New North Texas coach aiming high

DENTON, Texas -- Dan McCarney, full of bravado during his first day as head coach at North Texas, puffed out his chest and proclaimed that the Mean Green wouldn't take a back seat to any program in the state of Texas.

But any local college football fan with a lick of common sense knows that the Mean Green has a ton of catching up to do just in the Metroplex.

TCU has been blessed with full-fledged BCS status, accepting an invitation this week to join the Big East. Coach Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs had crashed the BCS party anyway, earning bids to the Fiesta Bowl last season and the Rose Bowl this season, barring an upset of Oregon or Auburn this weekend that puts the purple people in the national championship game.

SMU has returned to respectability under coach June Jones. The Mustangs are on the verge of their second consecutive bowl appearance and will play Central Florida for the Conference USA championship Saturday.

That's pretty stiff competition for the Mean Green without even considering the Big 12 programs that dominate the recruiting battles around these parts.

McCarney, who oversaw an impressive rebuilding effort at Iowa State, isn't intimidated by his new neighbors' success. He's inspired.

Forget for a moment what TCU and SMU are accomplishing now. Focus on what they've overcome. Now you can understand McCarney's perspective.

He sees a TCU program that had played in only two bowls in the previous three decades before its recent run of 12 bowl bids in 13 years. The Horned Frogs' rise came on the heels of a 1-10 season in 1997.

He sees an SMU program that was irrelevant for years after being resuscitated from the NCAA-induced Death Penalty. The Mustangs' back-to-back bowl bids came immediately after two straight 1-11 seasons.

Suddenly, transforming a North Texas program that went 13-58 over the last six seasons into a winner doesn't seem so impossible.

"It stimulates me. It invigorates me," McCarney said. "TCU wasn't a household name for decades and now they are. Everybody in the country respects Gary and the job he's done. SMU had the Death Penalty and had fallen off the college football landscape for years and years and years and years, and look what they've done.

"If they can do those kinds of things and bring respect and honor and winning to those programs, then why can't we? I mean, really, I don't look at it as a negative. I look at it as those are two of the greatest examples in the country that just happen to be nearby us on how it's supposed to be done and what you can do.

"Let's go do it here at North Texas."

UNT's poor record since its run of four consecutive Sun Belt titles and New Orleans Bowl berths early last decade is irrelevant to McCarney. He's confident that his program is primed for success.

In the mind of McCarney and the man who hired him, it's a matter of when, not if.

"We wanted to hire a coach that was going to build a program for a long period of time, not for a two-year period or a three-year period and move on," athletic director Rick Villarreal said. "In our talks, it's his last stop. We want it to be his last stop. He wants to build a program just like he did at Iowa State and be here for a long period of time. We're going to be patient."

McCarney didn't put a specific timeline on UNT's success, but he made several bold statements Tuesday. He talked about not just winning Sun Belt titles, but of making the Mean Green a team that's talked about nationally.

That hasn't happened in Denton since Hayden Fry, who gave McCarney his first full-time coaching job as an Iowa assistant and coached guys wearing day-glo green helmets with a "Flying Worm" logo on them. That was more than three decades ago.

McCarney is confident it'll happen again in the near future.

He points to the $78 million stadium under construction, the final piece of a complete overhaul of the football program's facilities over the last five years. That's evidence of the university's commitment to building a winning program, as is the fact that McCarney will make approximately twice as much money as fired head coach Todd Dodge.

McCarney intends to fully take advantage of North Texas' fertile recruiting ground. He vows that the foundation of his program will be built on high school players within a 60-mile radius. He already tapped into this market during his tenure at Iowa State, where players such as DeSoto's Ellis Hobbs and Dallas Carter's Ennis Haywood were stars on teams that went to five bowl games in McCarney's last seasons with the Cyclones.

And McCarney expects to benefit from a student body several times the size of those at TCU and SMU. A large fraction of UNT's students are commuters who are indifferent to the Mean Green, but the energetic McCarney is determined to change that.

"Thirty-six thousand students -- are you kidding me?" McCarney said. "That's one thing I loved about this job. Our students will be the energy. They'll be the passion; they'll be the enthusiasm; they'll be the pulse of our stadium. We want lots of people to come fill our 30,000-seat stadium, but our students are where it begins. We need them. I'm counting on them."

McCarney will need all the help he can get. The competition has quite a head start.

Tim MacMahon is a reporter and columnist for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.