember somebody like that?”
McCarney faces a rebuilding project at North Texas, where he went 5-7 in his first season. But he has $78 million Apogee Stadium, which opened in 2011, and a move to Conference USA in 2013 to aid his cause.
“I think it was just a terrific hire by North Texas,” Snyder said. “The time we spent together, I got to know him really well. He’s a good guy, a good coach who comes from a good family.”
A good guy and a good coach who might be in for a rough day when he brings his 1-1 team into Snyder Family Stadium on Saturday in front of a sellout crowd of 50,000.
“I’ve told my players they’re getting ready to go into one of the great atmospheres in college football, which makes it one of the worst places to go and play,” McCarney said. “That’s the truth. I don’t need to recruit for Bill, that’s just the facts.
“But isn’t that what you want as a player and as a coach? To go and play against the best?”