For Dan McCarney, coming to South Florida to coach the Bulls’ defensive line was a return to his roots.
After spending the previous 12 seasons as the head coach at Iowa State, McCarney returned to the position where he initially met coach Jim Leavitt 18 years ago.
“He was a graduate assistant at Iowa in 1989 when I was coaching the defensive line, so there is a long line of trust and mutual respect,” McCarney said. “There was a lot of respect between us as head coaches understating that we had two real tough jobs.”
Leavitt has built the USF program into the No. 18 team in the country and McCarney took over an Iowa State team that went winless the year before his arrival in 1995.
Now, as the defensive line coach with the Bulls, McCarney has helped build the defense into one of the premier units in the nation.
“It’s been great. It’s a very positive situation for our defensive line – they really respond to him,” defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. “He’s been in the trenches and in big games. He’s been in situations where he’s had to coach hard. You can’t teach experience.”
Friday’s focus for the Bulls defense is trying to find a way to slow down the country’s No. 2 rushing offense. But with McCarney guiding the defensive line, the Bulls are confident they’ll have answers for the 357 yards the Mountaineers average on the ground this year.
“Coach McCarney is such a great coach. I wish I had him for the past three years, because I probably would have been a better player,” nose tackle Richard Clebert said. “You can ask anyone on the front four – we all give credit to Coach McCarney. He’s such a great coach.”
Since his arrival, defensive end George Selvie has transformed into the most effective pass rusher in the country. The sophomore leads the nation in both sacks (8.5) and tackles for a loss (14.5).
In the Bulls’ 11-year history, no player has registered more than 10 sacks in a season. Selvie needs just 1.5 after playing only three games.
“Coach McCarney is a different kind of coach. He pushes us to the max. If you mess up, he’s going to get on you,” Selvie said. “Some people say I don’t get it as bad as others, but I think I do because when I mess up he really gets on me. He treats us all the same.”
Part of the reason for the rapid improvement along the defensive line has been the high demands McCarney has of his players. With a lesser role than he grew accustomed to with the Cyclones, he’s been able to get the most out of a smaller group of players.
“I had 135 (players) on my roster at Iowa State, now you’re in charge of 20 guys here,” McCarney said. “There’s a real fun factor, getting back in there and being hands-on with a position and being in charge of every play, every player, in just that group.”
During daily practice, the defensive line is among the most active groups on the team, challenging each other in blocking and agility drills. One mistake in training leads to a long conversation from McCarney.
“He has a really short-term memory. You could win eight plays and lose one and he will go off – go crazy,” Clebert said. “He takes nothing but the best.”
“On the field, he’s a businessman, but off the field, he’s the nicest guy,” Selvie added.
The Bulls have the top run defense in the Big East, holding opponents to 79 yards per game on the ground. McCarney’s impact on the team hasn’t come as a surprise for Leavitt.
“He’s done a great job for us. He’s just a good person, he cares a great deal and works hard,” Leavitt said. “Nothing that he has done has surprised me. He’s just tremendous in every way.”
During his tenure with the Cyclones, he was named the Big 12 Coach of the Year in 2004 when his defense scored six touchdowns – second only to Miami for the season.
McCarney resigned from Iowa State after 12 years, saying it was time to re-energize a 4-8 team.
The 53-year-old left as the Cyclones’ career leader in victories (56), and his tenure was the longest in the in school history.
“When my situation at Iowa State happened, without being arrogant, I knew there were going to be opportunities and I just had to find the right fit for me and my wife,” McCarney said. “This was a great fit, it was a great opportunity for me and I haven’t regretted it for one minute.”