The day Todd Dodge was fired I think most of us who follow the situation closely thought that meant UNT Athletic Director Rick Villarreal, a Southern Miss alum, would be hiring former Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower.
Bower was named the coach of the decade for his work at Southern Miss on his way to rattling off 14 straight winning seasons.
But if you listen closely, it doesn't sound like RV is committed to that course of action. He seems to want to do an actual thorough and exhaustive search. That bodes well for this staff.
I think RV leaning that way boils down to three things.
1. RV doesn't want the new hire in any way to look like a "homey hook-up"
RV already has taken a bit of a hit for hiring a high school coach who's record (fairly or not) suggests was ill-prepared for coaching at the FBS level.
Following that up with a perceived homey hook-up (Bower) would give a lot of strength to the "RV is in over his head" argument put forth by the faction that has an axe to grind with RV.
(In general I think most UNT fans look at all the facilities that never would have happened without RV and discount that argument today. The issue is how would it look in 3-4 years if Bower failed and when the facilities are all built? College fan bases have short memories and little loyalty and a compelling thought could be at that point that RV would have outlived his usefulness.)
2. Jeff Bower took five years to get his program consistently winning
Todd Dodge's personnel is made for a spread.
Lance Dunbar is not a physical chain mover and his backups are not big guys. Bower is a winner no doubt, but his coaching philosophy does not seem to line up well with this talent (IMO). How would UNT fans react to say three losing seasons while Bower rebuilds the team in his image...? That is a tough sell for a fan base that has suffered through two bad years followed by a coach who had the worst won/lost record in school history... Once you start approaching 10 straight losing years, emotional decisions could occur.
RV's job legitimately could be on the line. A Bower hire could be risky for RV personally.
3. The fans want a "name coach"
For football geeks like me and a lot of you readers, Bower is totally a name coach, but there is a big chunk of the UNT fan base that think anything less than Mike Leach would be disappointing. A lot of these guys are really vocally against Bower.
These guys think UNT is on the verge of lifting the Sun Belt's status before becoming an irresistible temptation for CUSA. They want the home run hire and if RV doesn't at least try to secure some big interviews they will be all over him. RV has to at least talk to some bigger names than Bower.
These forces pulling in different directions appear to have dulled Jeff Bower's star and have RV looking under any rock he can find for a candidate that makes sense for the next few years and takes the spotlight off him.
That could include UNT's interim coach and former offensive coordinator Mike Canales.
Why hiring an interim coach could work today
It might work for Villarreal and could have some support if certain prerequisites occurred in the last part of the season.
Almost every UNT fans has a coach or two on the staff they don't want to see fired. Mike Canales has a lot of vocal fans of his ways in general, including local reporter Brett Vito. Defensive coordinator Gary DeLoach has a constituency who don't want to see DeLoach fired because "Dodge couldn't get his act together".
If UNT played well and won some games in the season's second half it could galvanize that support. Fans of Dodge could say, "See they fired Dodge to early. This just validates that Dodge did rebuild the program and got burned by the injuries.". Fans of Canales could say, "see, he has 'IT'." Fans of DeLoach could say, "This would never have turned without the work of DeLoach."
You could have a convergence of fans saying that if an acceptable name coach can't be had, give the job to Canales and keep most of the staff.
For Villareal, it would answer the question of what to do if prospective name coaches look at UNT's 30-year run of failure and are not swayed by the stadium and a slightly better than Sun Belt level salary. RV could take a lot of heat from the fans if he can't sell a name coach on UNT.
RV could offer Canales a university friendly four-year deal (as the talent fits his and Dodge's hybrid system better) and if things don't work, fire Canales in two year when UNT may have more money on hand and as such a better shot at an acceptable name coach.
As the system for everyone would be in place, the job would not entail retooling on either side of the ball, which would give RV the excuse to pull the plug if this team isn't at least flirting with .500 the next two years.
The compressed time span would give RV a chance to try a third coach while offering protection against a fan backlash.
There is a pathway for these coaches to keep their jobs.
What it would take to get Canales on the "real" candidate list
I think it would take five competitive games to finish the year and probably three wins (By competitive I mean playing as well as UNT did against Clemson in games they lose). That is not an unreachable goal. UNT is a veteran team and if no one quits, they should play better as the season progresses.
Western Kentucky is much improved, but they and ULM are both teams with less overall talent than UNT (Still, I think UNT beating WKU needs to be seen as an upset today.)
Upsetting one of Kansas State, Middle Tennessee, or Troy is a tough deal, but if you are coaching for a job, you should be able to pull off one of three with this talent.
How does Canales get to that goal?
1. Sell the assistants on this being a chance to impress the next coach ...or their next school
The reality is Canales leapfrogged a lot of long term UNT people to land the interim job. Ultimately the choice probably came down to him or Gary DeLoach. Both are seen as "slumming it" to coach in the Sun Belt.
DeLoach may not be okay with the decision. It would be human nature to take some offense and feel like he got robbed.
(I personally think the interim decision was the correct one. The decision probably came down to the fact Canales had several strong offensive games and Canales lost a ton of players while DeLoach lost two. Canales did pretty well with numerous injuries at key spots; DeLoach did less with more. The defense should have been better than it has been this year.)
It is possible that there could be factions on the staff. It would be foolish and unprofessional, but they could be there.
Canales needs to really sell the staff on getting the team ready to play and producing some of their most effective (and possibly innovative) game plans of their career. When a staff knows they are probably gone, there is often a loss of focus and attention to detail. They may have their ears to the ground looking for new jobs.
Canales has to sell his staff on the idea of winning back their jobs.
2. Look at every part of the game as critically as you look at the offense
The offense for most of the season has done a fairly good job of utilizing the talent on hand. The other units need to maximize available talent. UNT can't continue to squander the talent it has and succeed.
The turnovers and penalties have to end. RV sees the head coaching job as a CEO position. Why not apply that line of thinking to the team. At my job, if I make a mistake that compromises the goals of the company, my CEO has what I paint in my head as a heated conversation with my boss. It is my boss's responsibility if I make a mistake.
What if a late hit on a kickoff return were the specific responsibility of Shelton Gandy? What if a hit out of bounds by a defender on a successful third-down play was charged directly to Gary DeLoach? You think those players would still be doing that stuff if it made DeLoach personally look bad?
If Canales runs things like Dodge did, he will get the same results. If there is one major failing I think Dodge had at UNT, it was that he was not nearly demanding enough of precision from his staff. He didn't hold them accountable enough and as such they didn't demand enough precision and intelligence from their players.
If the staff looks at the situation sincerely, I think every one of them know they played a role in the failures of this team. That means they all have to dig deep and improve.
"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."—Albert Einstein
The current status quo hasn't delivered wins, If the staff hopes to win they need to be willing to try new things.
3. Get Jamaal Jackson back on kickoff returns
JJ is a rare return talent. The staff is hurting the team's chances by not playing him there with Brelan Chancellor.
(They are also hurting JJ's future NFL prospects by not utilizing him there, which doesn't help get the players on board when they feel their best players are not being well used.)
Getting two top return guys on the field would make reverses deadly and make fake reverses freeze cover units. Teams would likely kick short, surrendering good field position to avoid the home run return.
4. Listen to your team and set goals, but play game to game
In corporations, there are skip level meetings to ensure the CEO has the pulse of employees with whom he doesn't regularly interact. Canales would be smart to have individual meetings with a few players. There are players on this team who might be somewhat disgruntled.
Canales should meet with them individually. Schedule those players five minutes to say whatever they want without any judgment of them. Don't give them any assurances before hand that things will change, but assure them the past is the past and that Canales and the staff will be fair with them from here on out.
Getting everyone on board for an end of year push will only give this team more players unwilling to surrender in tough times and help this team avoid collapsing like most teams under interim coaches.
5. End the DeLoach doghouse and get your defenders on the field (hopefully at their best spots)
You will have trouble winning the games you can win if many of your best talents are on the bench.
Does Ira Smith have some unreported injury? Why are guys like Ira Smith, John Weber, and Robbie Gordon not playing? Is Brad Graham really a safety? If he is, why is Smith not playing CB?
There are two big leaks on this defense and the defense lacks a reliable pass rusher. Jeremy Phillips has great instincts in coverage, but he is constantly a step or two late in coverage. He will be a great player eventually, but isn't there yet.
D'Leon McCord is more of a dime back. He is a heady player, is tough against the run, and gets his man down after the catch, but he can't cover yet.
Graham would be a dramatic upgrade over Phillips in coverage and in space at OLB. Smith is a better coverage guy at safety than Graham and has excellent catchup speed and would likely be much better vs. the pass at CB than McCord. The ball-hawking Gordon is a better CB than McCord. (IMO.)
Weber can deliver a power rush.
Guys like Will Wright are being worked into the defensive backfield rotation. I think that is overdue.
Canales is the boss now. Per RV, he is the final word and DeLoach is under him. It may be awkward, but DeLoach needs to be convinced to end the doghouse.
If it can be done, both coaches will likely look smarter after the fact.
There is probably a pathway forward for these coaches to keep their jobs
Will the needed steps (perhaps not the ones I suggest) be taken to get there? I hope so. Winning tends to change things.
As a UNT fan, I am grateful for the time and sacrifices these players and coaches have put in. I'd like to see these players get some wins and as a result some or even all of these coaches keep their jobs.
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