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Goodbye Seth Littrell

North Texas announced they fired Seth Littrell after the loss to UTSA in the league championship game. In the post-game press conference, Littrell mentioned that he was looking forward to coaching “these kids in one more game.” To the uninitiated, it could have passed without notice. It is something you say when you lose a game but have to summon the motivation to compete once more. After the news, the chances that it was something like a public plea for another opportunity are greater.

Seth Littrell ended his career a perfect 44-44 in his time in Denton. He led the team to six bowl appearances, two championship games, coached up more than a handful of current NFL talent, and presided over the most explosive offenses in program history. He also went 0-7 in post-season games, including two blowout losses in the league title games and 0-5 in bowl games with four of those being the most lopsided in that bowl’s history.

It was a frustrating situation. There was plenty of good, and long-time observers noted that there was wisdom in keeping one of the winningest coaches in school history. In the end, it was the fans that voted with their feet. The program enthusiasm that was present in the first couple of seasons had waned. Apogee attendance had waned — some due to the pandemic — but the feeling among the base was one of “I’d like to see it before I commit”

Another knock against him was that while his offenses were prolific, with big yards and big points on the season, they came up small in big moments. NT scored 27 with sub-400 yards against UTSA. They had sub -400 and managed only 21 against UAB on the road. The big games required more, and NT had less.

Littrell was hired before the 2016 season, with the promise of lots of offense and points. President Neal Smastresk made the hire and out-going athletic director Rick Villarreal (current NIL president) confirmed it. It was nearly exactly seven years ago that we were watching the ACC championship game to see what that UNC offense would do. His initial press conference revealed a coach not given to public speaking and press conferences. When he started winning, that was less important. As the public wanted more answers during the fallow years, the short answers, vague responses, and tired clichés were grating on the ears.

In 2016, his offense struggled. In what would be a theme, his transfer quarterback Alec Morris underperformed and lost his job. Program legend Mason Fine stepped in during the first game and began his four-year career in which he would set program records. A surprise invite to the Cotton Bowl Stadium for the HOD bowl vs Army saw a glimpse of the offense we wanted to see.

The 2017 season saw NT over-perform. NT had NFL talent in Jeff Wilson, Jalen Guyton, and Kemon Hall, and CFL talent in Fine. The epic comeback vs UTSA was sweet, and set the stage as NT pulled out wins by the skin of their teeth but with lots of offensive fireworks. The team set program records and Fine set the single-season mark for TD tosses (since broken by Austin Aune this season). The team made the league title game but was obliterated by FAU a second time — the first being a 69-31 loss. They ended the year with another bowl appliance, but this one a disappointing blowout loss to Troy in New Orleans.

In 2018, North Texas had the best team in Littrell’s time. That squad beat SMU, UTSA and upset Arkansas. The program set an attendance record vs La Tech — but lost on a blocked field goal. They had a 21-10 lead in Birmingham but lost there as well. Those losses and an upset in Virginia saw NT miss out on the league title, and also get blown out in the bowl game to Utah State. There were excuses — Mason Fine was injured in the bowl but NT looked second-best in more ways than just that. A troubling trend of coming up short against talented teams and in big games was forming. Before the bowl, Seth was in high demand and was very close to coaching Kansas State. The sticking point was apparently his ability to hire his own staff.

In 2019, Seth Littrell told me he wanted the offense to be more aggressive. Graham Harrell had moved on, hired at USC, and NT was looking to change the Air Raid to more of the Veer and Shoot. Fine was still the QB and young wideouts like Jyaire Shorter looked like intriguing targets. NT struggled to adapt, and the youth was not ready to step up and in. The defense was poor and NT finished 4-8 in Fine’s final season.

By 2020, the pandemic was in full force. North Texas had to replace a program legend, and also Littrell made big changes by firing Bodie Reeder and Troy Reffett. The previous season saw an NT defense filled with youth that included KD Davis, and others but Seth wanted to change the way he approached that side of the ball. “Sometimes a different perspective is needed”, he said in a statement. It was the most recent demonstration of Seth Littrell’s ability to evaluate his own staff. He hired Clint Bowen, in what turned out to be a disastrous decision. Bowen’s defense was the absolute worst in recent NT history. Whatever good that year came on offense, thanks to an explosive Jason Bean and Austin Aune sharing the spotlight. It was a frustrating performance, and people questioned if Littrell was simply lucky with Fine. NT made a bowl, but was destroyed and embarrassed by App State who ran for 500 yards.

Bowen was let go, and the next hire was always going to be crucial. It was time to put up or shut up. The pandemic confused things, and 2021 was Littrell’s chance to show he had fixed the defense and was expected to have a solid offense. Jace Ruder was supposed to be the savior, and instead Austin Aune won the job, and NT started 1-6. Things were dire. Then NT went on a run of five straight that ended with a blowout over ranked UTSA at home. It was a remarkable turnaround that likely saved his job. It was a win over a better opponent in a must-win game. Seth Littrell had seemingly exorcized his demons. The Frisco Bowl Classic was created to put North Texas in a bowl, close by, and NT … got beat up again.

Finally 2022: Seth Littrell’s squad was not picked to do much. Austin Aune won the job over Grant Gunnell and a host of other QB options. NT had a run game, Phil Bennett had seemingly stabilized the defense the year previous but the Murphy twins had gone to UCLA and fans criticized the focus on FCS transfers. Against a weak non-conference schedule that included a mediocre version of SMU, a UNLV team that would fire its coach, and a struggling Memphis, North Texas struggled. UNLV ran for 300+ and SMU looked too fast against he NT secondary. Compounding those problems was that Austin Aune struggled to throw the ball. He threw too many pick-sixes, and NT looked overmatched. Conference play saw the team improve, and the performance against league champ UTSA was encouraging. North Texas blew out WKU on the road, another big win for Littrell after having fallen short in those types of games previously. Late season struggles at UAB, in which NT was facing a struggling team but had a chance to clinch the league title game berth concerned fans. Littrell followed that with a poor performance against awful Rice, in which the Mean Green needed to lead a last-quarter drive to go up, and a late-game stop to preserve the lead. That led to last Friday’s loss to UTSA.

All of the things that plagued him throughout his leadership tenure were on display. The recruiting misses at QB — UTSA QB Frank Harris was a one-time NT target — and a defense that struggled to get timely stops. Most frustrating was the offense that put up big yards all season looking like it needed the perfect storm to get points on the board. Aune struggled on the big stage, and NT was an “almost” again.

President Neal Smatresk gave the following statement:

“After a thorough assessment of our football program, we decided to make change in the leadership of our football program, effective immediately. We appreciate the many positive contributions Coach Littrell has made to our program. He has led the team with integrity and class, and we wish him and his family nothing but the best in the future.”

“We will begin a search immediately to find the best head coach for UNT football. I believe we are positioned to be highly competitive in the American Athletic Conference. We have the benefit of a passionate fan base, great facilities, and resources, and we are committed to excellence in football with a support system that is dedicated to developing elite student-athletes. We will be looking for a leader with the vision, energy, commitment, and organization skills to elevate our program to a championship level. Phil Bennett will serve as our interim head coach for the Frisco Bowl on December 17.”

I asked President Smatresk if he made this decision himself.

He responded:

I did not make this decision in haste. This is something we have consistently evaluated, as we do with all our coaches and staff.

Generally, we prefer to wait until the end of the season, but given a variety of factors, we felt this was the time to give our student-athletes the best chance to be successful the rest of the season and to best position us for the future.

Littrell was coming up on the last year of his contract. In college football, that is essentially as good as out-of-contract as his opposition will recruit negatively against him. I’m told he wanted a long extension (5 years or so), as his resume and accomplishments were (to him) deserving of it. The administration wanted fewer. On the podcast I speculated he would get a Harbaugh, make-good deal. Instead he was let go.

Seth Littrell was the coach of some very good football teams, including six bowl eligible squads, two championship participants, some NFLers, lots of great dudes, about six of the greatest NT offenses in program history and more. He was part of some great North Texas memories. Here is hoping he lands on his feet somewhere else. This was for the best, but North Texas is facing a very competitive landscape. That fact — and the impeding AAC move — were important factors in why this decision was made.

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