Full disclosure time: my blood flows with more than a few drops of Mean Green. I had no choice. My grandmother went to North Texas, as did both my parents. My 89-year-old, piano-playing grandfather accompanied UNT choir students for years. My dad is the voice of Mean Green football and basketball. Uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, they all went to UNT. I slept in the UNT dorms at Mean Green basketball camps as a kid, interned there my first summer out of college, and live 10 minutes from campus today.
It’s with that backdrop I was reminded over the past eight weeks that while family inspire be a special kind passion, college football can inspire another kind of passion, and combining the two can create an entirely different, possibly lethal form of passion.
So as the news came out that North Carolina assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell was among the finalists for the UNT football job (disclosure time again: I broke that story), two of my uncles were apoplectic. For purposes of this story, we’ll call them Jim* and Michael*, and they weren’t happy. They wanted an alum. They wanted someone who would place his hand on a Bible and swear his gaze would never see beyond Denton. They took one look at Littrell’s credentials and reasoned a coach like him could view only North Texas as a stepping stone to something bigger. North Texas would never be close to Littrell’s heart and, for Jim and Michael, nothing was closer to their hearts than North Texas football.
(*Jim and Michael are absolutely their real names.)
Over last two weeks I’ve strapped on my hazmat uniform and waded into the lethal dosage of passion that is the intersection of family and college football and explained to Jim and Michael that, while hiring an alum as your coach can be nice, really, that’s all it is. Nice. And, no, you don’t want a coach whose major qualification for your job is that he won’t take any others.
When you’re a Group of Five school, you want your coach to be wanted, and you need him to be needed. “If you go three to five years and nobody’s interested in your people, then maybe you don’t have the right people,” Western Kentucky athletics director Todd Stewart said earlier this month.
In Jim and Michael’s minds, Littrell’s attributes — a young, successful offensive coach in a market that values young, successful offensive coaches — were negatives because someday an SEC or Big 12 team might see those some attributes and hire him away. For a North Texas program coming off a 1-11 season and one winning campaign in the last 11 years, that’s a problem akin to having to pack up your belongings and move because you just won the lottery and bought a mansion.
Again, family and football.
And then on Monday afternoon I heard Littrell talk, and I heard North Texas athletics director Rick Villarreal talk about Littrell. “He was getting ready for the Duke game when we interviewed. The more I talked the more he kept leaning in and leaning in, and when I got done he said, ‘I want this job.’ As the progression went on he said, ‘I want your job, but I understand your situation. I understand you need to get somebody in to recruit. I understand you need to get your program moving forward. And I may regret saying this, but if you need to move on, it’ll just be a loss for me. But you have to do what’s best for the University of North Texas.'”
Villarreal said a contact made him aware of Littrell during the search that ultimately led him to Dan McCarney, when he was then Arizona’s first-year offensive coordinator. He said he liked that Littrell had created success at basketball schools (Arizona, then Indiana, and finally North Carolina) without as many resources as their gridiron peers, just as North Texas is but one school in a state with a dozen FBS programs. And he liked that Littrell was firmly committed to his players, to the point that he’d bypass a job he stayed up at night lusting after so as not to harm them.
Littrell is an acorn born from the Bob Stoops/Mike Leach coaching tree that hit every branch on his way down to the soil. In his written opening statement, Littrell took time to thank Bob and Mike Stoops, Mike Leach, Dana Holgorsen and Kevin Wilson, in addition to his now former boss Larry Fedora, for allowing his acorn to sprout into a growing tree of his own.
A native of Muskogee, Okla., Villarreal described Littrell as, “a Texas kind of person. He belongs in this part of the country.”
“I’m most comfortable in boots and jeans,” Littrell said of himself.
“That said, we were very happy at UNC and absolutely loved our time in Chapel Hill. It took a special place to get us to leave. North Texas is that special place,” he said. “When this job came open I knew without a doubt I wanted it. I’m a man of deep integrity, so my total focus was on UNC, our football players, our coaching staff and our administration. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I spent many sleepless nights thinking about the opportunities North Texas had to offer.”
In reporting the North Texas search I can say some candidates Villarreal spoke with would be lying if the previous sentence came out of their mouths on Monday. Sure, some coaches out there would have viewed this job their bounce to a higher level. But not Littrell. He wanted this job.
And, no, Littrell didn’t promise to be at North Texas in 2025. But Dr. Strangelove and his bomb may come for us before then anyway. What matters is today, and that on December 7, 2015, Littrell is the right coach for North Texas, and he wants to be North Texas’s coach.
So, Jim and Michael, stop worrying and love your coach.