In the summer of 2000, local newspapers speculated how many games Dan McCarney had to win -- six or seven? -- to remain Iowa State's coach. An Iowa native, McCarney had merely 13 victories through his first five seasons and as Athletic Director Bruce Van De Velde recalled recently, "was running out of time."
What has occurred in the five seasons since has been a remarkable transformation: four winning seasons, four bowl game appearances. And last year McCarney accomplished what no Cyclones coach had done since 1912, winning a share of a conference title. As McCarney said, "We have rewritten the history books at Iowa State."
He also has refurbished the trophy case, the new one now holding the program's lone conference award. If a trophy exists from 1912, school officials don't know where it resides. That hardly matters because many say the buzz this season in Ames has not been this loud in decades, if ever.
McCarney's tenure is significant because Iowa State gave him time in an era when many athletic departments seek quick fixes. The dismissals of Frank Solich at Nebraska in 2003 and Tyrone Willingham at Notre Dame in 2004, both of which came after the coaches had posted winning regular season records, underscore the importance of winning immediately and often.
"It is the world of coaches being hired, and if they don't win, they are gone fast," McCarney said in a telephone interview. "Or they win and all they are worried about is the next job. Hopefully, other administrations can look at us and say, 'It is a program that took some time, they built it right and it's a foundation that is rock solid.' "
The Cyclones went 0-10-1 in 1994, the season before McCarney arrived after five years as Wisconsin's defensive coordinator. Tom Kroeschell, an Iowa State associate athletic director, recalls traveling with the team between 1992 and '97, when it did not win a road game.
In 2000, McCarney's 13-42 record entering the season was the worst of any coach who had been at the same Division I-A school in that five-year span. "At almost any other school," Kroeschell conceded, "he probably would not have lasted. But we had a lot of patience here."
Van De Velde said when he was hired on Nov. 15, 2000, he was told he would have to make a decision on the football coach. However, McCarney made it a no-brainer, winning nine games, including the Insight.com Bowl, Iowa State's first bowl victory in the program's 109 years.
Other benefits have accompanied victories. Since 2000, National Cyclone Club membership has nearly doubled, and season ticket sales have increased by at least 11,000, Van De Velde said, to a school-record level. Since 1994, he added, licensing revenue has nearly quadrupled to almost $600,000.
McCarney feels the Cyclones could be a better team than the squad that finished 7-5 last season, sharing the Big 12 North Division title with Colorado and narrowly missing a chance to play in the conference title game because of a late-season overtime loss to Missouri.
The Cyclones bring back a trio of solid playmakers, notably sophomore quarterback Bret Meyer, considered one of the conference's best young players. Preseason national hype has been mixed, however, partly because the Cyclones compete in the Big 12's inferior North Division, while juggernauts such as Oklahoma and Texas play in the South.
"I have seen us picked to win the North," McCarney said, "seen us picked fourth; the top 25, 50th or 60th in the Big 12. Part of that is a reflection of the last 30, 40, 50 years at Iowa State."
Last season's resurgence was key for the program after a two-win season in 2003. Instead of McCarney and his staff formulating their usual 15 team goals for the 2004 season, the coach simply marched into a team meeting last summer and declared that he wanted the Cyclones to be one of the country's most improved teams.
The Cyclones began the year 41/2-point underdogs against Division I-AA Northern Iowa but defeated the Panthers 23-0. They finished the season as the nation's second-most improved team, behind Texas-El Paso.
"Last year really helped get our respect back," defensive lineman Nick Leaders said during Big 12 media day. "People are starting to hear about Iowa State and recognize us around the country."