Can This Cyclone Marriage Be Saved?

The future prospects of Dan McCarney remaining the football coach at Iowa State beyond Thanksgiving grow more bleak by the week. For some folks the die is already cast, although for others Mac still has their support because of his past exploits. Is there a way to bring these two factions together without throwing the baby out with the bath water? Our founder believes the answer is yes.

Now that Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard has told The Des Moines Register that no decision about the future of the Iowa State football program will be announced until after the season, the debate over the future of Dan McCarney is in full swing.

Since there aren't any bowl prospects to talk about, no future youngsters with promise to instill hope for the future, and the stark reality that next year's schedule is actually tougher than this one, we've all come to the altar of the Church of What's Happening Now. There's no more spin left. There probably aren't any more wins in 2006, either. There's just the resume of the dean of Big 12 coaches and an athletic director with an ambitious vision of the future ISU athletics. An athletic director who can't afford to take a step back from the record 30,000 season tickets sold last season because when growth is the agenda anything that causes stagnation, let alone decline, is unacceptable.

If you're not moving forward in Jamie Pollard's world you're moving backward. That's why I've been saying on TV and radio the last few weeks that the only number that matters is 30,000. Pollard's ultimate decision about Dan McCarney's future comes down to whether or not he believes he can sell at least that many season tickets next season with Mac back for a 13th year. And the fact that we're debating that with traditional box office draws Iowa, Oklahoma, and Texas coming to Jack Trice Stadium in 2007 shows just how tenuous Mac's status is with a large pocket of Cyclone Nation.

Pollard has repeatedly passed on opportunities to give Mac, who we shouldn't forget was just named the Big 12 Coach of the Year three seasons ago, a vote of confidence as of late. Conventional wisdom amongst the media and fans is that Pollard has already made his decision, and I count myself in that camp. It's gotten to the point that folks are even speculating on prospective names for replacements. Two names I've heard bandied about already are Paul Rhoads, the defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh, and Jim Harbaugh, the head coach at Division I-AA San Diego.

Rhoads is a former ISU assistant under McCarney and Ankeny native, this year's Sporting News College Football Preview named him the best defensive coordinator in the Big East. Harbaugh, who was a childhood idol of mine, is a former All-American quarterback at Michigan who finished 3rd in the 1986 Heisman Trophy balloting. He was also a Pro Bowl NFL quarterback and is at the helm of the top program in non-scholarship football.

Both of these men have nice resumes, although they're not the football equivalent of Greg McDermott in terms of hot, young coaches across the country. As far as buzz is concerned, they aren't in the same league with Gene Chizek, John Tenuta, Bo Pelini, and Ron English. That's not to say they wouldn't be great choices because buzz doesn't always equal qualified. Kirk Ferentz came to Iowa with nowhere near the same buzz that Dirk Koetter arrived at Arizona State with. Yet which coach has done the better job?

However, whenever I've heard Harbaugh and Rhoads' names whispered the last couple of weeks I've wondered to myself are these the men we replace the only ISU coach to win a bowl game with? Aren't there more proven commodities like a Steve Kragthorpe – who I think is the next Kirk Ferentz – that a program that has gone to five bowl games in seven years can hire?

Both Rhoads and Harbaugh are gambles.

Rhoads went to Pitt to work for Walt Harris, and was retained by Dave Wannstedt when he took over. But if he was such a hot commodity why didn't Pitt elevate him to head coach instead of hiring the personable Wannstedt, who failed twice in the NFL? How come I haven't heard Rhoads' name mentioned for other jobs? He's done a fine job at Pitt, but I'm not sure he's a better defensive coordinator than John Skladany is let alone a better head coach than McCarney.

In regards to Harbaugh, I would love nothing more than to have another Clonerine at Iowa State. I wore his Maize-and-blue No. 4 every chance I had as a kid. He was and still is my all-time favorite Michigan player. But he's had two coaching jobs since retiring after a successful stint in pro football: offensive consultant at Western Kentucky and head coach at San Diego, which is in the same conference as Drake. It's a big jump from the Pioneer League to the Big 12. Yes, I know that Ohio State took Jim Tressell out of Division I-AA Youngstown State. However, Youngstown State was scholarship football, San Diego isn't, and Tressell was once an assistant coach at Ohio State. Harbaugh has no big time coaching experience anywhere. And a question we should be asking about Harbaugh is this: if he's such a hot commodity why did San Diego State in his own backyard pass him over for Chuck Long when it had an opening come up last year?

My point in scrutinizing these two men, who may do a great job at Iowa State if indeed they were hired, is that we shouldn't just make a change for change sake when we already have someone that has done a great job at Iowa State. They are risky picks. There's just as much of a chance they'll turn out to be divisive figures like Steve Alford as opposed to wunderkinds like Billy Donovan.

I'm not opposed to the idea that Dan McCarney's tenure has run its course at Iowa State, in fact I've been wondering that aloud myself for several weeks now. His conference winning percentage is worse than Jim Walden's, by the end of this season he could be 2-52 all-time against conference foes that finished with a winning record. He's guided ISU to a 0-3 conference start for the fourth straight year for the first time in school history. He's on the brink of guiding ISU to its third winless conference season in his tenure. Based on what ISU was unable to do last season when it was set up for a historic run, and given the loss of nearly an entire recruiting class through attrition the last three years, it's reasonable to assume that Mac has already taken ISU as far as he can while making millions of dollars in compensation. And I do think there are plenty of coaches, even some ISU could hire, who would've done better with last season's team and schedule than 7-5.

However, he's also notched the only two bowl wins in school history. He's led ISU to its only ranking in the final national polls in three decades. He's put the Cyclones on a level playing field in-state with the Hawkeyes. He's been the biggest fundraiser and cheerleader for the university. In an age of self-centeredness he's been loyal to a fault. He has been a leader and molder of young men. And despite some decisions he's made off the field I've disagreed with over the past year or so, he's still a man of profound integrity and character that a parent shouldn't hesitate in the least about entrusting their child with.

At Iowa State you can't afford a misstep in this process. If you're going to run a known commodity you better replace that with a better known commodity. That's not to say you keep Mac here out of fear of the unknown, because I don't believe you allow under-performing personnel to hold you hostage because you don't believe you can hire someone else. It's Pollard's job to find the next man in, that's why he gets paid the big bucks.

Yet I also don't think the case against Mac coming back is completely closed. There are still enough recent accomplishments on his resume to justify bringing him back. You can still make the case he's the best man for the job at ISU, although that case grows weaker after every Saturday. But make no mistake, when/if Mac is fired at the end of the season he won't be unemployed very long. He may not get another head coaching job in a BCS conference right away, but opportunities to coach in a lesser conference or be a coordinator at a big time school or position coach in the NFL will come knocking almost immediately.

However, there is a major problem with bringing Mac back.

It's his coaching staff. Clearly improvements need to be made there. But how deep of a talent pool will Mac have at his disposal given where ISU ranks in the conference in coach's pay and given the fact that if Mac comes back he'll have a very short leash? What kind of energetic, creative and innovative offensive mind(s) will come to Ames knowing that Mac probably only has one more year to stave off Pollard completely cleaning house?

And that's Pollard conundrum. He said it himself, he's looking for signs of "hope." The economic reality at ISU doesn't offer much of one for Mac and those still loyally in his corner.

Can this marriage be saved? Yes, but there's only one way I think it can.

Bring back Steve Loney. He and Mac made beautiful music together. In many respects Loney was as important to the development of Mac's rebuilding program at ISU as Bill Snyder was to Hayden Fry's at Iowa. Fry's offense was never quite the same after Snyder left, and the same could be said for ISU's since Loney left for the NFL. Chuck Long once told me Bill Snyder, his offensive coordinator at Iowa, was actually the greatest coach he ever played for, not Fry.

Think about this.

In the spring of 2001, a reporter asked Loney how good of an offensive line the Cyclones would have without All-American Ben Bruns as an anchor. Loney gave the reporter a sideways glance and said, "as long as I'm here we're going to have a good offensive line."

In the summer of 2003, I was visiting with former ISU offensive line coach Marty Fine in his office. The Cyclones had just concluded their first practice without injured All-Big 12 guard Bob Montgomery. I asked Fine how an already questionable offensive line looked without its best player. Fine whispered to me, "I tell you this, I wouldn't feel safe having my kid back there at quarterback."

Notice the stark contrast?

ISU is missing its physical swagger. It's missing its toughness. It's missing its mojo. And while it's true that the head coach sets the tempo he can't be all things to all people. Behind every great head coach is a great coaching staff. Most head coaches won't tell you this but the truth is they're only as good as their coaching staffs.

Loney left ISU to make some real money in the NFL and now he has. He's been the offensive line coach and offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings and now is the offensive line coach for the Arizona Cardinals. The St. Louis Rams wanted him to be their offensive coordinator this offseason, but Denny Green wouldn't let him out of his contract to take a promotion. He's a wanted man in the NFL that loves ISU and is as Cyclone as it gets.

And after working with Randy Moss and Bill Bidwell, he may be eager to return to the innocence of the college game. For the right price he might be willing to return home.

To get him back I propose Pollard hires him as ISU's new offensive coordinator at the salary of $225,000 per year, the amount of money it would take to buyout Mac's contract and fire him anyway. That would make him the highest paid assistant coach ever at ISU. And then you commit to Loney that he will be Mac's successor as head coach within five years when Mac steps down.

It worked for Michigan State with Jud Heathcote and Tom Izzo, and it's working right now for Wisconsin with Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema. I think it would work for ISU.

And I think it's the only way this marriage can be saved.

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