Breaking — Tony Benford will not return as UNT’s men’s basketball coach

North Texas coach Tony Benford wipes his face during a loss to Rice at the Super Pit earlier this season. UNT announced Sunday night that Benford is out as the Mean Green's coach after five seasons. (Denton Record-Chronicle/Jeff Woo)

North Texas coach Tony Benford wipes his face during a loss to Rice at the Super Pit earlier this season. UNT announced Sunday night that Benford is out as the Mean Green’s coach after five seasons. (Denton Record-Chronicle/Jeff Woo)

Tony Benford was fired Sunday night, ending his disappointing five-year run as North Texas’ head coach.

UNT athletic director Wren Baker made the move official just hours after the Mean Green’s season came to an end in a 106-104 loss at Marshall. UNT blew a five-point lead in the final 86 seconds of its loss to the Thundering Herd. The Mean Green finished 8-22 overall and last in Conference USA at 2-16.

UNT failed to qualify for the C-USA tournament this week that will include all but two of the league’s 14 teams. Benford finished 62-95 at UNT while posting three seasons with at least 20 losses.

Freshman guard A.J. Lawson is one of North Texas top players who has eligibility remaining and could return to play for UNT's next coach. (Denton Record-Chronicle/Jeff Woo)

Freshman guard A.J. Lawson is one of North Texas top players who has eligibility remaining and could return to play for UNT’s next coach. (Denton Record-Chronicle/Jeff Woo)

“After spending this season evaluating our men’s basketball program, we have determined that a change in leadership is necessary,” Baker said in a prepared statement. “Tony and his staff have worked tirelessly for five seasons to help our student-athletes grow academically, socially and competitively. I am appreciative of those efforts. However, I believe we can compete for championships and, unfortunately, we have fallen short of those expectations.”

UNT will immediately begin a national search for Benford’s replacement.

“We will be diligent in our process and will take the time required to find the right coach to lead this program and bring championships to UNT,” Baker said.

Benford, 52, is in the final year of his original contract that pays him $400,000 per year. The odds of Benford receiving an extension seemed remote late in the season, when he spoke often of what went wrong during his time at UNT and of how he enjoyed his stay at the school.

“This is a great place,” Benford said following a loss to Southern Miss in his final home game Feb. 25. “There are great people and great leadership here. Ultimately you have to win games. That is part of the business, and I understand that.”

Benford didn’t win nearly enough to satisfy fans or school officials, who were hoping for much more after hiring him to take over a program that had strung together six straight seasons with at least 18 wins. UNT advanced to the NCAA tournament twice in that span under coach Johnny Jones, who left for LSU after the 2011-12 season.

Benford inherited a loaded team that featured forward Tony Mitchell. The forward was projected as an NBA lottery pick when Benford arrived in Denton. Jordan Williams and Alzee Williams, two players who finished among the top 20 scorers in program history, were also on the roster.

North Texas lost junior forward Jeremy Combs in the middle of the season, which hurt its chances to break out  in Benford's fifth season with the Mean Green.  (Denton Record-Chronicle file photo)

North Texas lost junior forward Jeremy Combs in the middle of the season, which hurt its chances to break out in Benford’s fifth season with the Mean Green. (Denton Record-Chronicle file photo)

UNT’s program quickly fell apart, despite the talented players Benford inherited. The Mean Green finished 12-20 in Benford’s first season before creeping up to 16-16 his second year.

The program continued to decline after that brief uptick.

UNT slipped to 14-17, then to 12-20 and ultimately to its worst season in 16 years. The Mean Green’s 22 losses this season are the most since a 4-24 campaign under Vic Trilli in 2000-01.

UNT fans abandoned the program along the way. The Mean Green averaged just 2,089 fans in 18 home games this season, down from 4,006 in 2011-12, the year before Benford’s arrival.

“Mentally, it has been tough,” freshman guard A.J. Lawson said late in the season. “We tend to get down on ourselves.”

Continuing to push forward was tough for the Mean Green in a season when they suffered a series of devastating injuries. Preseason All-Conference USA forward Jeremy Combs played in just 14 games before Benford shut him down for the season so he could recover from an ankle injury.

Starting shooting guard Deckie Johnson played in 17 games, while highly regarded SMU transfer Keith Frazier appeared in just four. Johnson was lost for the season with a hip injury, while a knee injury cut Frazier’s season short.

“We can’t control injuries,” Benford said late in the year. “That is why we are in this position.”

UNT will now turn its attention to finding a coach to replace Benford and keeping as much of its roster intact as possible.

Point guard J-Mychal Reese is one of the key seniors North Texas lost to graduation at the end of the season. (Denton Record-Chronicle file photo)

Point guard J-Mychal Reese is one of the key seniors North Texas lost to graduation at the end of the season. (Denton Record-Chronicle file photo)

After Benford acknowledged in late January that Combs was out for the year, Combs said he would consider his options, including transferring, following the season. The former Dallas Carter standout will be a senior next season and has a redshirt year available.

UNT has a number of other young players, including Lawson and center Rickey Brice Jr., who could also consider their options heading into next season.

Benford’s return for a fifth season at UNT was far from a certainty following his fourth year at the school last spring. UNT officials danced around the question for days before acknowledging he would be back.

Benford’s return came just before a time of change in UNT athletics.

Former UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal stepped down last May and was later replaced by Baker.

Baker worked as a basketball operations assistant under legendary coach Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State and later served as head coach at Rogers State in Claremore, Oklahoma, before going into administration.

Baker will now make his first major coaching hire at UNT in a sport where he has an extensive background.

“This is a highly attractive job that is located in one of the most talent-rich areas of the country and, in my opinion, the best region of the country to live in,” Baker said. “I couldn’t be more excited about the future of the program.”

North Texas athletic director Wren Baker will make his first major coaching hire after firing Tony Benford on Sunday night. (Denton Record-Chronicle file photo)

North Texas athletic director Wren Baker will make his first major coaching hire after firing Tony Benford on Sunday night. (Denton Record-Chronicle file photo)

The coach Baker selects will face a significant rebuilding project, even if he can retain Combs and UNT’s other key players with eligibility remaining.

Johnson, J-Mychal Reese and Derail Green were all seniors this season and played significant roles. Frazier was also a senior.

Reese averaged 10.9 points per game to rank second among UNT players. Green averaged 8.4 points per game, while Johnson averaged 8.1.

UNT managed just two conference wins even with those players at its disposal in a season that began with Benford expressing confidence in the Mean Green’s ability to turn the program around.

“There is always pressure,” Benford said. “I am not worried about it. That will take care of itself. I like where we are at and the guys we have in the program.”

That hope for a turnaround went unfulfilled, leading to Benford’s dismissal on Sunday night.

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