Tue Jun 22 12:57pm EDT
If you've ever seen the movie "Friday Night Lights," or even glimpsed an episode of the TV show it spawned, you know Texas high-school football inspires a rabid, almost religious following that rivals just about any of the state's dynastic college programs. So while most college teams would be loath to hire a coach from the high-school ranks, barely an eyebrow was raised in 2006 when North Texas hired prep legend Todd Dodge to revive the foundering Mean Green. Dodge was coming off a stretch of four state titles in five years at Carroll Senior High School (better known as Southlake Carroll) just a half-hour's drive down I-35 in the Fort Worth suburbs; his name had become so prolific that in 2006, he was offered opportunities to interview for both the Rice head-coaching job and the position of tight ends coach for the Dallas Cowboys.
Four years later, though, Dodge's name is no longer a hot commodity -- a 5-31 record and back-to-back-to-back eighth-place finishes in the lowly Sun Belt Conference will do that to a guy's rep. Considering that his predecessor, Darrell Dickey, strung together four straight Sun Belt titles in the early 2000s, that looks particularly bad, and if things don't improve in 2010, Dodge will in all likelihood be back on a high-school campus in short order.
Why he was hired. Just for the record, the "Southlake Carroll" entry on Dodge's resume includes: seven winning seasons in seven years, a 98-11 record, five straight appearances in the state championship game, and four titles. The Dragons went an inconceivable 79-1 during that five-year stretch, with their one loss coming to fellow powerhouse Katy in the '03 state championship. The players Dodge coached at Southlake include Chase Daniel, who earned a trophy case full of awards as Missouri's starting QB from 2006 to 2008, and Greg McElroy, who won some big bowl game this past season with the Alabama Crimson Tide.
The "Uh-oh" Moment. After struggling through a 2-10 season in Dodge's first year, the Mean Green faithful were hopeful about the prospects for improvement in 2008. 'Twas not to be: Dodge's team started 0-4, getting outscored 219-55 by a quartet of superior out-of-conference foes, before returning home to receive a 42-10 gut-punch from Florida International to open Sun Belt play. The Golden Panthers shot out to a 31-0 lead before allowing UNT to get a field goal on the board with five minutes left in the third quarter -- this from a team that had gone 1-11 the previous season (with the one win coming against, you guessed it, North Texas). The Mean Green didn't notch a single conference win all season; their lone victory came at Western Kentucky, at that point still only a "provisional" member of Division I-A. UNT finished the season dead last in I-A in scoring defense for the second year in a row, and ranked 100th or worse nationally in nearly every major statistical category.
Embarrassing attempt to right the ship. As former Hot Seater Al Groh will tell you, involving flesh and blood in your listless football program is perhaps not the best way to go. Dodge's son Riley, the 2006 ESPN RISE National High School Junior Football Player of the Year, changed his commitment from Texas to UNT in 2007 to go play for his dad, and was named the starting QB heading into the '09 season; he finished the year with nine TDs, 16 interceptions, and a whole series of injuries. By the time spring practice was in full swing in Denton, Riley's arm was more or less shot -- and Todd confessed as much to the media when he announced that his son was being moved to wide receiver this past April.
Can this marriage be saved? Possible, but unlikely, says Brett Vito, who covers the Mean Green for the Denton Record-Chronicle. If what he says is true, the minimum achievement necessary for Dodge to retain his job verges on "miracle" territory:
Dodge was seen as the second-coming in Denton. Darrell Dickey, the coach Dodge replaced, did a heck of a job in leading UNT to four straight Sun Belt Conference titles from 2001-04, but was never really embraced by the fans. Dickey told it like he saw it when it came to UNT, and said the school had some of the toughest circumstances in the country. That didn't make the fans, or the school administration, very happy. Dodge could do no wrong when he took over. People really thought he would win right away.
There are still a lot of Todd Dodge fans out there who see him as a coach who represents the school well. It's just that group of people is shrinking, and shrinking quickly.
Dodge is in big trouble career-wise. He probably needs to win seven games to save his job in a year that Clemson and Kansas State are on the schedule. UNT has only won five games in three years under Dodge and hasn't won more than three games in a season since 2004.
Approximate hotness of seat. About as hot as BP CEO Tony Hayward's, most likely. The Mean Green have 17 returning starters from last year's squad, behind only WKU in the Sun Belt, so in theory Dodge has a chance to finally steer things in the right direction this year. Seven wins and a bowl invite, though, would involve Dodge more than doubling his career wins record in a single campaign, and that just doesn't seem realistic at this point. On the bright side, though, he'll almost certainly have his pick of high-school jobs if/when the ax finally falls.