North Texas was days away from wrapping up one of its more disappointing seasons in recent memory last fall when Seth Littrell vowed to evaluate his program from top to bottom.
“We all go through adversity,” UNT’s coach said then. “It’s my job as the leader that first and foremost I hold myself accountable and find ways to overcome it.”
What has transpired in the nine months since UNT wrapped up that 4-8 season shows how serious Littrell was about that evaluation.
The Mean Green will have five new assistant coaches when they open the season with a game against Houston Baptist on Saturday at Apogee Stadium. And that’s just for starters when it comes to UNT’s offseason overhaul.
Littrell will begin the season as UNT’s play-caller for the first time in five years with the Mean Green. UNT is also set to unveil a flexible defensive scheme with a three-man front under new coordinator Clint Bowen.
The question now is if UNT’s offseason remake can help the Mean Green prove last season was a blip on the radar for a program on the rise.
UNT played in bowl games in each of its first three seasons under Littrell before seeing its postseason run come to an end.
Littrell leaves little doubt he expects to be back in the hunt for the Conference USA title this fall.
“We continue to talk though it and figure out the best ways for us to compete for championships,” Littrell said. “I’ve never been scared to say that’s what we’re here to do. We have a great administration and a great program.
“You’re given the resources here to be successful.”
Those resources and a loaded team put UNT in what seemed like the perfect position to break through for its first conference title since 2004 last fall. The Mean Green had the nation’s leading active passer in Mason Fine returning to lead a team that was picked to win C-USA’s West Division in the league’s preseason poll.
UNT fell short of expectations and vowed it wouldn’t suffer a repeat in 2020. The Mean Green can sense the results of that commitment taking root.
“Our chemistry is better with more guys stepping up, speaking up and leading as opposed to one voice speaking for everyone,” senior linebacker Tyreke Davis said. “Everyone looked to Mason for answers. He was a great leader, but we needed more guys to step up on and off the field. We have more guys with more influence now. That will help us.”
UNT is hoping the staff changes Littrell made will help as much as a revamped leadership dynamic among its players.
Littrell fired defensive coordinator Troy Reffett and offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder at the end of last season after consulting with a host of mentors, including former Oklahoma offensive coordinator and Kansas coach Mark Mangino. Special teams coordinator Marty Biagi left for Purdue. Defensive line coach Marc Yellock and offensive line coach Chuck Langston also left the program. Littrell has been friends with Langston dating back to his days as a player at Oklahoma.
Making those changes were not easy for Littrell, but they allowed him to bring in a host of veteran assistants, including Bowen. Their relationship dates to the early 2000s, when Littrell began his college coaching career as a graduate assistant at Kansas. Bowen was a Jayhawks assistant at the time.
Bowen was drawn to UNT by the culture Littrell has looked to strengthen since the end of last season.
“Coach Littrell has done a great job of developing a culture,” Bowen said. “Our guys show up on time, ready to go, are smart, listen and work hard. People don’t understand how important that is.”
Bowen has a long track record as a coordinator and has a simple philosophy. He’ll adapt his scheme to feature UNT’s best players from year to year.
Those players have quickly adapted to Bowen’s approach.
“I love the defense and the energy coach Bowen brings,” linebacker KD Davis said. “He makes sure you know what you are doing. The defense isn’t complicated. It’s something simple that will get the job done.”
Littrell elected to make significant changes on offense as well and part ways with Reeder after just one season, despite the fact UNT averaged 30.6 points per game last fall.
This season will be the first Littrell starts out calling plays since 2015, when he was the offensive coordinator at North Carolina. Littrell spent most of his coaching career as an offensive coordinator before landing his first job as a head coach at UNT.
“I’m absolutely looking forward to it,” Littrell said of calling plays. “I’ve missed it.”
UNT will soon find out if Littrell’s offseason overhaul will help the Mean Green put a tough season in the past. Littrell is close with Fine and some of the other seniors from last year’s team who were members of his first UNT recruiting class.
Littrell wanted to send that group out on a high note.
A tough season sent him on a quest to remake UNT’s program instead. The Mean Green will soon find out just how successful that process was.
“It’s not easy when you have to look yourself in the mirror,” Littrell said. “Part of being in a leadership position is making sure that you are going to first and foremost check yourself and figure out the best ways that you can fix things that you need to fix and then be able to have open, real conversations with coaches and players. That is the only way any of us get any better.”