Iowa CITY, Iowa - It feels like something is missing from the Iowa-Iowa State rivalry. Perhaps it's the two lopsided Hawkeye victories the last two seasons. Maybe people are more interested in the nice weather than game talk. Could be me, father of three young children consumed with youth soccer practices and preschool drop-offs.
I got a little more fired up on Thursday morning, however. My phone rang and the booming, raspy voice on the other end belonged to Dan McCarney.
Not many people have been on both sides of this rivalry as has McCarney. For those newborns or shut-ins in the audience, the Iowa City City High and Iowa alum served as a Hayden Fry assistant with the Hawkeyes. Iowa State employed him as its head coach from 1995-2006.
After assistant coaching stops at South Florida and Florida, McCarney took over the North Texas program this season, a school Fry once led. The Mean Green stumbled in his debut at Florida International last week and are set to host Houston in their brand new stadium on Saturday.
While McCarney has moved on since being fired by ISU AD Jamie Pollard, he's never completely left the Iowa-Iowa State game in his review mirror. He spent 20 years with it being a huge part of his life.
"The adrenaline never stopped running and it was hard to sleep," McCarney said of what Iowa-Iowa State week was like for him. "You go around with a smile on your face even though all of the concerns and nerves and pressure just because you get to coach in this game.
"I embraced it. I loved it. I cherished it. I was always honored to coach in it. Frankly, I do miss coaching in it."
McCarney played a large role in returning this game to "rivalry" status. After losing his first three times coaching Iowa State against the Hawkeyes, he reeled off five wins in a row. Iowa had captured 15 contests in a row against its rival prior to that.
"It was very high on my to-do list to make it a rivalry again," McCarney said.
As McCarney has said many times in the past, that process started in the living rooms of high school players in the state. He wanted to get players that Iowa desired not just settle for the leftovers.
"When I got there, there wasn't one student-athlete in the program that had said no to Iowa to come to Iowa State," McCarney said. "With the great universities both schools have, that was just a complete injustice to Iowa State."
McCarney broke through by landing Hudson High standout Bill Marsau.
"He was the first one to say no to Coach Fry to come to Iowa State," the coach said. "After that, there were a number of athletes recruited by both universities that decided to come to Iowa State. But it started there. There had to be a line drawn in the sand."
Since McCarney's Cyclones ran off the five-game winning streak, Iowa has won three in a row with the last two being by a combined score of 75-10. The Hawkeyes have taken six of the last eight in the series.
One could argue that Iowa State is in danger of falling back to the dark ages of the rivalry. McCarney doesn't believe his work will be for naught based on his approach to turning it around.
"What I found out through the years is that you can only control what you can control and the past has nothing to do with the present," he said.
Many fans rationalized McCarney's success in the series by saying he put all his eggs in the Iowa game basket. It was his super bowl. He started preparing for the next match-up right after the previous one ended.
"It's funny how people try to make sense of things," McCarney said. "I just never wanted my coaches and players to feel like they had to take a back seat to Iowa or anyone else. We had good coaches. We had good players. We had a tremendous university. We should be proud of who we were.
"We wanted to be at our best and turn the thing into a four-quarter football game. We didn't talk about it as a super bowl. We didn't talk about it as all-or-nothing game. We never said we had to win the game or it's all down the drain. It would be crazy to put that kind of pressure on a football team."
McCarney grew up a Hawkeye, played for Iowa and cut his coaching teeth there. Heck, his father was the police chief in Iowa City. Those facts weren't enough to make him become impartial when he was released as Iowa State's coach.
"I had one of the most excellent experiences I could have had with Coach Fry, but there was one athletic director and one college president, in Gene Smith and Martin Jischke, who gave me the opportunity to be a head coach at a Division I university," McCarney said. "I will always be indebted and loyal to Iowa State. My children grew up as Iowa State Cyclones.
"I got to pull for Paulie Rhoads. He help me build that foundation Iowa State and I've got to pull for the Cyclones in this one."
McCarney landed an Iowa high school player in his first recruiting class at North Texas, City High's Andrew McNulty. The coach expected to use the quarterback in this week's game. He wasn't opposed to dipping back into the Hawkeye State for players in the future.
"It's about relationships," McCarney said. "If we do have a relationship with a coach or a family and we have a realistic shot to recruit a young man, we will. I feel like I have to have a real shot like we did when we got Andrew McNulty.
"I know what you get with Iowa guys. I know how tough they are and how loyal they are. The work ethic is great. If I can bring some more down here, I'd sure love to."
It's tough not to appreciate McCarney's passion for football and his roots. His absence from this rivalry leaves a hole for Iowa fans who loved to dislike him. He hopes that never changes.
"If nothing else is said about my time at Iowa State, I'll always be proud that we did turn that thing back into a great rivalry where every year fans from both teams knew there was a shot to win," he said. "When you do that after 15 years of getting knocked around the way Iowa State had, that will always be very meaningful to me."