Sun Belt preview: McCarney vows North Texas will lose losing ways

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Veteran coach Dan McCarney joins North Texas after a stint on Urban Meyer's staff at Florida. (US Presswire)  
Veteran coach Dan McCarney joins North Texas after a stint on Urban Meyer's staff at Florida. (US Presswire)  

In the past six years, North Texas has played 71 football games. It lost 58.

Some defeats were worse than others. Among the carnage included losses to Tulsa (54-2), Oklahoma (79-10), Rice (77-20) and Arkansas (66-7). In 2007, the Mean Green scored 62 points -- and still lost to Navy 74-62.

The Mean Green have been anything but mean since 2005. Here's one man's opinion on the perception of the North Texas program:

"The perception on the outside is football stinks at North Texas. The perception is there's no commitment, no winning, no success and it hasn't been run the right way. If you want to go small time, you go to North Texas. If you want to go big time you go somewhere else."

That analysis comes from Dan McCarney, who just happens to be the new coach at North Texas.

"That's what we stepped into," McCarney said.

And he has certainly stepped into it big time -- college football's losingest, most hapless program in the past six seasons.

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But that perception will not be reality much longer under McCarney. That's a promise -- and a threat.

Every single day for the past eight months, McCarney has been working to make the Mean Green more competitive. One of the first things McCarney had to do was convince the players the light at the end of the tunnel was not another oncoming train.

For some North Texas seniors, McCarney is the fourth head coach they've dealt with. From the outset, McCarney made it clear it would be different this time.

Vastly different.

"They don't know much about me," McCarney said of that initial meeting. "It takes some time when you've been battered, knocked down and beaten down. You know how many have been a part of winning college football program? Zero. How many have been to a bowl game? Zero.

"It takes some time to build some trust. These guys have been through an awful lot. It takes some time before you can start winning -- you have to stop losing. That's year-round. This isn't punishment what we're doing. This is what you have to do to be successful.

"It's a process and it doesn't happen easily. But we are no question going in the right direction."

Among some of the immediate changes the Mean Green encountered with McCarney was a drastic attitude adjustment.

"I don't want one person involved with this program -- one person that affects this program -- that thinks it's funny about losing and that it's OK to lose at North Texas," McCarney said. "I think we're slowly but surely getting that.

"To start looking like a Division I team, we have to walk like it, train like it, play like it, look like it, act like it, live like it. We have a long way to go. It's a process."

McCarney was hired Nov. 30. A short time later he was "mad as a hornet's nest" when he discovered how the team was performing -- or better yet, not performing -- academically.

When McCarney arrived in Denton, the Mean Green had 37 players with a 2.0 GPA or lower during the 2010-11 fall semester. In the spring semester only four players remained below a 2.0 GPA, while 40 players had at least a 3.0 GPA.

McCarney told the team he would not tolerate anyone that was disrespectful to professors or didn't attend class. Not only did the Mean Green need to improve their brains, but also their brawn.

"We look better now," McCarney said last week, "but we're still the smallest Division I team I've been around."

This will be McCarney's 35th season coaching. He was an assistant at Iowa, Wisconsin, South Florida and Florida and also head coach at Iowa State from 1995-2006, leading the Cyclones to five bowl games. He was the 2004 Big 12 Coach of the Year and also won a national title with Florida in 2008.

"I've been around some programs that have bottomed out," McCarney said.

After he was an assistant at Iowa from 1977-89, McCarney went to Wisconsin as part of Barry Alvarez's first staff in 1990. The Badgers went 1-10 that first season, but three years later UW went 10-1-1, winning the Big Ten and Rose Bowl. McCarney left after the 1994 season for Iowa State -- and another major renovation project.

The Cyclones were 0-10-1 the season before McCarney arrived. They had three winning seasons in the previous 16 years.

All McCarney did was tie the school record for most wins in a season (9-3 in 2000). When McCarney was fired in 2006 with a 56-85 record, the Cyclones had played for 114 seasons. They had won at least seven games only 16 times -- five of those with McCarney as head coach.

McCarney, who turned 58 earlier this month, always thought he would get another head-coaching opportunity.

"This is not the first opportunity I've had to build something," McCarney said. "I know this we have zero chance to win games if we're not more physical in the trenches. You keep seeing nine losses [a season], 10 losses, nine losses, 10 losses because we've been dominated in the trenches.

"We made a commitment to get more physical in the trenches."

McCarney is enjoying his latest chance to build a program.

"At Iowa and Wisconsin, back then, those programs stunk," McCarney said. "At Iowa State, so many things are similar to here. To do things that have never been done before is one of the most meaningful things you can do.

"I had a great feeling about North Texas' vision under athletic director Rick Villarreal. Now there are some long, tough days ahead, but there is not one regret."

Making McCarney's job somewhat easier is playing in and being able to recruit to North Texas' brand new, $78 million Apogee Stadium. The nonconference schedule is a bear: games against Houston (in the new stadium's inaugural game), Alabama, Indiana and Tulsa. North Texas also has future games scheduled against Texas, Tennessee, LSU, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas State and SMU.

Helping McCarney's transition is the return of offensive coordinator Mike Canales, who was interim coach after Todd Dodge's firing in midseason last year. McCarney and Canales were assistants together at USF in 2007 when the Bulls were ranked No. 2 in the BCS during the season. "The trust level and respect level is so strong," McCarney said.

McCarney's vision of what is in the Mean Green's future is just as strong.

"People will stop laughing at North Texas," McCarney said, "and one day start respecting North Texas."

That day, McCarney promises, is coming soon.

CBSSports.com's Chip Patterson predicts the order of finish

1. Florida International

After Troy captured at least a share of the past five conference titles, this will be the year the Panthers unseat the Trojans and claim the top spot for themselves. Momentum from the program's first bowl win (and appearance) and the return of 15 starters combine to make a return to the top seem likely for Mario Cristobal's squad. Dynamic wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is arguably the most explosive player in the conference, and returns alongside running back Darriet Perry (865 yards, 16 TDs) and quarterback Wesley Carroll (2,623 yards, 16 TDs). FIU outgunned Troy on their home turf a year ago in a 52-35 shootout that saw the Panthers collect 668 total yards. This year they get the perennial favorites in Miami on a Tuesday night with a chance to put an exclamation point on their ascension to the top.

2. Troy

Coach Larry Blakeny began owning the Sun Belt shortly after the conference extended Troy an invitation as a football-only member in 2004. Since 2006, the Trojans are 32-5 in conference play and have earned at least a share of the conference title each year. One advantage for the Trojans in 2011 is getting an extra half-week to prepare for their trip to FIU, which likely will decide the conference title. Star defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi anchors a unit that returns eight starters. While all-conference quarterback Corey Robinson also returns, there are far more holes to be filled on offense. Despite the issues, there is little reason to think that the Trojans can't repeat as conference champs. I just think they won't.

3. Arkansas State

Last season, Hugh Freeze's offense put up some of the best numbers in program history, and after a promotion from offensive coordinator the legendary high school coach has his first FBS job. The Red Wolves return all of their skill-position players from that unit but need to replace four starters on the line. Strong safety Kelcie McCray returns to try and lead a secondary that was easily one of the weaker points in the defense a year ago. The Red Wolves travel to Illinois and Virginia Tech at the beginning of the season, which should give them some good tests before conference play begins.

4. Louisiana Monroe

Coach Todd Berry joined the status quo last season and installed a spread offense, and it at least got things moving in the right direction for the Warhawks. Quarterback Kolton Browning stepped in and had an impressive freshman campaign, completing 61.9 percent of his passes for 2,552 yards and 18 touchdowns. Browning is one of 10 returning starters on the offensive side of the ball and ULM should be able to put up impressive numbers on opponents in a league where outgunning your opponents sometimes is the best defense. Defensively, the Warhawks will follow the lead of upperclassmen linebackers Jason Edwards and Cameron Blakes, both coming off strong 2010 seasons and helping ULM take advantage of being one of the Sun Belt's more experienced teams.

5. North Texas (tie)

As Brett McMurphy mentioned earlier, coach Dan McCarney steps into one of his greatest challenges -- a North Texas team that has won only four conference games the past four seasons. The Mean Green will have the advantage of opening brand-new $78 million Apogee Stadium on the school's Denton campus. On the field it will be a challenge. All-conference running back Lance Dunbar (1,553 yards, 13 touchdowns in 2010) is one of only five returning offensive starters, and the Mean Green return only four of their top eight tacklers. But this team was decimated by injury a season ago, and the early experience might pay off for the underclassmen stepping into new roles this year. In my eyes the middle of the conference is a tossup, and I've got a feeling that the change in leadership and new stadium can help spark the momentum necessary to string together four or more conference wins.

5. Middle Tennessee (tie)

This team had high expectations heading into 2010 but much of that rode on the play of quarterback Dwight Dasher. Dasher was suspended the first four games and when he did return he only added to the Blue Raiders' turnover problem. Dasher threw 18 interceptions and Middle Tennessee finished last in the nation in turnover margin. This year sixth-year head coach Rick Stockstill returns only seven offensive starters and only three on defense. There should plenty of weapons for whoever takes over at QB (Logan Kilgore or Jeff Murphy) as the Blue Raiders return four of their top five receivers.

7. Florida Atlantic

Knowing this is Howard Schnellenberger's last season makes me want nothing more than to see the Owls send the legendary head coach out on top. Also, FAU will open a brand-new $70 million stadium after starting the season with five straight road games. Those trips include Florida, Michigan State, Auburn and conference showdowns against North Texas and Louisiana-Lafayette. When they finally do open the stadium against Western Kentucky, the Owls might be trying to bounce back from a 1-4 start.

8. Western Kentucky

Finishing 2-10 can be demoralizing for any team, particularly when a 2-6 conference record includes three losses by a touchdown or less. The Hilltoppers were in several games last season but failed to finish enough of them to avoid the bottom portion of the Sun Belt standings. Senior running back Bobby Rainey returns after leading the conference in rushing a year ago with 1,649 yards and 15 touchdowns. Western Kentucky also returns eight starters from a defense that finished second in the conference in yards allowed per game. Unfortunately, leading the Sun Belt in total defense is comparable to being the best intramural flag football player, as the Hilltoppers ranked 67th nationally.

9. Louisiana Lafayette

New head coach Mark Hudspeth arrives from Dan Mullen's Mississippi State staff with a tall order, trying to help his new team bounce back from a 3-9 campaign. Senior quarterback Chris Masson could be a highlight on offense, though there was some talk that Hudspeth might ditch the spread. If he does, the responsibility will fall on sophomores Robert Walker and Aaron Spikes to carry the load. Unfortunately, the Ragin' Cajuns just do not have enough talent on the roster to escape the cellar.

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