UNT consultant: “We have a fan base that is fractured”

North Texas football coach Seth Littrell speaks at a meeting at Apogee Stadium for UNT fans and boosters as consultant Trip Kuehne looks on. Kuehne and Michael Sicuro have been hired to evaluate the school's athletic program. (Al Key/for the Denton Record-Chronicle)

North Texas football coach Seth Littrell speaks at a meeting at Apogee Stadium for UNT fans and boosters as consultant Trip Kuehne looks on. Kuehne and Michael Sicuro have been hired to evaluate the school’s athletic program. (Al Key/for the Denton Record-Chronicle)

Trip Kuehne, a consultant hired by North Texas to evaluate the school’s athletic program, called for UNT’s fans and boosters to unite what he termed a divided fan base on Monday night.

Kuehne and Michael Sicuro were hired by the university to examine the state of its sports program in the wake of athletic director Rick Villarreal stepping down late last month after more than 15 years on the job.

Kuehne and Sicuro met with more than 100 UNT fans and boosters at Apogee Stadium.

“The reason we put this event together is North Texas has a very passionate fan base,” Kuehne said. “Things around this institution haven’t been really great, but they haven’t been going bad. We have some phenomenal facilities, but we have a fan base that is fractured. We have a fan base, alumni base and boosters that need to be brought together. This is the first step in bringing all the boosters and fans of this fine university together.”

UNT football coach Seth Littrell and men’s basketball coach Tony Benford spoke after Kuehne made his opening comments.

Kuehne then asked that all members of the media and employees of the school’s athletic department leave before what was expected to be an open discussion of the state of UNT athletics.

Michael Sicuro talks with North Texas fans at a meeting to discus the state of the school's athletic program on Monday. (Al Key/for the Denton Record-Chronicle)

Michael Sicuro talks with North Texas fans at a meeting to discus the state of the school’s athletic program on Monday. (Al Key/for the Denton Record-Chronicle)

Kuehne declined comment on why he and Sicuro elected to close the discussion of the state of UNT athletics to members of the media and UNT staff. Sicuro would only comment on the general purpose of the meeting.

“The purpose of this night is to engage and get feedback from the fan base of the University of North Texas,” Sicuro said.

UNT held a similar meeting for former lettermen late last week.

A few UNT fans indicated before the closed portion of the meeting that they would be able to speak more freely about the state of the department because of the closed format.

The school has struggled in the three key sports of football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball for the last several years.

UNT has posted just one winning season in the last 11 in football. The UNT women’s basketball program has suffered 10 straight losing seasons, while the UNT men’s basketball program has not posted a winning season in the last four years while posting a 1-4 record in the postseason.

UNT averaged just 13,631 fans for home games during a 1-11 season in football in 2015. That was the school’s lowest attendance average since 1998.

“I am amazed at the number of people here,” UNT fan Joe Holland said. “There is a lot on everyone’s minds. We are hungry for success. We have put everything in the right order and have everything but wins.”

Both Littrell and Benford expressed confidence in their teams’ chances to improve in their upcoming seasons before the closed portion of the event.

Littrell talked about the assets UNT has at its disposal from facilities to booster and administrative support.

“If I didn’t think this place was a gold mine, I would never have accepted the job,” said Littrell, who is entering his first season at UNT. “I didn’t want to be a head coach bad enough to just go to a place. I wanted to have everything that we need to not only be successful, but to win championships.”

Benford acknowledged that he and his staff have made some mistakes in their first four seasons at UNT, but said the program is in the best shape of tenure. UNT returns all of its key players other than Eric Katenda from last season and is hoping to improve on a 12-20 finish.

UNT has yet to post a winning season in four seasons under Benford, who is entering the final year of his contract.

“The wins are going to come,” Benford said. “They are coming this year. I understand that we have to get the job done.”

Littrell joined Kuehne in pointing to uniting UNT’s fan base as a key step in the process of helping the school’s athletic program reach its potential.

“We can make this program as big as we want to make it,” Littrell said. “It will come down to all of us together. We all have to get on the same page and pull the rope in the same direction.”

UNT’s fans who attended the event expressed hope that it would help the school reach that goal.

“I hope for some positives like increased attendance and promotion,” longtime UNT fan Jim Woolverton said. “I am encouraged that they are trying to do something like this.”

Roger Franklin, who played for the UNT basketball team from 2012-13, was at the event and also expressed hope about the potential impact it could have on the direction of the program.

“It’s good for people to voice their opinions,” Franklin said. “They are going to do it anyway on social media and other places. This way we can correct our mistakes.”

Key questions UNT’s new AD will face Part VI — Can he/she repair the relationship with fans?

One of the key challenges for North Texas' new athletic director will be repairing relationships with its fans. UNT won just one game last football season, which tight end Marcus Smith celebrated with students. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

One of the key challenges for North Texas’ new athletic director will be repairing relationships with its fans. UNT won just one game last football season, which tight end Marcus Smith celebrated with students. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

Over the last few days, I have spoken with more than a half dozen North Texas fans about the state of the program for a series of stories that will run later this summer and a story that ran in today’s paper in advance of tonight’s fan meeting with boosters. 

The bottom line — there are a lot of people who are really upset.

They are upset that UNT has only enjoyed one winning season in the last 11 years in football. They don’t feel like the promises UNT made to upgrade scheduling when it was raising money to build Apogee Stadium have been kept.

They aren’t really happy about the fact that UNT’s men’s basketball program that was once a point of pride for the school during Johnny Jones’ tenure has fallen on hard times.

They aren’t happy about seeing other programs in the region they believe have lesser resources, including Louisiana Tech, accomplishing more.

And that doesn’t even take into account problems with ticket sales and things of that nature.

Whoever takes over the UNT athletic department will have to mend those fences and get the program’s teams going again in key sports, especially football.

UNT’s football program drew just 13,631 fans a game last year, the lowest total since 1998. More than a few fans told me that they gave up their season tickets or cut back on the number they are buying. Others said they either reduced their contributions to the Mean Green Club or quit donating entirely.

That’s how upset people have become.

UNT’s next athletic director will have to help win those fans back.

Here’s our list of challenges UNT’s new athletic director will face:

No. 1 — Decide what to do with UNT’s administrative staff that is already in place
No. 2 — How can the school expand its fan/donor base?
No. 3 — What’s the scheduling philosophy?
No. 4 – What about a new track facility, baseball?
No. 5 — How does the school deal with falling TV revenue?
No. 6 — Where to set the bar for struggling programs?

The Sunday leftovers — Looking ahead to tomorrow’s meeting

It’s Sunday night and time for the Sunday leftovers where we look back on the events of the weekend, reheat the good stuff — and some of the bad — while hopefully putting it all in perspective.

Tomorrow is a big day for UNT athletics. UNT fans and boosters are expected to gather at 6:30 p.m. on the club level of Apogee for a forum hosted by consultants Trip Kuehne and Michael Sicuro. The pair will help facilitate a discussion on the state of the UNT athletic program in the wake of Rick Villarreal stepping down as the school’s athletic director this spring after more than 15 years at the university.

I talked to several UNT fans today who plan on attending.

“I think it’s a good first step to reach out to the many longtime fans who have become disenfranchised by the past decade of losing and the apparent disconnect and complacency from the athletic department,” UNT fan Scott Robertson said. “UNT can and should do better by making a commitment to athletic excellence and advancement to a higher standing.”

Robertson fell into one of the two camps the UNT fans I spoke to were divided into.

Several UNT fans told me that they are looking forward to an opportunity to discuss what they see as key issues for the department, including customer service and the way fans/boosters are treated.

The second was a group of fans that view the exercise with trepidation. Several people I talked to are concerned that the forum will turn into a complaint session that won’t change anything.

“I worry that it will be a chance for everyone to complain, and not a whole lot of good is going to come out of it,” UNT fan Sean Hiatt.

UNT is looking for input on ways to jump-start a program that has had just one winning season in the last 11 in football, suffered 10 straight losing seasons in women’s basketball and four straight seasons at .500 or under in men’s basketball.

I tend to look at it as a positive. Nothing has ever been accomplished by doing nothing.

Be sure to check out the full story for more.

A look at a couple of lists on a Friday afternoon

North Texas senior Alec Morris was ranked among the top quarterback transfers heading into the 2016 season. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

North Texas senior Alec Morris was ranked among the top quarterback transfers heading into the 2016 season. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

There have been a few lists to come out over the last few days that relate to North Texas athletics.

Here goes …

First off, Athlon’s rated the top quarterback transfers at FBS schools entering the 2016 season.

UNT has Alec Morris from Alabama, who checks in at No. 10. It seems like a foregone conclusion at this point that Morris will be the Mean Green’s starter next season.

Morris had a solid spring as is by far the most physically capable and talented quarterback UNT has on its roster.

What makes the list all the more interesting is the number of players on the list at Conference USA schools. Mike White transferred to Western Kentucky from South Florida and is ranked No. 6 on the list. The Hilltoppers also have Tyler Ferguson, who came in from Louisville and is listed at No. 23.

Zack Greenlee transferred from Fresno State to UTEP and will be just as important for the Miners as Morris is to UNT. Greenlee checked in at No. 17

Jared Johnson transferred to Texas-San Antonio from Sam Houston and is ranked just behind Morris at No. 11. Johnson is the polar opposite of Morris as a transfer. 

Johnson was the Southland Offensive Player of the Year after accounting for 2,686 total yards and 23 touchdowns in 2015. He has some serious skins on the wall in comparison to Morris. who pretty much sat the bench four four years at Alabama.

Western Kentucky is going to be pretty good no matter who it picks to lead its offense. When it comes to the C-USA West Division race, how Morris, Greenlee and Johnson loom large.

The teams that made the best picks will have the best chance to make a run at a bowl berth.

Littrell

Littrell

The Sporting News also recently came out with its rankings of all the coaches in college football.

New UNT coach Seth Littrell came in 128th — dead last.

I don’t think Littrell is the worst coach in college football. My guess is he could be pretty good.

The problem is he has no track record and is taking over a program with a very well established track record as a loser since the end of the Miracle Bowl Run in 2004. UNT has posted just one winning season since winning four straight Sun Belt Conference titles.

Wondering what might have been with Tim Tadlock

Denton native Tim Tadlock has Texas Tech back in the World Series this year. (Associated Press)

Denton native Tim Tadlock has Texas Tech back in the World Series this year. (Associated Press)

Texas Tech looks like it is on its way out of the College World Series tonight. The Red Raiders are down to Coastal Carolina late.

Before Tech is done (and I hoped they can rally), I wanted to get to a key point and wonder what might have been.

Tech coach Tim Tadlock is one of the best baseball coaches in the country. The Denton native was College Baseball Hall of Fame National Coach of the Year in 2014 and is a finalist for the award this year. He led Tech to the World Series in 2014 and has the Red Raiders back in Omaha. Tech won the Big 12 regular season title this spring.

The kicker is Tadlock was sitting there for the taking for North Texas for years.

Before we get to the story, a disclaimer. I covered Tadlock’s teams at Grayson County College in Denison in my first job out of college and have known him for years.

Tadlock won back-to-back JUCO national titles at Grayson in 1999 and 2000 and was looking to move up to a Division I head coaching job. He eventually moved on to Oklahoma, where he was an assistant from 2006-11. Tech snapped Tadlock up in 2012 and quickly promoted its former standout infielder to head coach.

UNT talked a whole lot about starting a baseball program in the early to mid 2000s. It nearly got a program rolling a few years ago before the school’s financial issues derailed those plans.

Former UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal said a few times that he believed the school could win a national title in baseball. Those hopes seem to be on hold for the foreseeable future with UNT in the market for a new athletic director and needing to spend a whole lot of money on other projects that will help make the programs is has successful.

UNT track coach Carl Sheffield told me recently that there are plans in place to build a new track venue as soon as this fall. The Mean Green Athletic Center also needs to be renovated. Declining television revenue in football isn’t going to help matters.

The school just never got a program going when Tadlock might have been available. It was far too late even back a couple of years ago, when UNT almost got a program started.

I’m not suggesting that it would have been done deal that Tadlock would have ended up at UNT if it had launched a program long about 2004, when I wrote my first UNT is trying to get a baseball program going story.

There are plenty of other good candidates out there. Texas associate head coach Skip Johnson is a Denton native. Derek Matlock coached the Denton Outlaws, a failed entry in the Texas Collegiate League that seemed like a terrible idea from the start. Matlock is assistant at West Virginia these days. He would likely have been a candidate as well.

Villarreal also had connections at Southern Miss and LSU. You can bet there would have been coaches from those pipelines who would have been interested.

Tadlock just always seemed like a perfect fit. He built Grayson from scratch and has recruited Denton throughout his career.

Unfortunately for UNT, its opportunity has passed. Tadlock signed a contract this year that will pay him $2.4 million in annual salary over the course of six years.

No one in their right mind is leaving  a rolling program in the Big 12 to start over at UNT. Just ask this guy. 

Sitting here watching the World Series just makes one wonder what might have been.

Follow-up thoughts on Cade Pearson/Frank Harris

North Texas joined the list of Conference USA schools that landed a high school quarterback for their 2017 classes yesterday.

When the carousel stopped spinning, Texarakana’s Cade Pearrson ended up at UNT and Schertz Clements’ Frank Harris at Texas-San Antonio.

Those moves came after Rice landed Plano East’s Miklo Smalls.

Who came out ahead will be something fans of both programs will end up tracking and talking about for years, if all three follow through and stick with their respective commitments.

Pearson wasn’t particularly highly recruited. His only other FBS offer was from Wyoming, but he seems like a good fit for UNT and the system new head coach Seth Littrell wants to run. Pearson has started the last couple of years for a Texas high school power in Texarkana and at 6-3 has legitimate size.

Pearson threw for about 1,600 yards in each of the last two years.

There was an expectation that UNT might be able to land a pretty highly regarded quarterback early in Littrell’s tenure due to his pedigree. Pearson isn’t as big a fish as UNT fans hoped for, but he is a good get for the Mean Green.

UNT is really pushing the idea that this is a new version of Denton and the school’s program. After 10 losing seasons in the last 11 years, UNT is going to need to win to show that is the case, especially with high school prospects who grew up in the state and have only known the Mean Green as perpetual losers outside of one magical year in 2013.

As far as pedigree goes, UTSA came out with a more highly regarded player in Harris, one UNT chased pretty hard earlier in the year. Harris visited UNT, but decided to stay home, where he was treated like a hero. He announced his decision live on local television.

Harris is a three-star prospect, the San Antonio Express-News Offensive Player of the Year. He threw for 2,013 yards and 17 touchdowns and rushed for 2,712 yards and another 38 touchdowns last season.

All three Conference USA teams came away with great prospects.

Who ended up with the best player will be a debate for years to come.

Frank Harris to UTSA

And now you know how the story ends.

North Texas picked up a commitment from quarterback Cade Pearson out of Texarkana today.

Pearson announced his decision just hours before Schertz Clements standout Frank Harris made his announcement.

Harris turned right around and committed to Texas-San Antonio.

You never know how these deals will turn out, but it is a day UNT fans could look back on.

Pearson seems like a good get for UNT and a fit for UNT’s system.

Harris is just as good a get for UTSA, and a higher rated player, one 247 Sports ranks No. 81 on its list of the top athletes in the Class of 2017.

Cade Pearson commits to UNT

North Texas has its high school quarterback for the Class of 2017.

Texarkana’s Cade Pearson announced this afternoon that he has committed to UNT.

Pearson visited UNT earlier this month and immediately hit it off with head coach Seth Littrell and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell.

Pearson said he wanted to take some time after visiting UNT to make sure the school is the right fit.

The 6-3 senior felt like the time was right to commit and made his decision on Wednesday.

“We are going to win a bunch of ball games and have a really good team,” Pearson said. “North Texas has a whole new coaching staff. They are awesome. I love them a lot.”

Wyoming, Illinois State, Stephen F. Austin, McNeese State, Northwestern State, Incarnate Word, Prairie View A&M and Missouri State also offered Pearson. He has thrown for about 1,600 yards in each of the last two seasons.

Pearson made his decision just hours before Schertz Clements quarterback Frank Harris, who is set to announce his decision tonight.

See Friday’s edition of the Denton Record-Chronicle for more.

Follow-up thoughts on UNT buyouts, key QB target to announce, et cetera

North Texas has seen its bottom line take a few financial hits over the last year or so, including three contract buyouts, (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

North Texas has seen its bottom line take a few financial hits over the last year or so, including three contract buyouts, (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

North Texas is on the hook for about $90,000 a month for buyouts for former athletic director Rick Villarreal, football coach Dan McCarney and women’s basketball coach Mike Petersen.

The story ran in today’s paper.

Schools have to buyout coaches and school officials periodically. It’s part of the deal.

What I wanted to address here on the blog today was a good question that was brought up: In the large scheme of things, is $90,000 a month for a short time and the buyouts UNT is paying out all that big of a deal?

UNT does have a budget of $31 million.

It seems like a small drop in the bucket, but there have been a whole lot of drops in that bucket over the last few months:

– UNT is also facing the prospect of declining television revenue. Conference USA’s TV deal will wind up providing each school in the league $200,000, down from $1.1 million. That’s another drop.

– UNT signed football coach Seth Littrell to a contact that is worth about $100,000 more than what Dan McCarney was making at the school. One has to figure that in as well.

– UNT’s assistant coaches salaries in football also went up about $100,000. 

Paying out those contracts might not sound like a huge deal, but there have been a lot of little financial dents to UNT’s bottom line in the last several months.

And in other news, Schertz Clements quarterback Frank Harris will announce his college destination tonight in San Antonio on local television.

Harris visited UNT back in March.

Harris is considered at Texas-San Antonio lean.

One never knows how these things will go. UNT has offered a few high school quarterbacks who are headed elsewhere, including Belton’s Peyton Mansell (Iowa), Lake Travis’ Charlie Brewer (SMU), Colleyville Heritage’s Cam Roane (San Diego State) and Cedar Hill’s Avery Davis (Notre Dame).

UNT has two quarterbacks coming in for 2016 in Locust Grove High’s Mason Fine and College of DuPage quarterback Devin O’Hara, a late add I fully expect to make a run at the backup quarterback job behind Alabama transfer Alec Morris this fall.

UNT should be fine this year with Morris and can sort through its options after that.

What UNT could use is a quarterback in the Class of 2017. They are coming off the board quickly. Harris is up next. Stay tuned.

And finally, Denton wide receiver/cornerback Chris Miller committed to Colorado today. Miller was one of the top players in Denton UNT was trying to convince to stay home.

UNT athletic director search update (Dickenson interviews with firm)

Dickenson

Dickenson

North Texas acting athletic director Hank Dickenson spoke with representatives from Eastman & Beaudine Inc., the search firm helping the school search for a replacement for Rick Villarreal, on Monday.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation told the Denton Record-Chronicle on Tuesday that the meeting took place. Those sources and others provided some perspective on where UNT’s search stands and how it might proceed.

Dickenson, a longtime UNT athletic department official, has guided the school’s athletic program since June 6. Former UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal officially stepped down on Monday. Villarreal’s departure was announced on May 23.

UNT officials met with the school’s lettermen on Tuesday night. A similar meeting with boosters is scheduled for next week

Those meetings are a part of the school’s efforts to evaluate the program. UNT hired Trip Kuehne and Michael Sicuro as consultants to help with that process.

Kuehne is a well-known amateur golfer and the son of UNT booster Ernie Kuehne. He is the founder and senior managing partner of the Westlake-based investment firm Double Eagle Capital Management, LP.

Sicuro works for Venture Capital & Private Equity. He has more than 30 years of experience with public and private companies with revenue of up to $4 billion in annually.

The evaluation process of UNT’s program has been underway for the last several days, a source with knowledge of the process said.

“They are trying to evaluate the staff,” a source who did not want to be identified said. “That has been going on for a couple of weeks.”

Multiple prominent UNT boosters said Tuesday that school officials have managed to keep the details of how the search is progressing quiet, even among the most connected donors.

Other than Dickenson, few names have come up in connection with UNT’s opening for its first athletic director since the spring of 2001.

One prominent UNT booster said he brought up Arthur Johnson, the executive senior associate athletics director at Texas, as a potential candidate. The booster did not have any knowledge of whether or not Johnson is on UNT’s list of potential candidates.

UNT is looking for a leader who can take advantage of the facilities Villarreal put in place during his tenure and spark its high-profile programs. UNT opened Apogee Stadium, the school’s $78 million football venue, in 2011 and also built several other key facilities, including the Mean Green Athletic Center.

UNT finished 9-4 and beat UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl at the end of the 2013 season.

That is the lone winning season UNT has produced in football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball — its three programs with the highest profile — in the last four years.

Dave Anderson, a longtime UNT booster, said he didn’t know what direction the school’s search would take, but expressed confidence in the future of the program.

“Change in any organization can be good,” Anderson said. “I hope they make a good decision.”