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Offseason Thoughts: February 2015

The offseason has been unkind. Our favorite football program has to replace the defensive coordinator, the QB(with like, nine other possibilities), and the recruiting battles that come with fending off hype at SMU and UTSA. It is hard, as Danny Mac might say. Yet it still has to be done. Well, it should be done if we want this program to be one of the greats. That desire is not shared throughout that which shall call the Stakeholders. Honestly, I’m not sure if it should or should not be shared. I can’t say with any certainty whether North Texas should aspire to become an Oregon or Boise. I don’t know if it should be a Chicago State, and give it all up for academic integrity.  Complexity is a poor description of the present state of college sports. It exists as a kind of guilty pleasure in an age of austerity — both fiscal and healthful 1.  It is hard to excuse and even harder to justify.

The reigning kings of football2 established themselves in a world scarcely resembling the one in which we live. They got their nicknames from beat reporters, local stereotypes, or coaches bringing them over from previous gigs. They’ve held on to their advantageous positions through shrewd political maneuvers, and first-mover advantages3. Pining to be counted among their number means grappling with state legislatures in some cases. Then you get into sticky public policy areas. On top of that you have the entire concussion discussion 4. You may have spent the last year or so questioning your love of the sport, college sports in general, and perhaps this society we’ve participated in creating. Count me among that lot.

When we think about how to improve the teams we support we often are presuming some sort of ideal scenario. That creates a problem. Discussion is muddled with seemingly competing answers to different, unrelated problems. Take, for example, the basketball team. Should we fire Tony Benford? This is answered differently with different assumptions. Do we want to be a respected, competitive, nationally recognized basketball program? Then yeah, we probably should make a change because he hasn’t been pushing this team toward that goal. Do we just want a coach on the cheap that can maybe make a conference push every four years? Then we shouldn’t fire him.  Can we fire Tony Benford and maintain the program? Can we hire a guy that will do a better job under the financial constraints brought on by coaching changes? This changes the meaning of ‘should’. Let’s not even start asking if we can make a coaching change.

Here is where you can make the argument that the athletic department’s cheapness up front (salary for a rookie Head Coach vs paying for an experienced guy) costs the program much more than they saved the last few years. The lost attempts at championships, — the lack of ‘delight’ with the UNT basketball program has been tremendous burden on the program 5. This is what the lay-fan refers to as ‘momentum’. It isn’t just a fan-speak term or a talking head word. It has tangible consequences. It is real.

While these things aren’t death sentences, they are the equivalent of a transmission going out for folks living paycheck to paycheck. North Texas can’t afford to make hiring mistakes … while hoping to be competitive. That’s an important distinction.

The problem with firing Dickey and hiring Dodge and letting Johnny Jones go and hiring Tony Benford wasn’t in actual decision to make a coaching  change — but having to undergo a complete overhaul in philosophy because of the change. Boise — the literal poster example for less prestigous sporting universities has had a few head guys in their run of good-to-great. There is Boise-way. They hired men who knew how to win at Boise.

How do you win at UNT? Well if you a ask Hayden Fry, Darrell Dickey, or Danny Mac, they’ll tell you you win with hard-nosed defense, a solid run game and tough SOBs 6. Those men are separated by decades. Any momentum from one winning regime was lost and had to be rebuilt from the ground up. That is no way to maintain a program –if you want success etc etc, see above. — This has been the discussion for awhile. It isn’t new — Basketball had a chance to continue the run begun by Johnny Jones. They could have hired from within and continued with the people who knew hwo to win at NT. Instead they chose a man who knew how to win at Marquette. I don’t have an issue with Benford’s upside at hire-time. My issue — and I think most of the loudest critics agree — has been what happens once he fails7.

Every hire carries some risk. It seeems that North Texas didn’t think too far ahead on this. They require the ability to accurately assess coaches that have little or no history — or a relatively unimpressive one8. So criticism of Rick villareal should settle on his hires. Kudos for having the temerity to swing for the Home Run (Dodge). Huzzah(?) for not hitting more singles. The above isn’t a sexy thing to say. Ten years ago I had very different opinions. I was also a dumb kid. Don’t listen to me from 10 years ago. Further criticsm should be on the Board of Regents. These folks hired him. They bungled money already. They are cool with the situation. Still more criticism is on the government officials who appoint the Board of Regents. And we elected those people. Ask yourself: what do you really want?

Addendum that couldn’t go anywhere above: Our Boogey Man to the south has good vibrations. Lets see what happens when they have a change at Athletic Director, Head Coach, and the Texas System is not as happy with UTSA’s success as they are now. North Texas problems are those of a mature university. Generations of cruft, people stuck in their ways, power struggles at mid-level positions. That isn’t to say they can’t or won’t sustain, just that it is a bit easier to build from scratch than turn around an existing program. I don’t begrudge them success, just wish it didn’t come at our expense. That is more on our program than theirs, though. UTSA reminds me of the Marvel Ultimate universe. It exploded in popularity when first released partly because it was free of the Marvel 616 continuity. Starting fresh with the best storylines, best character beats, and knowledge of what works and what didn’t envigorated the line. Then they killed it ten years later. Well, technically it is getting killed later this year but for all intents and purposes it was disposed of a few years ago once the 616 adopted all the cool ideas MUU begat. After ten years the weight of its own relatively brief history killed the momentum. The new exciting baby? The Marvel Cinematic Universe.

photo credit: Denton, Texas via photopin (license)

  1. Yes I used “healthful” 
  2. Ohio State, Texas, etc. 
  3. For the most part. There are always exceptions. Don’t be a smart ass. 
  4. Not related to conjunction junction. Though they did meet once. 
  5. I like ‘delight’ as a quality
  6. Is there a better way to win here? I don’t doubt there is. We haven’t seen it, however. 
  7. Of course, this presumes he hasn’t failed already. I think he has. 
  8. See Dan McCarney. He obviously can coach a mid-level non-powerhouse to respectability. He can’t necessarily bring that to NT. I mean, it is hard remember? 

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