This past weekend, I had the opportunity to go back in time. How is that you say? I will get to that a little later. Due to a new business opportunity for work, I found myself in the Ft. Worth, TX area, which is just a stones throw from the campus of the University of North Texas, where my college coach, Dan McCarney, is the head football coach.
I traveled down to Texas on the Wednesday prior to the game so I headed up to Denton, TX in the late afternoon. I was able to attend practice that day. As I walked around and observed the different drills, I found that the practice followed the same format as my old college practices used to. This would make sense since it was the same coach. In fact the only real differences were the players, some of the assistant coaches, and the fact that they were wearing green practice jerseys instead of red. Despite those small differences, it was like I was right back at one of my college practices in the late 90’s.
During the middle of practice, the team took a five minute break and all the players and coaches stood around and drank blue PowerAde. This was exactly what we used to do as well. During this time, I was able to have a drink as well as I spoke briefly with Coach Mac. He asked how my family was doing and how my job was going. That was and always has been Coach. He always is more concerned with his players and former players and how their lives are than he is about himself or telling you about his life. After our short catching up session, practice was back in full swing.
During practice a young man came up to me and started talking to me. At first I wasn’t sure who he was, but he certainly seemed to know me. As I looked closer at him, I could see that he had the same facial features as Coach Mac. It finally dawned on me that I was talking to Shane McCarney, Coach Mac’s son. Amazing! The last time I had really been up close to him, he was a little boy running around on the football field at Jack Trice during one of our media days from when I was a player. He was tormenting the players as we were taking pictures and trying to do interviews with the reporters. It was very typical behavior for a young boy and if I was in his shoes, I would have been doing the exact same thing. Shane and I talked briefly and I learned that he was currently attending UNT to finish up his degree. He was helping out the football program as an intern. It really made me realize how much time had passed since my playing days to see this young, grown man in front of me who I had only known as being a little child.
I had a delightful time watching the Mean Green prepare for their upcoming battle against the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State University in the upcoming days. I saw a lot of effort and focus from the players during the practice, which made me feel like they had a very good chance to play very well that Saturday. I left practice that day with a smile on my face knowing that for the short time I was there, it was like I had stepped back in time to the days when I was the one on that practice field. My mind was filled with memories of practices and teammates I used to go to battle with everyday.
Steph and I stayed with my best friend, TJ Tuetken, who I played my whole Cyclone career with. TJ and Chrissie’s house in Haslett, TX is very beautiful and they made us their welcome guests on Friday and Saturday. We spent Saturday morning going with them to their son Tyler’s youth football game. Youth football in the state of Texas is a very unique thing. They start the boys very young in full pads. It was very interesting seeing the little boys with giant helmets on trying to navigate their way through a football game. After that, we returned to their house and watched the ISU vs. Texas Tech football game. I will not go into the specifics of that game. You all know how that one turned out. It is interesting to note that we were in the state of Texas and could have easily traveled to Lubbock, TX that day and attended the ISU game, but our priorities were on a different battle that would take place later that night in the town of Denton, TX.
Later in the afternoon, TJ, Steph, and I loaded into our rental car and made the short trip north to Denton. We arrived at the stadium and made our way to the parking lot just to the east of Apogee Stadium. We had a couple of drinks as we talked about life, the state of ISU football, and the future of North Texas football.
North Texas came into this game with a 2-3 record. Their first game was at home against Idaho. This year marks the 100 year anniversary of football at North Texas. The team wore throwback uniforms for this game. They came out very spirited in their first game of the year and put a spanking on the Vandals 40-6.
The next week they traveled to Ohio University to face the “fighting Soliches.” The field was full of green and the Mean green lost a close contest to this very good Ohio team 27-21.
They returned home to Apogee Stadium the next week and won a close battle against Ball State 34-27.
The following week they had the monumental task of taking on the mighty Georgia Bulldogs in their stadium. The Mean Green hung with them early and had some very exciting plays, but eventually got beat 45-21. Despite the loss, the team showed a lot of heart.
After an off week, they traveled to play their first Conference USA opponent in the Tulane Green Wave. They fought back from 14 points down in the 4th quarter to tie the score, but lost on a last second field goal, 24-21. That is the kind of loss that can deflate the progress of a team. How the Mean Green would respond in this game would say a lot about their character.
The Middle Tennessee State team came into this game with a 3-2 record and was hungry to get a win as well since they too had lost their last 2 games they played. They run a wide-open spread offense and can really put a lot of points on the board. It would be a very good game for sure.
When game time neared, the three of us made our way down to the stadium. Coach Mac had provided us with sideline passes for the game so we were really going to see the action up close and personal. We entered the stadium and stood along the gate where the team came out of the locker room and took the field. As the team come out, we gave some high fives and I was even able to give Coach Mac a fist bump and wish him great luck. Once the team made their way past the eagle statue behind the south goalposts, we made our way to the home sidelines.
I am not going to give you an analysis of how the game went, but if you are curious, you can check out the game summary and highlights that were posted on the Mean Green’s athletics website here. For a more complete viewing of the stats from the game you can check out the box score from the game here.
For those of you who don’t like clicking on links, here is the recap of the game that was provided on the Mean Green website:
Mean Green Dominates Blue Raiders, 34-7
Ground Game Piles Up 303 Yards While Defense Shuts Down MTSU
DENTON, Texas – After playing from behind in the first five games this year, North Texas finally got off to a fast start Saturday against Middle Tennessee. The Mean Green found the experience very much to its liking.
The North Texas running game, so silent through the past two games, roared to life for a season-high 303 yards. Running backs Brandin Byrd and Reggie Pegram both had career highs, with 139 and 88 yards, respectively, and Antoinne Jimmerson added a season-high 72 yards as the North Texas ground game dominated the Blue Raiders in a 34-7 victory at Apogee Stadium.
“Just a bunch of young men that took it personally,” North Texas coach Dan McCarney said of his offense’s reaction to its recent struggles running the ball. “We know our foundation is built on running the football. We’ve been extremely disappointed in two of our losses. Running the ball was almost non-existent. They took it personal, every guy on offense.”
The Mean Green defense was just as dominant as the rushing attack, swarming MTSU all night and never allowing the Raiders to cross midfield in the second half.
Coming off two straight losses and with two road games ahead, the dominant victory was huge for a Mean Green team now halfway to its goal of being bowl eligible for the first time since 2005.
North Texas had chances to take control midway through the first half after putting together a 71-yard touchdown drive and getting a blocked field goal from linebacker Zach Orr. But James Jones’s apparent touchdown return off the Orr block was wiped out by a penalty, and MTSU got a pair of interceptions on tipped balls to scuttle Mean Green drives and keep Blue Raiders in range of a tying score, which they got early in the second quarter.
But the Mean Green did take control late in the second quarter. After North Texas got a one-yard scoring run from Byrd for a 14-7 lead, safety Lairamie Lee picked off an Austin Grammer pass and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown and a 21-7 advantage that MTSU could never challenge.
What They Said
“We won with our preparation. There was about as much intense preparation and focus this week as I’ve seen I took the job here.”
–North Texas coach Dan McCarney
“Our main focus all week was to be able to run the football.”
–North Texas running back Brandin Byrd
“Speed, quickness, consistency, and great understanding of what we’re trying to do.”
–McCarney on what was behind his defense’s performance
“I was pleased with our effort and our competitiveness overall but we just couldn’t get anything going. They dominated us at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. We weren’t able to protect or establish any type of running game. We weren’t very good on third down. Give North Texas credit, they got after us pretty good.”
–Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill
• The North Texas defense came out attacking the Blue Raiders’ offense, getting solid open-field tackles from Kenny Buyers and Zac Whitfield, a pair of flying tackles by Will Wright, a jarring hit from Zach Orr to open the game, and an early fumble caused by James Jones.
• North Texas had a season-high 303 yards rushing, topping their previous high this year of 231 against Ball State. Running back Reggie Pegram had a career-high 88 yards and two touchdowns, Antoinne Jimmerson had a season-high 72, and Brandin Byrd rolled up a career-high 139 yards and a touchdown.
• Junior running back Reggie Pegram’s five-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was the first time this season that North Texas has scored first, and the first time in 12 games the Mean Green has scored the first touchdown of the game.
• Pegram’s run also gave North Texas 43 yards rushing for the game, surpassing their total of 41 yards from the two previous games combined. By the end of the half, the Mean Green ground game had 115 yards, almost tripling their output from the Georgia and Tulane games.
• The Mean Green defense allowed a season-low 205 yards of total offense, including 66 yards passing, the fewest opponent passing yards surrendered at Apogee and the fewest since 2010.
• Middle Tennessee had a touchdown pass overturned on replay, which showed a hit by North Texas defensive back Marcus Trice sending the Blue Raider receiver out of the back of the end zone before he could come down in bounds.
• Following Trice’s big hit, Zach Orr got the first field-goal block of his career
• Junior defensive back Lairamie Lee got the Mean Green’s first pick six since 2011 when he intercepted a pass from MTSU’s Austin Grammer and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead. It was Lee’s second interception of the season and third of his career. The ball was tipped by Will Wright. It was also the Mean Green defenses’ first score of the year.
• Although quarterback Derek Thompson was intercepted twice in the first half, both on passes that were tipped off the hands of receivers, he finished with an efficient 13-of-19 for 113 yards, giving him 6,010 yards passing for his career and moving him past Scott Hall into fourth place all-time at North Texas.
• Brelan Chancellor had his third punt return of more than 40 yards this year with a 55-yard return in the second quarter, which set up a 21-yard Zach Paul field goal. It was Chancellor’s second-longest return of the season, bested only by his 62-yard return against Idaho.
• The Mean Green’s 17 points in the second quarter were the team’s most points in a period this season.
• This was the second game in a row North Texas did not allow a point in the first quarter.
• Marcus Trice, who had another outstanding game, had his first punt return of the year. In the fourth quarter, a Middle Tennessee punt took at North Texas bounce, springing backward through the Blue Raider coverage team. Trice scooped up a friendly hop and went 23 yards to the MTSU 25, setting up a 22-yard Zach Paul field goal.
The game was dominated by the Mean Green. They controlled the line of scrimmage all night long. The Mean Green had really struggled running the ball having only had 41 total rushing yards in their previous 2 game combined, but on this night, they ran the ball up and down the field for a total of 303 rushing yards. Their ability to run the ball really opened up their passing game as well. The defense came out attacking from the start. They only allowed 205 yards of total offense and only 66 yards passing, which is a huge feat considering how well Middle Tennessee normally throws the ball. Sorry I did have to give a little of my own analysis of the game. It is in my blood.
Coach McCarney has several assistants on his staff at North Texas that were assistants when he coached in Ames. Jon Skladany is his defensive coordinator. Coach Skladany has always run a very aggressive, blitzing style of defense and it was just awesome to see his defense just dominate this game. It made me think back to how we used to run that same style of defense at ISU and some of the success he had there as well. Whenever the defense comes off the field, Coach Skladany sits down on the bench by the linebackers and is talking on the headphones, diagramming the offense of the opposing team. He did the same thing during his time at ISU. It was really cool to see that he still did that.
Mike Nelson coaches the defensive line. Coach Nelson looks exactly the same as he did when he coached at Iowa State with “maybe a little less hair” as TJ commented to me during the game. When the defense comes off the field, he kneels in front of the defense linemen and asks them about what they saw out on the field. He wants to know how the offense was blocking them and he has a little $.99 notebook he writes down notes on. It might even be the same little notebook he used at Iowa State.
Mike Grant coaches the WRs. After the offense comes off the field, he sits on the storage container along the sidelines, listens on the headphones and talks to his WRs.
Nick Quartaro coaches the TEs. He was up in the booth just like he was when he was at Iowa State.
Even coach Mac walks the sidelines with the same swagger and passion that he always did. Only the school and colors have changed, but these coaches have not. Sure they have improved with time and they are better coaches today than they were when they were roaming the sidelines of Jack Trice, but seeing them and how they interacted with the players, it was like I was right back on the sidelines between plays as an Iowa State football player.
Following the game, TJ and I were able to go into the locker room and hear Coach Mac’s postgame speech. I will not share exactly what he said, but what he said was straight from the heart just like it always has been. If I closed my eyes, it was just like I was one of the players he was addressing. The format of the speech was so familiar to me.
It is very rare in this life that we find chances to go back and relive great memories from our past. Somehow on this beautiful night in north Texas, I was able to have one of those rare experiences. It was like I had stepped into a time machine and came out the other end as a player in Jack Trice Stadium in 1999. I know that it was a little different, but all the elements that made it feel real to me were there and it was very special to me.
As the players were dismissed, I was able to approach Coach Mac one last time and give him a big hug and congratulate him. He reminded me that they were undefeated when I was at their games (I attended one other game in Coach Mac’s first season in 2011 when they beat Florida Atlantic) and told me I was welcome to come back anytime to see them play. You bet I will coach! In the 2015 season, North Texas will be playing the University of Iowa in Kinnick Stadium. I will be at that game. Guess what color I will be wearing?
As the three of us walked away from the stadium and towards the car I thought about the future of this program. Coach Mac is doing an outstanding job here and this program has a very good chance of winning at least another 3 games and going to a bowl game for the first time since 2004. What a thrill that would be.
I thought about how much being here on this night reminded me of what being a football player for ISU in the late 90’s was like. We did not win as many games as I would have like to, in fact we never had a winning record while I played, but we laid a foundation that lead to some really quality winning seasons that I was able to witness as a fan. If anyone was not able to watch any ISU games in the late 90’s and wonders what it was like, I would recommend booking a trip to Denton, TX and seeing for yourself.
I thought about what a gift I had been given. What a gift it was to go back and remember one of the greatest times in my life. As we continued towards the car, I knew that I would soon be returning to my life of today. A life that is not centered around football like it once was. That is perfectly fine, because football does not last forever and there is certainly a lot of things that are equally or more important than football in this world. But how awesome it was to be transported back to that special place and that special time, even if it was for only a few hours. I felt alive and really at peace with the world when I was actually playing the game of football and even though it had been 14 seasons since I had played organized football, it was like I was on the sidelines again just waiting to run out on the field one more time. Coach Mac is the greatest coach I have ever had the privilege to play for and what an honor it was to stand on the sidelines with him again.
I am not a person who lives in the past. I’m not really trying to “relive my glory days” as they say. I really just look at this as something different. I see this moment that was given to me as a gift from God. I know that each breath we take is a gift from God, but this one was very special to me and God knew that and so it was a special gift from Him. It was like God was giving me a little taste of what heaven will be like someday. It is just nice to be able to go home again sometimes when you have been away for a long time. I guess that sometimes you can go back.