Dan McCarney successfully navigated his first big challenge as UNT's head coach by retaining Offensive Coordinator/Interim Coach Mike Canales.
Canales earned the respect of a large chunk of UNT's fanbase during his run as the interim head coach.
UNT's players trusted and believed in Mike Canales. They desperately wanted Canales as their next head coach, but Canales didn't have the resume that the Chancellor, Board of Directors, or whoever else who helped AD Rick Villareal decide where to spend the largest paycheck ever given to a UNT head coach.
A large senior class left Coach McCarney in a bit of an awkward situation as he entered the door. What if Lance Dunbar checked out early to be a sixth-round pick in the NFL draft because he was angry rather than coming back and improving his stock? What if some key players transferred out? Where would Coach McCarney be then? Those are the kind of moves angry young men sometimes make.
Canales, for his part, was pretty graceful in laying the foundation of a return to UNT by publicly saying he would like to return. Canales worked with McCarney briefly at South Florida, and it seems fairly likely that he might have been on McCarney's list as potential offensive coordinators even if he wasn't already working at UNT.
McCarney wisely and quickly met Canales halfway. Retaining Canales likely diffused player anger before it cost McCarney any numbers.
Canales was named Offensive Coordinator/Assistant Head Coach. Given the title, it is a fair guess he may assume some limited head coaching responsibilities. The new title allows Canales to build his brand for a potential head coaching position elsewhere—something one has to think that is on his mind after his successful first taste of being a head coach.
If Canales has another good season next year, there is a good chance someone will make him an offer to be their head coach and a fair chance he will take it. In that instance McCarney will have gotten everything he can out of this senior class and then can hire one of "his guys" to replace Canales.
It looks like a great move by Coach McCarney with little downside.
Now the second big challenge is upon UNT's new head football coach.
Who else does he keep off the Dodge staff?
I think Coach McCarney needs to look at three things.
1) Did they earn consideration off their work last season?
2) Do they bring something to the table beyond being a competent position coach?
3) Do they bring something the team could use next season?
The offense worked this year, especially after Todd Dodge left. Post Dodge, Canales became the interim head coach and Conroy Hines (a former OC at La Tech) assumed a lot of the offensive coordinator responsibilities. As I see it, the mixture of Mike Canales's very expansive playbook and creativity and Hines's knack for setting up opponents and suggesting the right plays at the right time made this hobbled offense very explosive.
Over the last five weeks UNT's offense averaged 33.8 points per game with very few turnovers against the strongest part of the schedule. That kind of performance ordinarily gets you a fair interview.
The retainment of Conroy Hines should be part of the equation if for no other reason than to give a strong option to take over the OC job when Canales eventually leaves for a head coaching job. It is always good to have strong options.
UNT's offense noticeably improved when Hines became more involved in the play calling. Even if one doesn't think much of his work as a position coach (he coached WRs last year), a very strong argument can be made to give him new responsibilities with a title like "passing game coordinator & academics coordinator".
Hines had a great reputation at La Tech for getting problem students to their classes so they kept their grades up. Given UNT's history, it would make sense to have at least one coach who excels at that.
UNT has lightning in a bottle with this playcalling combination. It isn't just Canales. McCarney is reportedly considering retaining Hines and I think he is wise to do so.
UNT's ace recruiting duo
You can find good position coaches anywhere, but good recruiters are hard to find. UNT has a pair of top notch recruiters in Chuck Peterson and Shelton Gandy. Gandy recruits the Louisiana/Mississippi region and Peterson has been the recruiting coordinator and has handled the Kansas region.
UNT has pulled a hell of a lot of good talent out of those areas recently and last year was no exception. Coming off a 2-10 record, UNT signed nine 3-star players largely fuelled by their efforts. That is a great job that deserves consideration of continuing employment.
It appears Gandy and Peterson are being undervalued quite a bit because they happen to be great JUCO recruiters with great ties to JUCO staffs in those areas. McCarney has stated he wants to build with four-year players.
I think to view their candidacy dimly through the lens of four-year recruiting is wrong thinking.
A good recruiter is someone who can close the door and land a player. Both of these coaches have not only proven they can do that, they have proven they can do it at UNT which has not been an easy sale recently. These guys are not just good recruiters because they have the ears and trust of certain JUCO coaches.
Plus there are times when you need a JUCO guy. Even if you want to build with four-year players, there will be times that you need a specific hole filled immediately. When that occurs, it makes sense to have two proven ace JUCO recruiters on hand with good access to two different strong JUCO leagues.
McCarney retained DL coach Mike Nelson last week. I think most UNT fans were not excited about that because Nelson has buried a lot of talented players on the bench in his time here. I mention this because it builds a very strong argument to keep Peterson and Gandy.
UNT is losing both of their starting Defensive Tackles. Nelson liked them and UNT's two undersized starting DE's KC Obi and Brandon Akpunku, but showed little trust in the rest of his defensive linemen. Now maybe you can make an argument that Defensive Coordinator Gary DeLoach was the driving force behind the short bench on defense, but the defensive line was one of the worst areas in that regard.
UNT has a huge hole in the middle of their defense and was poor against the run with two all conference DTs who won't be back. With those two run anchors in the middle, UNT gave up 4.7 yards per carry for 185 rushing yards a game.
That looks like the biggest trouble spot on this roster by far. Last year's recruiting effort for a lame-duck head coach coming off a 2-10 season suggests Gandy and Peterson can bring in quality JUCO players to patch that hole.
Plus, they are good position coaches. Gandy has been a more than competent running back coach developing several 1000-yard rushers. (Athough I think you could do better for a special teams coach, I should note that special teams improved dramatically under Gandy in the second half of this season and were above average in that span.)
Peterson is a more than competent safety coach and has also run very successful rushing offenses in the past. UNT has needed a QB coach for years and Peterson is actually quite accomplished in that area himself.
When is a five-year contract not a five-year deal? In coaching.
Coach McCarney has said that he wants to rebuild with freshmen. It is not an uncommon stance for a coach who realizes he has a good four-year cushion based on his salary. With the situation UNT has on the defensive line that kind of position is like writing off next season.
This team played well down the stretch to finish 3-9. They return 24 seniors, some like Lance Dunbar, Brandon Akpunku, Tyler Stradford, Ryan Downing, Brad Graham, Stephen Ford and a few others have shots to be among the best players in the Sun Belt. Four to five wins appears likely.
The play of the defensive line will determine the success of this team next season. If solid defensive line play can be achieved, bowl eligibility seems a reasonable and attainable goal.
More to the point, most UNT fans think that now that we have a big money, proven BCS-conference head coach running the show instead of Todd Dodge, a .500 record should be very attainable next season with Lance Dunbar and company returning.
If UNT is going to focus on recruiting four-year players, there is a good chance next year will be UNT's best chance at breaking .500 in the next three seasons.
If McCarney effectively writes off next season in favor of investing in freshman players who will play in 2013, he will have a lot of people screaming for his head when Lance Dunbar is gone and UNT still hasn't broken .500.
"Is this really the best coach $500K can buy UNT?" they'll say.
Like Todd Dodge, McCarney may spend his second year onward trying to build a team with an increasingly hostile local fanbase.
If McCarney can break .500 next season, he will not only buy himself a ton of support and patience from the UNT fan base, he will teach his roster what it takes to win—and that will dramatically enhance his ability to stick around.
To break .500, UNT probably needs three to four ready-to-play JUCO defensive linemen—probably three defensive tackles and a strongside defensive end in the mix. Gandy and Peterson can deliver that.
Early personnel mistakes shave years off a coaches' tenure
Todd Dodge let go of Eric Russell, one of the best special teams coaches in America on his way in the door. Special teams were an Achilles' heel for Dodge at UNT. He had the worst units in the nation for most of his tenure here. Mistakes by those units actively cost him wins at least six times at UNT.
It logically makes sense that if he had retained one of the best special teams coaches at the FBS level that UNT's special teams units might have stolen an equal number of games.
How would Todd Dodge have looked if his record was, say, 15-21 instead of 5-31 at the end of last year? 15-21 isn't ideal for UNT fans, but it isn't a trainwreck when you consider Dodge was coach during the worst possible time to be a UNT head coach in the last 30 years.
Would AD Rick Villareal have been under siege by the fans to dump Dodge if the team was 15-21, playing hard most weeks, and occasionally stealing games? Without that pressure, would there have been the argument that lead to the seven-win ultimatum this year?
Who can say?
What is clear is that Dodge didn't increase his chances of seeing the end of his contract when he passed on Russell to bring in one of his guys.
And you can see this in most coaches who get fired early. Former Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels put a lot of his credibility on the line when he ran out Jay Cutler in Denver. Cutler has been more on than off this year in Chicago leading the Bears towards the playoffs and that further undercut McDaniel's credibility with the fans and his employer.
If McDaniels didn't run off Cutler, most Broncos fans think the Broncos would be a lot better. They saw McDaniels as a guy who couldn't park his ego, so he dumped a franchise QB for someone he got along with better. So McDaniels is gone after two years, despite his resume.
Players, coaches...it is the same thing. If you let talented people go, you have to deal with all the talk when they succeed elsewhere. Especially if their replacements aren't as good.
When a coach comes in and brings in their guys, they mortgage some of their credibility. When they do not retain a known good coach, they are mortgaging a little bit of that with the administration and the fans. Then they have to prove they didn't blow that decision or that mortgage on their credibilty gets cashed in and some people turn on the coach.
If a coach can make it work with a talented assistant, like McCarney did with the Canales move, he can avoid a lot of that potential backlash.
If McCarney lets Peterson and Gandy go, the move has a real chance to haunt McCarney. Like with Dodge it could effectively cut a year or even two off his grace period with the fans and the boosters. Given his preference to building with freshmen, fans getting mad a year or two earlier could break McCarney here.
A coach coming in in Coach McCarney's situation might be lead to think that his five-year contract is rock solid given the salary and the fact UNT is not used to buying out contracts of that amount. Hopefully Hayden Fry has stressed to Coach McCarney that this is a very impatient fan base after six straight losing seasons.
UNT may generally be a losing program over the last 30 years, but this is a long stretch even for UNT.
If UNT doesn't win next year, why should fans expect to win when we are breaking in freshmen and sophomore starters in 2012 and 2013? At that point UNT would be looking at 8-9 straight losing seasons.
It's a lot to ask of fans anywhere to keep attending games entering 8-9 straight losing seasons. I hate to be fatalistic, but if UNT hasn't had a winning season and is predictably drawing less than 15,000 most games to the new stadium in 2013, Coach McCarney's salary will not provide as much protection as his advisers may be telling him.
It is unpleasant to do so, but one should remember it was reported that Todd Dodge was promised by the AD and the President that he'd coach in the new stadium. I don't say this to beat up on them—it is simply the nature of the coaching profession that plans change when the fans get restless.
Being one of Hayden Fry's litter will buy Coach McCarney a ton of goodwill, but it doesn't change the fact that it is a long time since UNT has seen .500.
It is far better for a coach to do whatever little things he can to enhance his chances of seeing year five rather than assuming he will. It is playing the odds.
Letting good proven coaches go is risky.
Ultimately all three coaches have shown they are more than just competent position coaches. They offer attributes that are hard to find on a UNT budget.
I wrote this article because this move would likely help UNT and Coach McCarney and I felt like these coaches earned my advocacy as a fan. No one else wrote this article and I think someone should have. These guys earned that kind of support from the UNT fanbase.
Additionally, I have been following these soon-to-be-seniors for years now. Considering they came to UNT when the school was at its lowest point in recent memory to try and turn things around, I think they deserve the defensive line help to give them the best shot possible to go out winners next year.
Why not take the aces of last year's staff in for a year and see what they have? I don't think Coach McCarney will regret it if he does.