A couple of tidbits from college football

There were a couple of stories from the college football world today that caught my attention and might also be of interest for UNT fans.

First off, we are closing in on the point where UAB will make a decision on whether or not to reinstate its football program.

There were a couple of conflicting stories today. …

Al.com’s story covers both angles — a report that indicates a decision has been made and that UAB football is toast and another report that indicates a decision has not yet been made.

It will be an interesting story to follow that will have an impact on Conference USA and thus UNT.

If UAB does bring its football program back, it will come back with a whole lot of additional financial backing that could elevate UNT’s conference rival in the long-run. It would also keep an elite men’s basketball program in C-USA for the Mean Green to contend with.

And in other news, there was a bit of stunner in college football recruiting today.

Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, the second-rated player in the state and the fifth-ranked defensive tackle in the country, committed to the hometown Houston Cougars.

It’s hard for a mid-major program to keep a hometown stud home, just ask UNT. The Mean Green have seen several leave town over the years, although UNT deserves a lot of credit for pulling off a bit of a stunner in keeping Guyer tight end Kevin Dillman around.

If Houston can see it through to the finish line and get Oliver to campus, he would likely become an immediate star. Oliver has offers from Alabama, Texas and LSU.

Interesting projection on C-USA, Looks like UNT has new assistant, et cetera

North Texas coach Dan McCarney and the Mean Green are hoping to bounce back from a 4-8 season this year.  (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

North Texas coach Dan McCarney and the Mean Green are hoping to bounce back from a 4-8 season this year. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

We are into that time of the summer when the projections for the upcoming football season start to roll out.

I bring it up because Billy Connelly of SB Nation came out with his advanced stats projection that weighs a program’s five-year history (if you were good before, chances are you will be again), returning starters and recruiting history.

Connelly has the same philosophy as I do. Highly rated and highly recruited players tend to be better than players who weren’t highly rated.

There are exceptions to the rule, but we are talking the big picture. I will bet on 20 five- and four-star guys to have a greater overall impact as a group than 20 two-star and unrated players.

Here’s Connelly’s ranking for Conference USA:

(National rank) Team Projected change
41. Marshall Down 20
50. Louisiana Tech Down 16
61. Western Kentucky Down 10
87. Middle Tennessee Staying at 87
88. Rice Down 12
99. UTEP Down 11
101. Florida Atlantic Down 4
107. Florida International Up 4
108. Southern Miss Down 5
110. Old Dominion Down 8
120. Charlotte Staying at 120
121. UTSA Down 11
125. North Texas Up 1

What really sinks UNT in this particular projection is having just one winning season in its last five, the loss of several starters and recruiting classes over the last few years that haven’t been particularly highly ranked.

I have a very hard time believing that UNT is one of the worst teams in the country. The Mean Green were regulars on ESPN’s Bottom 10 under Todd Dodge, but has improved dramatically since then under Dan McCarney.

Those projections will be a talking point, though.

I also had a feature story in today’s paper on Craig Robertson, a former UNT standout who has enjoyed a big season on the field with the Cleveland Browns and also hit some milestones off of it. He was named the Brown’s Man of the Year, married his UNT sweetheart and had a little girl.

Robertson was a great player for UNT in a dark era in program history.

It’s nice to see him doing well in the NFL.

And finally, it sounds like Jalie Mitchell has hired her final assistant coach. I mentioned in my Gainesville Caravan notes that Mitchell said that she was going to hire an additional coach to go along with Kasondra Foreman and Bobby Brasel.

Mitchell announced at today’s stop that she has hired Aisha Stewart, who was at Arkansas State for a year. I didn’t go to that particular stop. Hat tip to our friend Harry Miers who did and posted a note about it on GoMeanGreen.

I could be wrong about this, but I was at the neighborhood gym on the south end of town last night and thought, “Hey, that’s odd. There’s a woman here in an Arkansas State T-shirt.” The wife was rushing me out, so I didn’t get a chance to say hello. Now that I look at Stewart’s bio, I’m wondering if it might have been her.

The hire makes a lot of sense, when one looks closer at it. Stewart was a longtime assistant at South Alabama, where she worked with Brasel, before spending a year at Arkansas State.

Stewart replaces Tron Griffin, who was hired just a few weeks ago and is no longer on staff, from what I can tell.

Wednesday night notes (DaMarcus Smith says thanks, et cetera)

There were a couple of interesting tidbits to come down on the UNT front today. Here’s a quick rundown.

Quarterback DaMarcus Smith made a good move, thanking his coaches, teammates and Mean Green fans for their support over the last few months while he worked to become academically eligible in a note he posted on his Twitter account.

Smith will get a long look in the fall, when he will look to beat out Andrew McNulty.

There are a host of UNT fans that are hoping the Butler County College transfer will be the missing element that will send the Mean Green over the top.

I just wouldn’t count out McNulty. Experience carries a lot of weight with head coach Dan McCarney, who is on record saying that McNulty is way ahead in the race for the starting job heading into the fall.

And in other news, the Morning News continued its position rankings for Texas college teams. UNT’s defensive line checked in at No. 8 in the state. UNT has some key players back in a year the other mid-major programs lose a ton.

On the NFL front, former UNT offensive lineman Antonio Johnson was signed by the New Orleans Saints after one of their mini camps. Turns out Johnson originally went to a mini camp with the Jets, went unsigned, landed with the Saints and was signed.

That move reunites Johnson with former UNT teammate Cyril Lemon.

Evan Woodbery of the New Orleans Times-Picayune goes through how it all went down, which is where I picked up the information. Hat-tip to Evan.

Which comes first, the chicken (attendance) or the egg (winning)?

McCarney

McCarney

What was said last night during UNT’s first stop in its coaches caravan brought up an age old question when it comes to athletics.

What comes first, the chicken (attendance) or the egg (winning).

It’s not the first time the subject has come up in conversations I’ve had around UNT over the last several months.

And since attendance and season ticket sales are the subject du jour …

There are two sides to the argument.

What I often hear from UNT officials and coaches is that there ought to be a sense of loyalty among the school’s graduates and fans that leads them to show up in droves no matter what.

Dan McCarney has famously made that argument over the last couple of years and did again last night.

“We have to expand,” McCarney said. “We can’t stay where we are at. The fans we have are phenomenal. It has to grow if we want to compete for championships in every sport.”

McCarney isn’t the only one who has made that argument. I have heard that same sentiments on the basketball front dating back to the early Johnny Jones years, before UNT really got it rolling there for about six years.

McCarney makes a great point. It’s a whole lot easier to win and build a program when there is support behind a program. And there are more reasons now than ever to support UNT’s efforts. Apogee Stadium is a terrific place to watch a game and UNT is in Conference USA, which means better conference opponents and several Texas rivals are on the schedule regularly. There is a continuing series with SMU in place.

UNT has “laundry fans” who are going to answer McCarney’s appeals and those of the rest of UNT’s coaches no matter what. The term isn’t one a lot of people are familiar with in comparison to the old T-shirt fan description of fans who have no real connection to a school other than the T-shirt they bought when they started rooting for a team.

The best reference to the laundry fan on the opposite end of the spectrum is from an old Jerry Seinfield stand-up routine about American sports fans:

I talked to one of the biggest laundry fans who ever pulled on a UNT T-shirt last night. He readily said that it’s all about UNT to him, not people. Winning and losing doesn’t impact his feelings or his level of support. Neither does who is actually wearing the laundry.

There just are not 50,000 people like him out there.

That’s the challenge for UNT. It has to widen its appeal beyond the small group of laundry fans, who are going to be there win or lose.

It’s not going to be easy. College football attendance is falling. Last season was the worst for college football in general since 2003.

UNT is going to have to broaden its reach to draw in new fans. Apogee Stadium has helped in that regard. Winning will help more than anything else.

UNT also has to reach out to new fans.

The coaches caravan is a good way to go, even though a few people have questioned how effective impassioned speeches about attendance is when most of the audience consists of the core fans who already are showing up and giving to the program. I get that.

The challenge is to reach new fans and bring in more loyal customers. UNT has done a pretty good job of it, judging by the gradual climb in attendance over the last decade.

UNT is making progress.

There are new fans coming on or giving more.

UNT is just hoping for more of them to come on and help the Mean Green with winning — the other half of the equation.

Gainesville caravan stop notes

UNT head football coach Dan McCarney (right) speaks at the UNT Coaches Caravan at the First State Bank in Gainesville on Tuesday. Also pictured as men's basketball coach Tony Benford, women's basketball coach Jalie Mitchell and moderator Dave Barnett (right) look on. (Denton Record-Chronicle/Al Key)

UNT head football coach Dan McCarney (right) speaks at the UNT Coaches Caravan at the First State Bank in Gainesville on Tuesday. Also pictured as men’s basketball coach Tony Benford, women’s basketball coach Jalie Mitchell and moderator Dave Barnett (right) look on. (Denton Record-Chronicle/Al Key)

The first stop of the UNT coaches’ caravan took place tonight in Gainesville.

The big message?

Show up.

Show up to the SMU game down in Dallas to kick off the football season Sept. 12 and to the rest of of the games this year and then show up to the games Jalie Mitchell coaches in her first season as the head coach of the UNT women’s basketball team. And while you’re at it, show up to the men’s basketball team’s games as well.

UNT football coach Dan McCarney talked about how difficult it is to recruit players to play in a half empty stadium and also talked about how he brings football recruits to basketball games. He wants to see fans in the stands at those games as well.

Most of all, UNT officials want Mean Green fans to show up when the Mean Green face SMU. UNT is hoping for 15,000 to answer the call and make the season-opener feel like a home game for the Mean Green.

I go into what UNT’s coaches had to say on the subject more in the paper tomorrow.

UNT’s caravan events are part of the plan to increase attendance. UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal talked a little about how they fit into the plan after the event that was Dave Barnett’s first official function as the voice of the Mean Green/moderator.

“Some people who are not familiar with our program get to hear from our coaches,” Villarreal said of the reason for having the series of gatherings. “A lot of people are not aware of the changes that have gone on with new facilities and what is happening on campus. We work in a market that is so big it is hard to get the word out through regular media sources. To be out here in person is meaningful.”

UNT’s coaches also offered up a host of noteworthy tidbits, including …

– UNT’s golf practice facility that we wrote about several months ago is expected to be approved by the board of regents soon.

– UNT is hosting the Conference USA softball tournament next year.

– McCarney said that the SMU game will be a lot tougher than people are anticipating after UNT drubbed the Mustangs 43-6 last season.

– McCarney talked about how he saw a different Andrew McNulty in the spring than what he has seen before. He compared McNulty to Derek Thompson heading into his senior year.

– McCarney said that while McNulty is UNT’s starter heading into the fall, highly regarded JUCO recruit DaMarcus Smith will get meaningful opportunities to compete for the job.

– Summer workouts will start June 8.

– All of UNT’s scholarship players are in a good spot academically, and that includes the incoming signees.

– There were 40 members of the football team that finished with a 3.0 GPA or higher this spring. Wide receiver Daniel Khan, fullback Jared Lynn, linebacker Blake Bean and backup quarterback Quinn Shanbour all posted 4.0s.

– Mitchell is closing in on naming her third assistant coach. Bobby Brasel has already come on as associate head coach, while Kasondra Foreman is also in place as an assistant.

– Tony Benford said the UNT men’s basketball team is built to make a run at the C-USA title, which would be a huge jump from 14-17, including a 8-10 mark in conference play that left UNT in seventh place at the end of the year.

– Benford’s team did have the second longest conference winning streak last season in C-USA play at five games.

– Benford believes incoming high school recruit Rickey Brice, a center out of Arlington Pantego Christian, will have an impact similar Jeremy Combs last season. Combs was one of the top freshmen in the league last season. Brice will arrive at UNT over the summer.

– Benford said UNT will sign two additional post players before next season. He didn’t leave any doubt about it. UNT has eight scholarship players returning and four incoming recruits. That’s 12 players. The NCAA scholarship limit is 13.

– Benford said he will have a new director of basketball operations in place to replace Jeff Luster within the next few days. Benford said he and Luster mutually agreed to part ways.

Some thoughts on the magic bullet theory on attendance

North Texas fans stand in the front row behind the visitors' bench at Apogee Stadium. UNT's home attendance has gradually increased over the last decade. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

North Texas fans stand in the front row behind the visitors’ bench at Apogee Stadium. UNT’s home attendance has gradually increased over the last decade. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

Yesterday, we posted a link to a report on season football ticket sales among Conference USA schools.

The information in the report was taken from a study of the UAB football program.

UNT ranks 13th out of the 14 teams at 4,285, just ahead of Rice at 4,165, according to the report. Southern Miss is the top school in terms of season ticket sales at 15,587. The Mean Green have held pretty steady over the last three years, despite beating UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl in the second of those seasons.

The reaction among UNT fans has been pretty strong, and I get that.

To me those numbers just point to the same issue UNT has always faced — there is no magic bullet to suddenly jump start the Mean Green’s program and attract thousands of new fans. For UNT it’s going to have to be a long, gradual climb.

There have been a ton of magic bullet suspects over the years, but there has only been gradual improvement.

To review …

2001 — UNT breaks through to earn its first bowl berth since 1959 behind a remarkable five-game winning streak. UNT averaged 14,769 fans in the season that kicked off the Miracle Bowl Run. UNT averaged 15,260 fan the next year.

2002 — UNT breaks through and beats Cincinnati in the New Orleans Bowl for its first bowl win since the 1946 Optimist Bowl and hosted Baylor the next year in front of 29,437 fans, a total that still stands as the on-campus record for a game. The Mean Green’s attendance jumps from 15,260 in 2002 to 18,694 in 2003. Take out the Baylor game bump and the total drops to 16,008.

2004 — UNT caps one of the longest runs of sustained success with its fourth straight bowl season. Attendance drops from 18,964 in 2003 to 15,184 per game for a team headed to a fourth straight bowl game.

2007 — UNT hires Todd Dodge, one of the most successful high school coaches in Texas. UNT promotes the arrival of Dodge, who helped popularize the spread offense in Texas high school football with an “It’s Wide Open” campaign. There is a lot of excitement around the program that dwindles a bit when UNT is blasted 79-10 in its season-opener at Oklahoma. UNT’s attendance still jumps from 15,685 in 2006 to 17,734 in 2007.

2011 — UNT opens Apogee Stadium and moves out of Fouts Field, an outdated facility with a track. Dan McCarney, a proven winner as a college head coach, arrives at the same time and shows that he is more personable and enthusiastic than arguably anyone UNT has had in the job since Hayden Fry. UNT’s attendance creeps up from 17,718 in 2010 to 18,864 in Apogee’s debut season.

2013 — UNT beats UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl for just the third bowl win in program history. Well, that didn’t turn out to be the magic bullet, either. UNT’s attendance drops from 21,030 in its 9-4 bowl season to 19,271 during a 4-8 follow-up campaign.

My point is this. If you take a look at the long-term, UNT’s attendance has grown. It’s been a gradual process. No one event has sent it through the roof, not opening a $78 million football stadium or a couple of bowl wins or joining C-USA.

It’s a process.

And that is what it always will be.

I have been told over and over again that various developments are going to be that magic bullet — building Apogee Stadium, joining C-USA, hiring two new head coaches. That’s just not the way UNT works.

In other news, UNT center Kaydon Kirby was named to the Remington Trophy Watch list. The honor goes to the top center in college football each season.

The Sporting News also came out with its list of the top coaches in Conference USA. Dan McCarney checked in at No. 7. Marshall’s Doc Holliday is No. 1 on the list. Personally, I think McCarney is a bit under rated considering he took UNT to a bowl game.

UNT has only been to eight bowl games in 100 years. It’s not exactly the easiest place to win.

Big news — DaMarcus Smith eligible

Smith

Smith

DaMarcus Smith, a former Butler County (Kansas) Community College quarterback, has gained his eligibility after spending the spring semester at UNT.

UNT head coach Dan McCarney confirmed Monday afternoon that Smith is eligible and will be able to participate in summer workouts and two-a-days this fall.

Smith committed to UNT in December and transferred in at the semester break. UNT later acknowledged that the Kentucky native didn’t meet NCAA eligibility requirements and would not be eligible for spring practice.

Smith has passed enough classes since arriving at UNT to become eligible and will now join what could be an interesting quarterback race during fall practice.

UNT started three different quarterbacks last season, and all three of them are set to return. Andrew McNulty started the final six games of the season and tightened his grip on the starting job in spring practice. He threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns in UNT’s spring game.

UNT also has Dajon Williams and Josh Greer returning. Greer started the first three games of the season before Williams started the next three.

“It will help us,” McCarney said of having Smith available. “We signed him because we wanted him to be in the middle of competition and compete for a job on this team. At least he has the green light to do that.”

Smith posted a celebratory message on Twitter.

McCarney named improving at quarterback one of UNT’s top offseason priorities after the Mean Green ranked 11th out of 13 teams in C-USA with an average of 172.8 passing yards a game last season. The 13 touchdown passes UNT threw last season also ranked 11th in the league.

Those struggles were a key reason the Mean Green struggled in a 4-8 campaign.

UNT scored 21 or fewer points in seven games last season. UNT won just one of those games.

The question now is if Smith can win the starting job in the fall after doing nothing more than watching spring practice. UNT offensive coordinator Mike Canales simplified the Mean Green’s scheme in the offseason and said that Smith would join McNulty in getting meaningful practice snaps in the fall to see what each is capable of.

Even with that opportunity, Smith will have a lot of ground to make up.

“He is way behind Andrew McNulty, obviously,” McCarney said of Smith.

Smith, a 6-2 junior, threw for 2,746 yards and 31 touchdowns with just eight interceptions last season at Butler and is ranked No. 107 on 247Sports’ list of the top junior college recruits in the Class of 2015.

Indiana also offered a scholarship to Smith, who was rated 12th among pro-style quarterbacks coming out of Seneca Academy in Louisville in 2011 by 247Sports. Smith originally committed to Louisville before signing with Central Florida.

Smith was never approved by the NCAA Clearinghouse to play for UCF and transferred to Western Kentucky. He redshirted in 2012 and played sparingly in 2013 before transferring to Butler, a move that jump-started his college career.

Smith expressed confidence in the fact that UNT is the right spot to capitalize on his potential when he committed to play for the Mean Green.

“This is the right spot for me,” Smith said. “I like the offense that they run and felt comfortable with the staff. They said that they are wanting me to come in and compete for the starting spot.”

UAB report includes C-USA football season ticket sales, et cetera

Here’s the Conference USA season ticket sales report that was included in a study on UAB athletics:

Team 2012 2013 2014
1. Southern Miss 20,910 16,361 15,587
2. Old Dominion 14,613 15,037 14,699
3. UTSA 13,646 14,556 13,867
4. UTEP 14,126 13,332 13,167
5. Marshall 13,361 12,444 12,638
6. Fla. International 10,569 12,036 8,537
7. Western Kentucky 8,452 7,588
8. UAB 7,008 6,294 6,233
9. Louisiana Tech 6,324 6,613 6,081
10. Charlotte 6,090 5,641
11. Middle Tennessee 5,342 5,679 5,025
12. Fla. Atlantic 3,445 4,426 4,462
13. North Texas 4,535 4,468 4,285
14. Rice 4,856 4,424 4,165

 

UNT ranks 13th out of the 14 teams at 4,285, just ahead of Rice at 4,165. Southern Miss is the top school in terms of season ticket sales at 15,587. Season ticket sales numbers and Mean Green Club Membership are usually figures UNT does not disclose. UNT was down a little last season, but has held pretty steady over the three years in the report.

And in other news, the DMN continued its series ranking the position groups of all Texas college football teams. Offensive lines were up today. UNT checked in at 11th out of 12 teams, just ahead of UTSA. UNT lost nearly all of its key players with the exception of Kaydon Kirby, the Mean Green’s starting center.

The Mean Green could be better than that ranking, but is going to have to do a whole lot of rebuilding. Ranking UNT much higher than where it is at would be based on faith.

And in C-USA news, Harry Minimum of the Virginian Pilot mentioned in a story this week that the league will provide member schools 450,000 over three years to help with the increased cost of full-cost-of-attendance scholarships.

UNT is also in the middle of the spring recruiting season and just offered Southlake Carroll defensive back Obi Eboh. UNT has issued a lot of offers this spring, but that one is a little more interesting considering UNT’s background with Carroll.

The Sunday leftovers (C-USA track, regional golf, et cetera)

It’s Sunday night and time for The Leftovers, when we pick through the events of the last few days, reheat the good stuff — and some of the bad — and hopefully put it all in perspective.

This is the weekend we cross the finish line when it comes to UNT for the Conference USA sports year. The conference track meet took place this weekend in El Paso. The Mean Green men finished sixth out of 13 teams, while the women finished 10th.

UTSA won the men’s team title with UTEP second and Western Kentucky third. Western Kentucky won the women’s team title with UTEP coming in second.

UNT ended up winning three titles this year — the women’s soccer regular season title, the men’s cross country title and the men’s golf title. The baseball title is still out there, so we won’t go over how all the schools in the league fared until later.

The UNT golf team also finished up its season at the NCAA New Haven Regional this weekend. The Mean Green got off to a great start, but struggled a little at the end of the first round. The Mean Green never quite recovered and finished ninth.

UNT needed to finish in the top five to advance. While falling short was tough for UNT, that does not overshadow what the Mean Green accomplished this season. The Mean Green won the Conference USA title and qualified for regionals for the fourth time in the last five seasons.

There was also some news over the weekend on the basketball front. UNT men’s director of basketball operations Jeff Luster is leaving the staff, while Wesley Brooks, a former assistant with the UNT women’s team, has joined the staff at Utah.

The other tidbit of note is the return of director of managerial operations Kelby Jones as part of Jalie Mitchell’s new staff. Normally, the plight of managers is not something we mention, but I have always respected guys like Kelby who work remarkably hard in behind-the-scenes jobs just to get their foot in the door in college athletics. Kelby’s entering his fourth season at UNT.

I have sat for years and watched Jones rebound as players like Laura McCoy hoisted 3 after 3. I try to take advantage of every bit of time I have to work on stories for the paper after games since going in depth and providing some perspective is the one thing that differentiates what we put in the paper from what people can get elsewhere.

The only guy around when I leave after games most times is Kelby and his fellow managers, who are working on laundry and other mundane tasks. It’s not an easy or high-praise gig. It was nice to see one of the guys who greases the wheels behind the scenes get a little hat-tip this week. Here’s ours as well.

A couple of basketball coaching staff notes

North Texas director of basketball operations Jeff Luster, with clipboard, has left the Mean Green's staff. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

North Texas director of basketball operations Jeff Luster, with clipboard, has left the Mean Green’s staff. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

There has been a little bit of movement when it comes to the coaching staffs with both the UNT men’s and women’s basketball teams.

First off, Jeff Luster, the director of basketball operations for the UNT men, has left the staff. Luster confirmed via text message on Saturday night that he is moving on.

Luster came on during Johnny Jones’ tenure back in 2010 and stayed on when Tony Benford took over. Luster didn’t say where he is headed. He has worked at TCU, Colorado and Air Force in addition to UNT.

And in other news, former UNT women’s assistant coach Wesley Brooks has joined the staff at Utah.

Brooks joined UNT’s staff under Karen Aston and stayed on under Mike Petersen.

Jalie Mitchell started over in terms of assistant coaches when she took over in the offseason.