Austin and Butler have helped usher ISU football from perennial Big 12 also ran to annual candidate for postseason play. They had to wonder if a turnaround in Ames could ever happen when the Cyclones won just seven games combined during the '98 and '99 seasons.
But the duo stuck with the program through good and bad. They'll leave an ISU football program that has reached a new era during their five-year run. And like the past two classes to play their Senior Bowls at Jack Trice Stadium, Austin and Butler can look forward to postseason play.
"These kids have done a marvelous job," said McCarney. "The fifth-year seniors in this group will always be special to me. Those four-year guys and especially those fifth-year guys have seen both ends of this thing. They saw before we really got competitive and turned it around and now we're two wins away from having the three best seasons in the history of this place. They bought into the program, my plan, my coaches' plan, coaches coaching, have been through a lot of adversity, good times and bad times. Believe me, these are the kids that are most meaningful to me.
"It's easy to step in and be part of something that's already happened. But when you build it, build it the right way, go through the darkest of days and lowest of lows, then still win and hold your head high, those are the kids that mean the most to me."
The number of high school players in the '98 class was already limited with the Cyclones signing 18 JUCO transfers. Jamarcus Powers, Ryan Gerke, Jeff Waters and Robert Brannon all went on to make a positive impact for two seasons.
"The reason this class is so small in numbers is because this was the year we signed the junior-college players," McCarney said. "We needed to do everything we could to try and find as many players, athletes, speed, playmakers and big playmakers. If we wouldn't have made that decision, there's no way we would have gone 9-3 (in 2000). We had to do that and were real competitive in that year we went 4-7 going to the wire with Texas, Colorado and Kansas State."
"You can imagine the feeling I have and the coaches who have been here have for those kids, and how much we owe them," McCarney said. "They're so important to us and this week will be very emotional.
"Fortunately we're not saying goodbye for the season, but we're saying goodbye in Jack Trice and it is our last home game. It's only fitting that they can go out and play as seniors and have a chance those seniors have never done. Those seniors have never led three bowl trips in a row at Iowa State. You're talking about history."
Rebuilding the offensive line
As if the Cyclones hadn't had enough turnover on the offensive line this season, they'll be losing Butler, who was perhaps the team's best player in the front five.
"We'll really miss the leadership and heart and character of Zach Butler, whoever starts at center," McCarney said. "It's not just his ability and how hard he's played. He's one of the best leaders I've ever been around in college football. You just don't replace that because somebody slides into that position, starts talking in front of the team and really inspires people. He is really special and we'll miss that."
But the good news is a unit extremely short on experience in 2002 will be returning four of five starters and has hopes of getting Luke Vander Sanden back from a broken leg in time for spring ball.
McCarney hopes a combination of factors can get this unit back on the right track in '03.
"We need to keep getting bigger and stronger," the ISU coach said. "That will be their commitment and dedication to Matt McGettigan in the out of season and eating good and getting bigger and stronger. We're still 280-285 pounds at tackle and most Big 12 teams have a lot bigger guys than that playing tackle. Those are under-sized offensive tackles.
"All of those other guys that played are back. We need to keep continuing to bring in more depth with as many of those big guys as we can get. Everybody else has got them. We walk out there every Saturday in pre-game warmups and look around. All those teams that are going to postseason play have the great physical guys up front in addition to the speed."
The latest prognosis on Vander Sanden is good. The starting left tackle heading into this season broke bones in both legs within a span of just over six weeks, but hopes to return by March.
"It's going to be great getting Luke back," McCarney said. "His progress is real good right now. You're seeing most games right now where there's not a lot of rotation and substitution in our offensive line. That means those guys that are playing are pretty consistent and that those guys backing them up have a long ways to go yet. It's a constant work in progress."
Seneca Wallace vs. Kliff Kingsbury
In recent teleconferences with the conference's media, Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach has made no secret of who his choice would be for the Big 12's top quarterback. On Tuesday, McCarney let his opinion be known.
"Both of them have led their teams to bowl games, had great seniors years and are very deserving of any honors out there," he said. "Mike wouldn't trade Kliff Kingsbury for any other quarterback and I sure wouldn't trade Seneca Wallace. I'm sure that's the way he feels and that's definitely the way I feel about it."
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