Dan McCarney can only imagine what being a college football coach would be like in May 2020.
“The coaches I’m talking to have got to be crawling the walls,” McCarney said in a recent phone interview from his Sarasota, Fla., home.
“You can only Zoom so much, you can only email so much,” he said. “That’s the part that would have been hardest on me, not having that extra rush of energy every day from the meetings with the players or working with them on the field, the chance to build a team one day at a time.
“God bless it, I would have really missed that.”
McCarney hasn’t been in coaching since he was fired by North Texas in the middle of the 2015 season. That ended his five-year run at the school, which included a 9-4 record and bowl win in 2013.
The Iowa City native had been in coaching since 1977, when he became a graduate assistant at Iowa after his playing career there ended. He was a full-time assistant at Iowa for 10 years, and was defensive coordinator at Wisconsin for five seasons when Barry Alvarez led the formerly downtrodden Badgers to a Rose Bowl in his fourth year there.
Then, McCarney began a 12-year stint as Iowa State’s head coach. His 2000 Cyclones went 9-3, which stands as the program’s best record in the last 75 years. He also was an assistant at South Florida and Florida. The latter won the 2008 national title when McCarney was Urban Meyer’s defensive line coach.
Now it’s been five years since North Texas, and McCarney is in Sarasota where “I swim every day, bike, walk. If you have to social distance, it’s better when it’s sunny and 75 to 85 degrees.”
But a coach is always a coach. A reminder of that was provided via Jeff Koeppel of North Liberty, who contracted COVID-19 and recovered from it. Koeppel played nose guard and defensive tackle for Iowa in the late 1980s, and McCarney was his position coach. Koeppel said McCarney called him daily after learning of Koeppel’s illness.
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“To me, it’s an easy thing to do,” McCarney said. “It speaks so well of the relationships I’ve had in 45 years as a Division I football player and coach. It’s why you do it.
“My first year working for Bob Commings at Iowa, I made $10,000. It went up to $12,000. Hayden (Fry) came in and put me on his staff, and I got a raise to $18,000.”
There was money to be made as his career evolved, good money. But there has to be more to it than money to make a good coach.
“I loved the chance to see players get better and grow as men,” McCarney said. “You get a kid 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds, but they’re still boys. You see them grown into young men.
“You see them build character, work ethic. You see them become dads, husbands, become good in their professions. Jeff’s a good example. He’s continuing to thrive.”
The better coaches never stop being their players’ coaches. The players won’t let them stop, for one thing.
“The other day we had a Zoom meeting of the defensive linemen of our 1981 Rose Bowl team at Iowa,” said McCarney.
“I was just on a Zoom meeting with a former graduate assistant of mine at Iowa State (Bo Beck) who coaches the linebackers at Colorado State-Pueblo. He had all his linebackers on there, and I had a meeting with them and talked some football.”
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Like the rest of us, McCarney has no idea when football zips past Zoom and players return to campuses and weight rooms, meeting rooms and practice fields.
“I stay in touch with a lot of coaches,” McCarney said, “and there are a lot of tentative plans. There are tentative plans for a delay, there are tentative plans for no nonconference games, there are tentative plans for a 10-game schedule.
“You can’t put anything in concrete. You can’t let student-athletes come back unless the students come back.”
Whether you consider sports silly or sacred, when they return a lot of us are going to feel better about life itself.
“I sure hope people feel good about sports again,” McCarney said. “I can’t imagine a fall without football. America comes alive with the start of football season.”
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