It was absolutely—unequivicably—the right call to retain head football coach Todd Dodge for at least one more season.
Fans want to point at Dodge's record and say he hasn't earned more time.
Schools should make coaching decisions based on the school's needs.
I am pleased that University of North Texas athletic director Rick Villareal and President Gretchen Bataille tuned out those overemotional fans and clearly looked at the real issue—where the team would be in the future if Dodge was replaced this year.
That is the correct way to evaluate the future of a program.
Consider the options and their likely end results:
1) Fire Todd Dodge and replace him with the best coach you can lure in today.
Quarterback Riley Dodge would have announced he was transferring out before UNT could even get through the press conference.
Todd Dodge is perceived to have taken the UNT job at a discount to help out his friends at the school. Firing Dodge after three years on a job that was so massive he was given a five-year contract would piss off a lot of Dodge advocates—none more than his son Riley.
Riley Dodge is the most decorated High School football player to attend UNT in over a decade, if not all time. He passed up a scholarship from the University of Texas to help out his Dad. He is the heart of this team. He could have transferred out and still have had two years of eligibility at any FBS school.
Sophomore Lance Dunbar, Riley's roommate and your (likely) all-Sun Belt first team RB, might have transferred ed as well. He had better offers (Oklahoma St, Colorado, and Virginia) but was pulled into UNT by WR coach Clayton George. If Dodge was fired, George would be gone too.
Dunbar might have looked at a new scheme and realized he was a poor fit for it. If a new coach brought in a pro set, Dunbar would have lost carries to Micah Mosely and Jeremi Mathis, who are better power runners.
Moving to a pro set would have also pushed the defense's safeties back into the middle of the field, creating a third line of defense that would have really hurt Dunbar's ability to make the big play. (Currently once Dunbar passes the linebackers, there is no one left in the middle of the field.)
Dunbar doesn't have great size or strength or a great shake and bake move and can't run more than a 4.65 or so. If you have a decent safety in position, that 63-yard TD run is likely a 10-15 yard run. If that is the case, no pro scouts are talking about Lance Dunbar.
Would you stay at UNT in his shoes or go somewhere like Tulsa or Boise with a similar scheme/concept but on a bigger stage, or even a BCS school like Missou, while his stock is at an all-time high? Remember, Dunbar was quite a bit smaller when he had those offers from OSU and the others. He now weights over 200 lbs and hasn't lost a step with the weight gain.
I think it is also fairly likely that freshman WR Darius Carey might have looked for another home. The guy has shown he can play at the FBS level. With a move to a likely pro set, he might have looked at the crunch of receivers on the roster and thought "I'm not going to play for two years". He might have looked for another spread team where he could play.
Those three guys may have good backups behind them, but they are a big chunk of the heart of UNT's offense. Rip out the team's heart, and they will underperform their talent level.
You'd also lose other freshmen and sophomores as well, hurting the 2011 and 2012 teams and likely further costing UNT scholarships.
(Additionally, the NCAA has an academic Progress Rate Report for each university that grades efforts to help athletes graduate. Bad academic reports under the last coach have capped UNT at 80 scholarships last year and 79 this year. After two strong years in Dodge's first two years, UNT had a bad year on that front last season—probably due to Dodge taking some risks recruiting to get the talent level up. A surge of defections could have yielded another bad score, further dropping the total number of scholarships that the new coach would have had available long term.)
As it stands today, UNT will have a large senior class next year with 28 seniors. Nineteen of them should be first or second string and maybe 14 of them will be starters. This should be a team poised to win.
Without those three key starters, the odds of winning next year would drop significantly. It wouldn't be just a matter of getting solid, proven starters at key positions to play better as many alumni seem to think; it would be breaking in first year starters at RB and QB in a must-win first year.
"Must-win first year?" you say?
The load of seniors make next season the team's best chance to break through. If 14 starters graduate, how good will the new coach's second year be? The third year would likely be undermined by defections by underclassmen due to the coaching staff change.
Seeing that Dodge would have been fired by an alumni-lead revolt after Year Three of a pretty obvious five year rebuilding job, better coaching candidates would be wary about taking this job. Prospective new coaches would look at it as a perceived three year job with his first year not having the stadium for recruiting. They would recognize that in all three of those years it would be tough to break .500.
Aslo Consider UNT's head coaching budget is probably $265K-300k a year, the school would have either been able to land an unproven guy who has a reputation for recruiting (ala Dodge) or a proven X's and O's guy who may have lost his job due to failures in recruiting.
The budget frankly isn't there to get someone who has proven he can do both.
If you are firing Dodge largely over alumni frustrations over Dodge's weaknesses as a play caller and tactician, it is pretty clear the next guy would have been an X's and O's guy.
Your poor recruiter would be walking into a losing team that would be losing its best star players. He would have to recruit a staff, which would put him way behind the ball in recruiting. And he would not have anything to show potential recruits beyond new clips and drawings. And he would have 79 total scholarships available.
Like Dodge, his recruiting efforts would have been hobbled in his first year, which would have hurt him in Years Three and Four. As he would be trying to build a program long term, his recruiting would be tailored to pursue HS players to win down the road rather than juco players to win now, further undermining the team's potential for next season.
He would likely have landed a large high school recruiting class with little star potential. A lot of FCS guys.
Also, when you hire a new coach, they do not have an expectation to win with outgoing talent. They want to play underclassmen. They want to play their guys. They chase off any upperclassmen who aren't fire breathing advocates of the new regime.
The change in staff alone, between Dodge advocates leaving in protest and the new coach driving off guys who were on the fence, might have legitimately cost UNT 10-12 seniors and a few starters.
It seems that the odds of breaking .500 under a new coach next year would be significantly less than the odds under Dodge. If the new coach failed to win in the first year, he almost certainly would not win in the second year either, and due to the player loss and a weak first season of recruiting would likely fail in Year Three.
Three years from now we would likely be looking at a 8-28 to a 12-24 record and a diminished talent pool on the roster. Would any of the alumni pushing for firing Dodge over his record want to keep that coach? Additionally, human nature would have Dodge advocates insisting the new guy be fired over his record as well.
Finally, people who have an axe to grind with AD Villareal over his dismissal of former coach Dickey would want to fire Villareal over "his inability to pick a winning coach"—which would have Villareal ready to pull the plug quickly and get a new coach in place.
With that much pressure, the new coach would be gone and another three-year rebuilding program would start. At that point, the school would probably go for another "recruiting" coach. With the stadium in hand to help the new coach close the deal on top recruits, the new coach might break through in his second or third year. At that point it would be 10 years since the last UNT winning season.
That's what AD Villareal and President Bataille saw as the end result.
We have talked about this in general, now let's talk some specifics.
Denton Record Chronicle reporter Brett Vito crunched some numbers and found that firing Dodge and his staff to clear the way for a new coach would have cost the university something in the ballpark of $220K-$350K. Dodge makes somewhere between $265K and $280K. His assistants aren't generously paid.
Let's assume that former Southern Mississippi Coach Jeff Bower would have been the choice, as the other name frequently mentioned, Turner Gill, signed an extension last December that will "make him one of the highest-paid coaches in the Mid-American Conference."
(It should be noted Gill had a reported salary of $265K as well this year, but that would make him the fifth lowest paid coach in the MAC. It seems pretty likely that his extension raise starts next season and he'll be making 350K-400K at that point—out of UNT's budget. More importantly, Gill went 4-7 with several late losses this season which probably would have had the AD looking elsewhere anyway.)
Bower is a fairly big name in fan circles as a former "Coach of the Decade" winner. He also has not been hired by another school since retiring from Southern Miss, making him desperate enough to take the job. AD Villareal got his degree from S. Miss. and it seems likely Bower would be on the short list.
Hiring that new proven coach the alumni would have accepted would have cost a minimum of $300K and probably more. Hiring proven college assistant coaches would have bumped up the budget another $100K minimum.
Just doing that would have cost the university a half a million dollars.
Now what would they get out of that investment?
Return on investment
Bower is a very good Xs and Os guy. He can upset a stumbling SEC or Big 12 school. He has proven he can maintain a program.
Now lets look at the flip side. In 17 years at Southern Miss., Bowers' best record was 9-3. It should be something of a red flag that he lost three games minimum each year.
That seems to imply that as good a coach as he may be, he may not be a great one. He may annoyingly give away games just like Todd Dodge does at this point in his career, or he may simply be incapable of closing the deal on the top recruits who take teams from bowl eligible to a 1-2 loss season.
He was rumored to have been fired because the fans, alumni, and recruits were becoming less and less excited about the program. That certainly seems to imply the fan base saw a real ceiling on this guy.
Additionally, if history is any kind of barometer, the transition from Dodge to Bower would likely not have gone as well as one might assume. Bower took over at S. Miss. for Curley Hallman, who had gone 23-11 there. He lost his first game (a bowl game) and proceeded to go 14-18-1 over the next three years as he built the program back up before rattling off 14 straight winning years.
Let's assume for a second that taking over the 23-11 team left Bower to inherit more talent than taking over a 5-31 team would.
Would the fans be patient with Bower if he went 14-18-1 here in his first three years or 20-23-1 after four years as he did at S. Miss.?
How patient were UNT alumni with Matt Simon? (A: He was fired after an 18-26-1 record and a division title on his resume.)
There is almost no way UNT would win a Sun Belt title over four years of a Bower run started this upcoming season. I think at absolute best with an incredible senior year by Nathan Tune, maybe UNT would have two bowl eligible seasons in that run.
Remember Bower runs more of a traditional running scheme than Dodge does. How long would it take him to rebuild the roster in his image? It seems highly unlikely that the team would be any threat to win a title over Troy until he had cycled through a full set of his recruits.
Would he see a fifth year or even a fourth here in those circumstances? I really doubt it.
2) Keep Dodge...at least for one more year.
In keeping Dodge, as UNT ultimately decided to do, he should feel real pressure to win this year and next, which suggests he will recruit the JUCO ranks heavily to increase his odds of winning in that time span.
(There is good logic behind that. If he were to recruit high school players, he could very well win the 6-7 games needed this year to see his fifth contract year, but fall beneath .500 the following year and be gone. He has to win both years.)
JUCO recruiting this year puts the program into a very good position for the future.
As Dodge said to the Denton Record Chronicle , "“We have four or five offensive line starters coming back and 10 of 11 overall on offense returning. The offensive line guys will be third-year starters and we will have an offense with a lot of guys who will benefit from another year of experience. Nine of 11 starters are coming back defensively.”
If 14 of those returning starters are seniors (as they currently project out) plus you will be adding a JUCO-heavy class, Dodge should be able to hit six wins (or come close to it) even with UNT's coaching deficiencies. But the thing that makes this decision such a correct move is how it plays out if Dodge falls short.
Let's say Dodge only wins four or five games next year in spite of a pretty loaded roster that suggests a bowl eligible team.
That allows you to have (probably) a cheaper buyout and gives you a much better package to land a better head coach.
You still can offer the new coach a senior heavy class, but now he will have the stadium in hand to help him recruit from Day One. He isn't getting kneecapped in Year Three over a wasted recruiting class in Year One like he would be this year.
In that case the new coach would definitely have senior Heisman candidate RB Lance Dunbar—and probably junior QB Riley Dodge as well—as transferring would not make sense for either at that point. If the leaders of the team don't defect, many other starting-caliber players might stay too.
Graduation would have cleared out most of the WR logjam, but likely starting WRs Tyler Stratford (a physical No. 1-type possession receiver) and speed burner Darius Carey would be back, allowing a seamless transition to a pro set with two plus experienced starters.
The defense would be fairly strong too with a number of multi-year starters on hand.
Add to that redshirt former JUCO DE John Weber and the incoming JUCO-heavy recruiting class who would all be seniors and there would be a lot of ready to play and experienced talent on hand.
And most importantly he would not be taking over a team with a basement team's mentality. He would be taking over a team with a middle of the pack mentality. That kind of change of self-image is not nearly as difficult to correct.
That is a very good situation for an incoming coach and would likely allow UNT to land a much better caliber of coach than it could have landed this year.
That is a good enough team to break .500 in the first year in the new stadium. In that instance even if you have the X and Os Coach, you have a winning team in a program that is perceived to be trending upwards in a brand new, cool as hell stadium (Look up "New Mean Green Stadium" at Wikipedia). That will allow the successful recruiting of high school players who are good enough to start early in their collegiate careers.
With guys like Dodge, Stradford, Carey, HB Mathis, MLB Prior, DT White, DT Cantly, DT Hawthorne, and OLB Phillips back as seniors, the team would likely do pretty well for the new coach in season two as well, spurring a second year of rich recruiting.
From there your program is pretty much turned around.
(If Dodge delivers next year, he will have pretty much the same scenario.)
Perspective is needed
UNT was a bad job when Todd Dodge walked in.
The team had about 12 legitimate FBS talents on the roster (about a third of which played TE) and no confidence after going 5-18 the last two seasons under the previous coach.
It should be noted that recruiting dried up during a run of four straight Sun Belt titles. How that happens is frankly mindboggling and suggests that the facilities at UNT were a pronounced anchor on recruiting and that something went very wrong with the previous coach during the end of his nine years at the school.
It also strongly suggests there have been real structural problems that have lead UNT to post a 39 percent winning rate since 1978 and that the problems required a more nuanced solution than running off the coach every three years.
Dodge has built up the team talent base quite a bit since he arrived. There are probably 50 FBS talents on this roster.
Even if he doesn't win enough games to keep his job next year, the university will be in very good shape to land the best coach it can get.
There is no question he was the right hire for UNT after Dickey due to his ability to recruit and sell the new stadium to the students and alumni. There is no question the university is in much better shape long term due to hiring him.
Next year, you have to think that at worse this team will win four or five games and move from the cellar cluster of Sunbelt schools to the middle of the pack schools.
At that point, one can say what one will about Dodge's ability to win games, but he would have dug this team out of the talent holes that the last coach and Fouts Field drove the program into. He will have helped sell the new stadium that should help future UNT coaches close with recruits and keep them from destroying the program's talent base again.
But the question was never about Dodge. It was never whether Dodge EARNED another year; it was what was in the best interest for UNT.
Bataille and Villareal outperformed most FBS universities' presidents and ADs by asking the right question.
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