by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Apparently, coaching football at North Texas is more hazardous duty than it seems.

Does anyone recall that night in 2006 when the Mean Green and Florida International engaged in a war of attrition featuring seven missed field goals in overtime? UNT survived that battle by a 25-22 count but then-head coach Darrell Dickey almost didn’t, suffering a heart attack after the game. Dickey recovered quickly and was back on the sidelines a few weeks later, but some Sun Belt wags couldn’t resist commentary on that torturous affair vs. the Golden Panthers, wondering if local psychologists were getting extra business the week after that game from fans who were distressed by what they witnessed on the field.

Dickey, by the way, was fired in mid-November that season, a bit more than a month after his heart attack. On the positive side, he might have bought himself a few more weeks on the job by suffering that coronary. With a clean bill of health, he might not have lasted until Halloween.

Unfortunately, the North Texas curse struck again last February when current HC Dan McCarney suffered a mild stroke. We know that coaching a Sun Belt also-ran is dangerous, but this is getting a little ridiculous.

The good news for McCarney (right) is that he had sufficiently recovered to assume most of his regular duties by the time spring football rolled around, but we have to wonder if the school is going to have to begin printing messages on its tickets similar to the FDA’s cautions that appear on every cigarette carton and package. Something like “Warning: North Texas football can be dangerous to your health.”

We can kid about these things now that Dickey (the new offensive coordinator at Memphis, by the way) and McCarney have fully recovered. Even McCarney himself was in the mood to have a laugh after his harrowing experience. When contacted in March by an old sportswriting friend, the Des Moines Register’s Randy Peterson, McCarney’s quips became an instant hit on Twitter.

“I’m good, I’m good,” said McCarney to Peterson. “I had a stroke, but it’s nothing a little Grey Goose won’t take care of.”

Indeed, it was an eventful offseason in Denton, and not just because McCarney fell ill. The Mean Green also made a bold move for the future, opting to skip out on the Sun Belt after this season and transfer instead to the higher-profile Conference USA beginning with the 2013-14 school year.

The move looks to be a win-win for all involved. For CUSA, it guarantees a presence in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, after SMU decided to cast its future lot with the Big East. Denton, on the northern fringe of the Metroplex and more leafy than many locales in the area, is a fast-growing suburb with easier access to DFW Airport than many other cities in the region.

And for UNT, it’s a homerun on a variety of fronts. More dollars will flow the Mean Green’s way with CUSA’s TV contracts, which are far more lucrative than the Sun Belt’s, to the tune of about an extra $3 million dollars per year, a number that could increase with a new round of network negotiations that are ongoing. Also, no longer will UNT be the western-most outpost in a far-flung league, as it was in the Belt. The Mean Green will also have three new league rivals within the state of Texas for the first time since the mid 1950s and UNT’s days in the old Gulf States Conference, when instead of future CUSA Texas rivals Rice, UTSA, and UTEP, its in-state conference foes were Abilene Christian, Trinity, and McMurry. The Eagles haven’t had an in-state conference foe at all since West Texas State in the days of Missouri Valley membership in 1974.

UNT has also been a more important football school throughout the years than many might realize. Known simply as North Texas State for decades, the Eagles were a power in the old Gulf States and an earlier configuration of the Missouri Valley under legendary HC Odus Mitchell, under whom North Texas won or shared ten league crowns in a 21-season span.

As mentioned in our earlier previews of Houston and SMU, the Mean Green also played an important role in breaking the color line in the Lone Star State. Long before any SWC schools considered enlisting black athletes, North Texas beat them all to the punch. Local Denton product Abner Haynes (right), along with teammate Leon King, integrated Texas college football as members of the Eagles in 1956.

Haynes, a back of some repute, had asked to walk on at North Texas State, and HC Mitchell was receptive, getting permission from the school’s administration to accept Haynes. Haynes was soon promoted from the frosh to the varsity squad (which was in a period in which the NCAA allowed freshmen on the varsity), and Abner quickly became the offensive and defensive star of the football team. Still, he was not allowed to live on campus, and had other unpleasant encounters with Jim Crow while playing for the Eagles, the worst being when Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Chattanooga canceled their games with North Texas.

Haynes, however, moved to prominence in the early days of the AFL as a member of the Dallas Texans and Kansas City Chiefs, and North Texas had effectively blazed a trail in the state, with Haynes soon to be followed Leford Fant of Texas Western, Sid Blanks of Texas A&I (a future Houston Oiler who became the captain of the team in his senior year), Kenneth Decker of McMurry and “Pistol” Pete Pedro of West Texas State, all among the first era of black, non-SWC college stars in the Lone Star State.

North Texas continued to produce pro-caliber talent into the late ‘60s. In perhaps the most-feared defensive line combination in college history, the 1968 Eagles featured a couple of future All-Pros, future Steelers and Pro Football HOF member DT Mean Joe Greene (left), and future 49ers DE Cedrick Hardman. Greene was the fourth pick of the entire 1969 NFL Draft; Hardman the ninth pick overall a year later.

The Mean Green also had some offensive weapons in the late ‘60s. Quarterback Steve Ramsey was among the NCAA passing leaders before a pro career with the Saints and Broncos, with Ramsey starting several games in the early and mid ‘70s for the latter. Wide receiver Ronnie Shanklin was a dangerous downfield threat for the Steelers in the early ‘70s who also qualified for the NFL Pro Bowl in 1973.

There are no Mean Joe Greenes on the horizon in Denton these days, but there is McCarney, who once forged a resurrection of Iowa State’s downtrodden program in the mid-to-late ‘90s and has been entrusted with doing the same at UNT. Prior to McCarney’s arrival before last season, the Mean Green had been the losingest program in the country the previous six years, winning only 13 of 71 games. The bold experiment of hiring local high school coaching legend (and former Texas Longhorn QB) Todd Dodge prior to the 2007 campaign would eventually blow up in UNT’s face, with Dodge producing a woeful 6-37 mark before being humanely dismissed midway in the 2010 campaign.

McCarney’s first UNT team last fall was no powerhouse, but it did come close to bowl eligibility by finishing a respectable 5-7 and ended the campaign on a decidedly upbeat note when routing Middle Tennessee, 59-7. The Mean Green also scored the school’s first-ever win over a Big Ten entry when beating Indiana by a 24-21 count early in the season, and UNT was hardly shamed in losing non-conference games vs. a couple of national powerhouses, Houston and Alabama.

Along the way in 2011, UNT opened its glorious new Apogee Stadium, on the other side of I-35E from former home Fouts Field, an uncomfortable and aging concrete facility with poor sightlines. By comparison, the new stadium is an absolute gem, with all of the amenities, excellent viewing angles, and a distinctive, wing-shaped end zone seating section that invites architectural comparisons to another similar seating area in the NFL at the Seattle Seahawks’ futuristic Century Link Field.

The spectacular new facility deserves a winning side, and UNT might oblige this fall, although the offense is going to have to pick up the pace and figure out how to proceed minus the school’s all-time leading rusher, productive Lance Dunbar, the latest in a seemingly-endless string of ground-gobbling Mean Green runners. Dunbar tallied 4138 YR (1115 of those yards a year ago) and a hefty 5.4 ypc in his four-year UNT career.

The focus of the attack thus shifts to sr. QB Derek Thompson (left), who has endured an injury-plagued career but looks poised to detonate UNT’s pro-style, 1-back attack coordinated by Mike Canales, who worked with McCarney during their days together on Jim Leavitt’s staff at South Florida and who took over HC duties in Denton (with some success) on an interim basis for Dodge late in the 2010 campaign.

Thompson, whose four completions in limited duty during the spring game went for a whopping 162 yards a 2 TDs, was working more under center in March and April, something o.c. Canales figures to employ a good deal in the fall after Thompson took most of his snaps in the shotgun last season. Twice in 2011, Thompson passed for more than 300 yards in a game, and his arm strength suggests those numbers should markedly improve this fall, but how he fares if indeed minus a quality infantry diversion that the graduated Dunbar (who will spend summer in the Dallas Cowboys camp) provided will remain to be seen. Importantly, Thompson was careful with the ball last season, tossing only 6 picks in 11 games.

Thompson also has three of his top four receivers back in the fold from 2011, including speedball jr. Brelan Chancellor (right; also a dangerous kick-return threat) and more-physical route-running sr. Chris Bynes, both with 37 catches a year ago. A new weapon to watch could be rangy 6'5 RS frosh Chaz Sampson, who wowed observers in the spring who could emerge as a dangerous deep threat. Former QB Derrick Teagarden also switched to a wideout spot in the spring with encouraging early results.

Minus Dunbar, Canales is likely to utilize a RB-by-committee approach featuring several different dimensions. Skittery senior Jeremy Brown, all 5'8 of him, will likely share carries with jr. Brandin Byrd, a punishing 211-lb., north-south weapon, while a handful of well-regarded frosh, including Mark Lewis and Jamarcus Jarvis, also press to get involved in the mix.

Four starters also return along a more-experienced OL that force-fed three frosh (Gs Mason Y’Barbo & Cyril Lemon, the latter assuming to be ready in the fall after missing spring work with foot problems, and LT Antonio Johnson) into the lineup a year ago and also welcomes Arkansas transfer Cam Feldt, once a ballyhooed G prospect who washed out in Fayetteville. All total, eight starters return to the strike force, but they’ll be proceeding minus all-purpose RB Dunbar, and even with the balance he provided, the attack still ranked just 96th nationally in total offense a year ago.

Meanwhile, UNT will have its third different defensive coordinator in as many years this fall after last season’s d.c. Clint Bowen moved back to alma mater Kansas, where he had previously spent twelve years, as Charlie Weis’ new special teams coach. McCarney, however, is very familiar with John Skladany, who served a decade as McCarney’s d.c. at Iowa State and arrives in Denton from UCF, where his 2011 stop unit ranked ninth nationally in both overall (303 ypg) and scoring (18.3 ppg) before Skladany was thrown under the bus by under-fire George O’Leary in Orlando.

Skladany’s immediate concern was fortifying a secondary that lost all four of its safeties and three of its top four cornerbacks (including Royce Hill, who was the platoon’s most-experienced player and will be trying to earn a spot on the Dallas Cowboys roster this summer) from the end-of-2011 depth chart. Touted juco CB D.Q. Johnson and Oklahoma transfer S Marcus Trice should fill two of those openings, while true frosh S Devante Davis, an early enrollee, suggested in spring that he will be tough to keep out of the lineup.

How quickly the new-look secondary coagulates will likely be a key to the Mean Green’s prospects of staying in the Sun Belt race this fall, although it won’t have to do much to improve upon last year’s rather porous pass defense that ranked 104th in the country.

Indeed, defensive playmakers are something of a rarity in the Sun Belt, and in that regard UNT is in lock-step with most of the league. But if there are a couple of difference-makers in this undersized platoon, they’re at the LB spots, where returning starter Zach Orr and sr. Jeremy Phillips have demonstrated a nose for the football. Yet with only three starters back on the entirety of the stop unit, new faces are going to have to deliver for Skladany’s schemes to work.

As usual, the Mean Green isn’t ducking anyone in the non-conference portion of its slate, getting September paydays this season from trips to national title contender LSU (ouch!) and Kansas State, with a return engagement vs. Houston on the road slated for early October. Seven of the twelve scheduled games are away from Denton, making qualification for the Mean Green’s first bowl since 2004 appear a bit trickier. Spread-wise, UNT provided decent value in McCarney’s first season on the job, covering 7 of its last 10 on the board (including 4 of its last 5 at its new home stadium), as well as pointspread wins in its last three non-Belt games.

Summary...Sun Belt squads are usually judged not against the rest of the college football nation, but rather in relation to one another, in which case the Mean Green might be poised to forge a breakthrough this fall if the offense can compensate for the loss of decorated RB Lance Dunbar, capable sr. QB Derek Thompson can stay relatively healthy, and the various newcomers (including d.c. John Skladany) can make a positive impact with the defense. Keep in mind that it is never advisable to overlook Belt entries because, well, they're just Belt entries, since several of them have posted profitable pointspread trends (win and lose) over the years, and note that the Mean Green provided decent value vs. the number last year for vet HC Dan McCarney. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the progress of UNT this fall, as the Eagles have to begin sustaining upgrades when they transfer to a more-demanding Conference USA in 2013. If the Mean Green made the move this season, it would likely have been a year too soon on the field.


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