Wren Baker vowed just a few days ago to find a proven head coach to take over the North Texas men’s basketball program.
UNT’s athletic director came through on that promise Monday, when the school announced Grant McCasland was hired to replace Tony Benford.
The Denton Record-Chronicle reported early Monday afternoon that UNT was close to finalizing a deal to hire Arkansas State’s head coach to take over its program.
UNT announced McCasland had been hired a short time later.
McCasland spent only one season at ASU. He was previously the head coach at Midwestern State and Midland College before a five-year stint as an assistant at Baylor.
“I have watched Grant from afar for a long time,” Baker said. “I told [Arkansas State athletic director ] Terry Mohajir that he hit a home run by hiring Grant and that he beat me to the punch. I am excited about what he will bring to the program.”
McCasland, 40, grew up in Irving and played at Baylor before going into coaching.
McCasland will replace Benford, who was fired at the end of his fifth season with the Mean Green. McCasland credited Baker and UNT President Neal Smatresk for playing key roles in convincing him to take over the school’s program, in a prepared statement announcing his arrival. McCasland vowed to revive a once-proud program in that same statement.
“We are going to strive daily for excellence in every aspect of our program, do things the right way and establish a winning culture that values relationships,” McCasland said.
McCasland has a $500,000 buyout in his Arkansas State contract. That buyout to be paid by UNT will drop to $300,000 in the second year of the deal. McCasland signed his original contract with ASU on April 2.
“If you want a sitting [NCAA] Division I coach, there is going to be a buyout,” Baker said. “We are prepared to do what we need to do there. The biggest cost is not having a winning program.”
UNT officials are confident McCasland will quickly get the Mean Green back on track.
In McCasland’s lone season at Arkansas State, he led the Red Wolves to a 20-12 finish. He has a track record of success and a long coaching history in Texas that extends back before his short stint in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
McCasland started his career as the director of operations at Texas Tech in 1999 before his stints at Midland and Midwestern. He also served as the head coach at Abilene Christian for two months before joining the staff at Baylor.
McCasland led Midland to the NJCAA national title in the 2006-07 season and guided the Chaparrals back to the finals in 2008-09. He later took Midwestern State to the Division II Elite Eight in consecutive seasons beginning in 2009-10. He has a 219-56 career record.
McCasland will take over a program that has fallen on hard times. UNT had won at least 18 games in six straight seasons beginning in 2006-07 and made two NCAA tournaments in that span under Johnny Jones, who left for LSU after the 2011-12 season.
Benford took over following Jones’ departure. UNT went .500 or worse in five straight seasons and finished 8-22 this year under the former Marquette assistant. UNT was one of just two teams in Conference USA to fail to advance to the league’s postseason tournament after finishing last in the conference standings at 2-16.
UNT will have several key players returning for McCasland, including sophomore guards A.J. Lawson and Ryan Woolridge. Lawson led UNT with an average of 11.4 points per game this season, while Woolridge averaged 9.6.
Jeremy Combs endured an injury-plagued junior season and said late in the year he would not consider his future until after the season. The junior forward averaged 10.2 points in 14 games before Benford shut him down for the year due to an ankle injury. Combs was a preseason All-Conference USA selection.
McCasland will now have the opportunity to convince Combs to return to UNT for his senior season and help rebuild the program.
“I am excited about what he will bring to the program,” Baker said of McCasland. “He knows the state and the area.”