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Stroke won't stop McCarney, but gives North Texas coach perspective

by | College Football Insider

In 2011, his debut season in Denton, McCarney led the Mean Green to a 5-7 record. (Getty Images)  
In 2011, his debut season in Denton, McCarney led the Mean Green to a 5-7 record. (Getty Images)  

DENTON, Texas -- It's late February and unseasonably warm. The sun is bright and it's a bit windy, but it's a beautiful day to be alive.

No one knows that better than Dan McCarney.

On Feb. 12, the 58-year old McCarney had just finished a 25-minute treadmill run and some light weight-lifting. McCarney, who completed his first season as North Texas' football coach, was sitting in front of the TV, eating a sandwich and trading text messages with athletic director Rick Villarreal when he heard loud ringing in his ears.

"Is that the television, Margy?" McCarney asked his wife. "She says, 'What are you talking about?' She looked at me like I had three heads."

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Seconds later, the left side of his body went numb. McCarney was having a stroke.

"I tried to stand up and couldn't," he said. McCarney said he never lost consciousness and remembered most of what happened.

"I knew exactly what was going on," McCarney said. "The first thing I'm thinking is my son [Shane] and wife are right here: Is this it? I'm so emotional for them, not me. I can handle pain. I'm scared for them."

"I've got two daughters," he said of Jillian and Melanie, "and what kept flashing in my head was my family. 'Is this it?' I don't have any practice at [strokes], so I'm not thinking, 'OK, this is one of those strokes. I'll be fine, get some juice, some medication, get on a helicopter and I'll be all right.'

"I had never had a stroke. It was that part that was scary. I was awake and alert. I knew what they were doing and they weren't screwing around."

McCarney also was aware of his father's medical history. Pat McCarney had a heart attack in his 50s, also had two strokes and a quintuple bypass surgery. But Dan's dad, whom he called "a tough Irishman," survived all that and more until he died when he was 84. Dan was not willing to go just yet.

McCarney was transported to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Denton, but doctors there quickly put McCarney on a helicopter and had him airlifted to Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital, a neurological trauma center in Fort Worth. It was the first time McCarney had ever been in a helicopter.

"You're on a cot, they tell you to lift your leg and you can't lift your leg," McCarney said. " 'Lift your arm' and you can't lift your arm. It's like 'OK, something's going on. This is pretty serious stuff.'

"I never had any tears or was crying, but you start thinking of your family and your football program and these kids."

McCarney survived the stroke with minimal damage. There remains some numbness in his tongue and left hand and some tingling inside of his cheek. He also has frequent headaches, which, he says, are normal after a stroke.

"I'm in the small percentage of people that came out without a lot of damage afterward," said McCarney, who was released from the hospital four days after his stroke and returned to his office overlooking North Texas' sparkling, new $78 million Apogee Stadium a week later.

But he knows how lucky he is. Like a lot of stroke victims, he hasn't needed a speech therapist or a physical therapist. He has, however, had to slow down and delegate more responsibilities to his staff.

"Maybe I'll approach everything with the same passion and energy, but with a lot bit less intensity," McCarney said. "I've only known one way. If I don't lead this whole thing every day with an unbelievable energy level ... I think the body language, personality, approach by head coach every day sets tone for everyone one."

After the stroke, McCarney was bombarded by phone calls and text messages from his staff and players and friends in the coaching industry. Among those who reached out to him was Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.

While he was on Meyer's staff at Florida, McCarney saw first-hand how health issues could affect a coach. Meyer didn't have a stroke, but resigned because of his health before returning this year at Ohio State.

"I don't really need to ask him, because I saw it," McCarney said. "I witnessed it every day. You do need to delegate a little more. I don't stick my nose in everything.

"I still lead our staff meetings, recruiting meetings and practices, but if I can, I'll back off on a little bit. I don't do the [former Tampa Bay Bucs coach] Jon Gruden [arriving to work at] 3-to-4 in the morning, but I'm still the first one here and the last one to leave. If I have to back off on that, I will."

Under McCarney, North Texas certainly hasn't backed off. In the six years before McCarney, the Mean Green was the nation's losingest program, winning only 13 of 71 games. Under McCarney last year, they were nearly bowl-eligible, finishing 5-7, with a win against Indiana and a season-ending 59-7 rout of Middle Tennessee.

McCarney said the stroke has changed his perspective on life, something he didn't think was possible.

"Could I possibility enjoy life any more [than before the stroke]? I didn't think I could, but I do after that happened," McCarney said. "Can I cherish being a head coach any more? I didn't think I could, but I do.

"When those things happen to you, it really brings it into perspective: how much you have, how much you love what you do."

And McCarney loves to coach. It's what he's done for the 36 years a head coach at Iowa State and as an assistant at Wisconsin, Iowa, South Florida and Florida.

A couple of days after the stroke, long-time friend Randy Peterson, of the Des Moines Register, called McCarney in the hospital. One of McCarney's responses -- "it's nothing a little Grey Goose won't take care of" -- was a hit on Twitter.

"Mac, I got two calls that you had a stroke and you're dead," Peterson said.

"Freaking dead?" McCarney said. "I'm good, I'm good. I had a stroke, but it's nothing a little Grey Goose won't take care of. 'Cus I'm all right. Don't throw dirt on me yet."

McCarney still has work to do, players to coach, a program to turn around.

"I'm 58 -- I'd love to keep doing this," McCarney said. "I want to retire with my family, kids and grandkids. I have some time to enjoy it. I would like to keep going. As long as I enjoy as much as I do; I really hope I keep doing this for a while."

McCarney said his next taste of Grey Goose won't come for quite some time.

"I have to wait a while for some Grey Goose," McCarney said. "I don't know a doctor yet that says a little Grey Goose will help recover. But after a victory, there's nothing like a Grey Goose."


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