Monday, July 23, 2007

Dodgeball time in Denton

There's a good write-up about new University of North Texas head football coach Todd Dodge on right now. It includes this frightening tidbit about his past, which I did not know before I read the article:
In the spring of 1987 the former standout University of Texas quarterback was working for an electric company in Austin while he finished coursework at the university. During routine service, he touched an industrial meter that blew up, propelling Dodge a dozen feet away.

When he regained consciousness, Dodge, who'd been a record-setting passer at Jefferson High in Port Arthur, Texas, and who wanted to coach, worried about his future because he was supposed to start an assistant coaching job that fall.

"The skin was dripping off my hands," he said, tracing the faded scars as he sat in his UNT office on a recent morning. "I thought to myself, 'I'm not on fire, but I'm smoldering.' That ordeal made me a tougher man."

Doctors told Dodge, who also suffered burns on his face and neck, that he might lose his fingers. But he defied their prediction. He wore special gloves as his skin healed, gave self-pity the cold shoulder, showed up for work in the fall season and eventually became a coach who electrified the atmosphere for players, fans and communities. His (high school football powerhouse Southlake) Carroll teams won four Class 5A state titles.

The adversity that Todd Dodge will face in rebuilding a struggling program in major college football's worst conference might not be as severe as the adversity he faced following his accident. But it's no stretch to say that Dodge still has his work cut out for him. Few national observers expect great thinks from North Texas this fall; the football prediction website, whose Congrove Computer Rankings system has accurately predicted the Mean Green's final record six out of the last twelve seasons (and come within a single game on three other occasions), foresees an abysmal 2-10 fall campaign for UNT. The preseason magazines aren't showing much love for North Texas, either: Athlon and Lindy expect the Eagles to finish seventh in the eight-team Sun Belt, and Phil Steele and Street & Smith foresee UNT finishing at the very bottom. Even his fellow Sun Belt coaches aren't expecting much; at the annual Sun Belt media gathering, North Texas was picked to finish seventh out of eight teams. Brutal out-of-conference games at Oklahoma and Arkansas are not exactly going to be helpful, either.

However, Dodge's arrival in Denton is already paying dividends, His decision to leave Southlake Carroll, where his phenomenal success included a 79-1 record over the last five seasons, to take the reigns at North Texas created a great deal of buzz in a Metroplex that generally pays little attention to its local college football teams. Dodge's plans to reinvigorate a North Texas football program that once won four straight Sun Belt Conference titles but has since fallen on hard times by abandoning previous coach Darrell Dickey's ground-based offense for a more open "spread" offense have also created excitement. The reaction from the North Texas faithful is overwhelming. Football season ticket sales have increased a whopping 40.5%; contributions to the Mean Green Club, a fundraising and booster organization, rose by over 24 percent. And other famous Texas coaches have also voiced their support:
"If you were gauging deals in Texas, North Texas made the best deal," says former (University of Texas) Longhorns coach Fred Akers, who coached Dodge at Texas. "I think Todd Dodge, with his charisma, is going to be exactly what they need."
There's no question that Todd Dodge knows football. He played at both the high school and college levels before becoming a legend at Southlake Carroll. But transitions from the high school level to the college level are not always easy. Art Briles, a former head coach at Class 3A powerhouse Stephenville, seems to be doing well here at the University of Houston. But the transition doesn't always work out well; the article recounts the story of Gerry Faust, a celebrated high school coach whose transition to the helm at Notre Dame ended ingloriously five years later with a 30-26-1 record. It remains to be seen just how successful Dodge will be at this level. And, given the current state of disarray at North Texas, it's probably too much to expect a momentous turnaround to occur in 2007.

But Dodge's hiring has already given North Texas one thing it desperately needs: hope. It's clear that the fans are buying into the Dodgeball era at North Texas. The players are, as well.
"He wants the best out of all of us," (running back Jamario) Thomas says. "I just can't wait to see what happens."
This, incidentally, is not Todd Dodge's first stint at the University of North Texas. He was UNT's passing game coordinator in 1992 and 1993.

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