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Legends Series: Dan McCarney reflects on his life and Iowa State Football

Jared Larson is back with his series of talking to Cyclone alumni and adjacent people in Iowa State athletic history.

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Dan McCarney and author Jared Larson greet outside of the Alamodome before the 2018 Valero Alamo Bowl between Iowa State and No. 10 Washington State.
Matt Kerton

For those that want to listen to the full interview, scroll to the bottom.

Dan McCarney.

A name that any college football fan in the land between two rivers knows very well.

The 68-year-old McCarney currently lives in Sarasota, Florida, which is just under 1,500 miles away from where McCarney grew the football program from dormancy at Iowa State University.

“We’ve had a home down here for 21 years,” McCarney said. “We miss the people of Iowa, they’re incredible, phenomenal people, but we sure as hell don’t miss the winters.”

McCarney and six fellow Iowa players, Bobby Elliott, Jimmy McNulty, Dave Butler, John Speaker, Brandt Yocom, and Rick Penney, are part of a group of gentlemen known as the “Magnificent Seven”.

“There were seven of us that were real close,” McCarney said. “When I was down coaching in North Texas a few years ago, I texted six of my teammates and real close friends. I said, ‘Why don’t we get together? What do you think about getting together playing some golf, reminisce and just spending a weekend together down here?’ Well, that took about five minutes to get. ‘I’m in’, ‘We’re in’, ‘Yes’, from all these guys and I named it the Magnificent Seven because there were seven of us.”

“Not because we were magnificent players, but because we were magnificent friends and loyalty,” McCarney added. “We’ve done that each year since then. Unfortunately, we lost Bobby Elliott, who was my roommate, teammate coached together at Iowa and coached together at Iowa State. We lost Jimmy McNulty who was a teammate of mine at Iowa. We lost Dave Butler. So three of the seven are now gone, but the four of us still get together here, each spring and a lot of pictures, a lot of memories and a lot of stories. And, and these are guys, we’ve got a lot of great friends, but these were guys that literally we got together when we were 18-19 years old at the University of Iowa. We’ve been friends ever since.”

Growing up a Little Hawk and becoming a Hawk

Before McCarney won letters at Iowa from 1972 to 1974, he was an all-state offensive guard, a wrestler and a member of City High’s track teams.

“Incredible years,” McCarney said of his time at City High. “It’s those years where you really start trying to figure out life and who are your mentors, who are the people do you most respect? Who are the people that you most look up to? And for me it was Clyde Bean because he was my head football coach, he was my head wrestling coach and then John Raffensperger was a phenomenal football and track coach, was my track coach.”

Red and White 1970

“So, I grew up two blocks from City High School, Jared, right down the road,” McCarney said. “I used to grow up playing tackle football and jumping the fences and going out to Frank Bates Field there at City High pretending I was a Little Hawk, just like I pretended, and just like I pretended I was a Hawk someday, even though I never knew that I’d ever have any chances to be worth a damn would either of those schools as a football player. That was my dream. That was my hope.”

Red and White

“In my sophomore year at City High, the varsity didn’t win a game that’s how bad they were. We had a sophomore team that was separate from that. We won six games. We had a good football team. At the end of the year Clyde Bean took the 11 starters off the sophomore team, which they didn’t move sophomores up hardly ever back then,” McCarney added. “They’re getting their tails kicked. He puts our sophomore offensive group in together and we went down the field, 80-yard scored a touchdown, gave us some confidence, you know, maybe someday we can be pretty good.

Two years later. We played Cedar Rapids (Washington) the final game of the year. There were no playoffs then. We were both in the top five in the state of Iowa. Came down the last play of the game. We kick a field goal, it hits the upright bounces off. No good Cedar Rapids (Washington) wins. They’re going berserk. They’re going crazy. Hold on. Just a second. There’s two flags down. One of their defensive linemen lined up offsides on the field goal. We get another shot, five yards closer, Jared, kick it right down the middle of the uprights Louie Villhauer put it through.

We win the championship first time and since 1953 and it was an incredible finish to that season. Clyde Bean had an unbelievable impact on my life as he had on many young people. Little did I know then that someday I would get into coaching.”

After graduating from City High in 1971, McCarney had to decide on where to attend university. As an Iowa City native, McCarney eventually settled on Iowa, but he was pursued very heavily by Iowa State.

“I got recruited really hard by Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill from Iowa State University,” McCarney said. “That was really where I was going to end up going until I made a decision there at the end right before signing to stay home and go to the University of Iowa.”

Oct. 21, 1971 | Iowa City Press Citizen

Before the 1974 Iowa season kicked off at No. 6 Michigan, first-year head coach Bob Commings tabbed McCarney and the late Earl Douthitt as team captains.

“Earl passed away real tragically,” McCarney said. “He was out working in his yard a few years ago, raking leaves in the fall and a car lost control in his neighborhood, ran up over the curb and into his front yard and unfortunately hit Earl and was killed on the spot.”

Aug. 20, 1974 | Iowa City Press Citizen

“Earl and I gave everything we had, we worked really hard,” McCarney added. “One of the great honors you can ever have in any sport is being named a captain, means your teammates really respect you, the way that you work and the way that you approach every day. That’s one of the great honors in my life and I miss Earl. I wish I could see him. I wish I could tell him how much I love him and respect him, but he knew that many years before he was ever killed.”

Beginnings of McCarney being Coach McCarney

After leaving Iowa, McCarney signed with both the Atlanta Falcons and the Denver Broncos. However, after being cut by the Falcons in 1975 and leaving the Broncos’ camp for personal reasons (per era newspapers) in 1976, McCarney found his way back home to Iowa City.

McCarney was a graduate assistant during the 1977 and 1978 seasons for the Iowa Hawkeyes.

During the 1979 to 1989 seasons, McCarney was the defensive line coach for the Hawkeyes before heading three hours northeast where he was the defensive coordinator and defensive line coach at Big 10 Conference rival Wisconsin.

Interviewing with Iowa State

Late during the 1994 Wisconsin season, McCarney got a call from a phone number in the 515 area code.

“Barry Alvarez came in and grabbed me and he said, I got a phone call from Gene Smith. I didn’t know honestly, I didn’t know who it was, you’re so buried in the season,” McCarney shared. “I said ‘Who’s that?’ He says the athletic director at Iowa State I said, ‘OK, yeah, I’ve heard of him’. I said, ‘What does he want?’ He said he wants to talk to you about interviewing for the head job.

And so I was just shocked. I wasn’t expecting it, didn’t anticipated it and you hear about all these fancy places that you get to go interview and jets and fancy hotels... Gene Smith flew to Madison, Wisconsin. And we sat down for three and half hours at a Denny’s restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin. That’s where I had my first interview for a Division I head job. He must have liked what he heard. I think I was one of three or four he brought to campus in 1995. I walked into Dr. Martin Jischke’s office and there was 20-some people there, I didn’t anticipate that, didn’t know that was coming.”

“I honestly said ‘You may not want to hear what I have to say, but I’m going to be real honest with you because I know an awful lot about Iowa State,’” McCarney added. “Here are the things that I know are really good starting with the education, the people, the fanbase, which has been phenomenal. Here’s the things that I know from recruiting and coaching against Iowa State that are the issues,’ and I put it all out on the table and I knew at that time, they’re going to try and get rid of me as fast as they could or they go you know what this might be the guy we want to try and bring back to revive this thing.”

Changing the culture

One of the things that happened during Dan McCarney’s first year involved changing Iowa State’s uniform identity.

The era of the gold helmet, which was seen in one shade or another since 1968 (with the exception of a four year period from 1979 to 1982 and the occasional “MVP” helmets until 1986), got replaced with a solid cardinal lid in 1995 with a spinning Cy on each side.

Another thing that was included during the uniforms during McCarney’s era was an accent shade of tertiary blue (Jared’s note: big fan).

“We wanted something fans could rally behind,” McCarney said. “When things are really bad and the program is synonymous with losing, and honestly getting embarrassed on most college football Saturdays, we just wanted something new. Gene Smith was real proactive and real smart and did a phenomenal job at getting new donors involved one of the first conversations I had with Gene Smith was ‘Who’s in charge of the letterwinners club?’ ‘We don’t have one’ I was taken aback.”

1994 Iowa State football uniform compared to 1995 Iowa State football uniform
Photo by Todd Rosenberg/Allsport/Getty Images and Iowa State Athletic Communications (Twitter)

“We wanted to change the whole thing and Gene hired a company to come in to give us some thoughts and some ideas,” McCarney said of the process to change uniforms. “Gene and I worked together on that, obviously the base colors were cardinal and gold which are the colors of Iowa State, but a little bit of the blue background just to accentuate those colors. We did everything that we could to make people really proud to put on their Iowa State gear.”

One of the things brought up to coach McCarney during this interview was the inquiry of “What is something from your time at Iowa State that most fans might not know?”

“That’s a really good question, I haven’t thought about anything like that,” McCarney said. “We went through some really hard times and some tough times. I think it’s really important that people know how much the people that supported us back then meant to us. then when you start beating Iowa, when you start beating Nebraska and you start going to bowl games and you win the first bowl game in 100 years in Phoenix, Arizona and there’s no room left on that damn bandwagon... Those fans, Jared, that were there and still said ‘We got your back, Mac, we’re with you. We know it’s going to take some time.’” bowl X McCarney

“Those people, to this day, are some of the most meaningful friends and loyal supporters that God ever created and I’ll never forget them,” McCarney added. “Those people that were with us through those unbelievably tough times and then we turned it around and we started bringing respect and we brought honor and ESPN’s coming in because we have Troy Davis. People saw there were positive things going on, they knew that we were bringing in guys with character, they knew that we were going to put a foot of the rear ends that they weren’t making progress towards their degree and if they weren’t getting involved in the community and giving back to the community. Those people may not have been 50,000 at the time, obviously, but a lot of those people I’ll never forget and I’ll always respect them, I’ll always love them and I’ll always thank them for what they did.”

One of the things that McCarney’s players did in the community, at least in my anecdotal adjacent, was to visit St. Cecilia Elementary School (where I went) for a fall festival in 2003.

I’m pretty sure that meeting the Cyclones I met that day and going to my first Iowa State football games 20 years ago this fall solidified my interest in Iowa State athletics.

I told Coach McCarney and thanked him for getting his players out into the community to see six-year-olds like me.

“When you were saying that just now the damn hair was standing up on my arms,” McCarney said. “I’m telling you, when my life has been so enriched because of my relationships through coaching. And if nothing else when I ride off into that final sunset, if people say, you know what he tried to get his players to give back and appreciate the support that they give. And if you want people in the stands cheering for you, this is what I always told my guys, if you want people in the stands cheering for you and support you and how about giving back? It’s not too much to ask, to go to the hospital which we did every Friday of all the home games, to go to elementary schools to get out and just say ‘thanks’ and make young people’s day, like you mentioned.”

“Just sometimes it doesn’t take very much effort and you leave this lasting Impression. And I just thought that, that was the least that we could do with our football team and our guys jumped in, they were amazing and then as time went on, Jared, our guys would find out, you know, what, they got more out of it than the people that we went to see.”

“And so that was that was something, that’ll always be real special to me. So things didn’t work out. In the end we had 12 years. Unbelievable run. Wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Have this great love and respect for Iowa State, and Matt Campbells embraced me, been a phenomenal friend. The first day he took the job he called me. So I love that place, but I still knew that I had a lot to give.”

After Iowa State

Coach Mac made three more stops after Iowa State.

South Florida where he was the defensive line coach and assistant head coach in 2007, Florida, where he was in the same role until 2010, and from 2011 to 2015, McCarney was at the helm of North Texas.

“So we went to the University of South Florida,” McCarney said. “We won nine games. We went to No. 2 in the country. I was fortunate to coach a young guy named George Selvie, who led the nation in sacks and tackles for loss.”

South Florida v North Carolina
Assistant Head Coach Dan McCarney of the South Florida Bulls congratulates George Selvie #95 during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels on September 22, 2007 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.
Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images

“We beat West Virginia who was in the top five at the time, we beat Louisville who was in the top 10, we took Central Florida and took them behind the woodshed and hung 60 on them, we went to Auburn and beat them in overtime,” McCarney recollected of his time at USF. “I always really appreciate the opportunity I got from Jim Leavitt. I’ve never had so many offers after that job in my life. I never told anybody about this, the offers were ridiculous. I had offers I didn’t even deserve. I got offers to be coordinator, I got offers to be assistant head coach, I got offers to be head coach...”

What those that have followed coach McCarney’s post-Iowa State career might not know, is that McCarney almost took a head coaching job elsewhere before Florida hired him.

“I had a press conference all lined up at the University of South Alabama,” McCarney said. “They were going to start football from scratch and they wanted me to come in and do that. Urban Meyer called me from the airport while he was in a private jet down in Houston, Texas, and he said ‘What are you doing?’ I said ‘Getting ready for a press conference tomorrow at the University of South Alabama.’ ‘What the hell for?’ ‘They’re going to start football from scratch.’ ‘Maybe one time in your life you should go to a place where you can definitely win a national championship,’ Meyer said. How about that, Jared?” McCarney asked me.

National Champion

Ultimately, McCarney slept on Meyer’s offer for the night and the next day took the job.

“We went 30-2 our first 32 games, won a national championship and had this unbelievable experience,” McCarney said.

Mississippi v Florida Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images

Head Coach, again

Coach McCarney was offered and ultimately accepted another rebuilding job in November 2010.

“Like always, assistant coaches get opportunities,” McCarney said. “That’s what happened to me at Iowa, that’s what happened to me at Wisconsin, that’s what happened to me at South Florida, that’s what happened to me at Florida. And then I got a chance to be a head coach at North Texas where Hayden Fry had been many, many years before.”

This time, it was the University of North Texas in Denton.

The Mean Green were nowhere near as mean as the moniker intended when Coach Mac took over the job, as North Texas had no more than three wins every season since 2005.

“They were in the bottom 10,” McCarney said. “We took them to a bowl championship in 2013. Nine wins. We were voted the best team in school history last year. Then I rode off into the sunset and said ‘You know what? I could have never dreamed of the opportunities, the success and the wonderful memories I had in my time as a football coach.”

Heart of Dallas Bowl - UNLV v North Texas Photo by Sarah Glenn/Getty Images

Dan McCarney, who is part of the Iowa City High School Hall of Fame (2005), Iowa State Hall of Fame (2016) and the Iowa High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame (2021), finds all of these honors to be extremely humbling.

Former Iowa State football coach Dan McCarney waves to fans during halftime of a game between Iowa State and San Jose State in 2016.

“It’s so humbling, but I figured this out a long time ago, Jared. It’s a complete reflection of the people around you,” McCarney said. “So whether it’s an Iowa State University, or City High School or I was inducted this past fall state championship games up in Cedar Falls into the Iowa High School Hall of Fame, it’s all about the people around you. It’s not what we did together. It’s about what we accomplished together.”

“That’s what it’s about. It’s about that. It’s not about anything else. It’s just amazing. Our world can be so special that people just have the discipline the decency to do what’s right. As you know, our world is full of unsuccessful people with talent because they didn’t have the persistence or the consistency. That’s what we were able to do in all the places that I was at. These championship teams, these amazing players and coaches that were assembled through my career, the one of the most important things to me was the incredible loyalty. It was unconditional. It was unconventional. It was uncommon.”

Iowa State head football coach Dan McCarney, in his last game at Iowa State, rode off into the sunset as he was carried off the field by his players after defeating Missouri 21-16 in game at Jack Trice Stadium Saturday afternoon, Nov. 19, 2006. It was chaos as the game ended, with confusion on Missouri’s last plays of the game, and then the fans charged the field to celebrate with McCarney one last time.

“We built it. We sustained it. We showcased it. And we were proud of it,” McCarney added. and when somebody says, well, you’re going into the Hall of Fame. It’s so unbelievably exciting and great. But the first thing that comes to mind to me is not me and what I did, what we did it’s what all of us did. And I want people to never forget what we did at all these places. And, when I was inducted at Iowa State, there were lots of former players that were there. And as I told them, this isn’t about me. This is about us. This is what we did. So, we did it together.”

“It was this amazing thing of what I tried to do was just plant something in their hearts and their souls and in their minds that maybe would stick and we could take a hold of and run with it and hopefully be proud of someday, but it’s what we all did together. If you’re really good football coach, here’s the first thing that you do Jared, no secrets here, surround yourself with really high-quality, high-character, loyal, hard-working, tough-minded people and it’s amazing, what you can accomplish.

The University of Iowa was not a destination all the years that I was there. University of Wisconsin, was not a destination when I was there. Iowa State University was not a damn destination, those places were kind of last resorts. University of North Texas, it sure as hell wasn’t a destination kind of last resort and all those places now are not any last resorts. They’re unbelievably respected universities, respected football programs, and that’s something I’ll always be proud of.”