Thursday, November 16, 2006

Mattress Mac lashes out at UNT administration

I've been periodically providing updates about my other favorite college football team, the University of North Texas. The Mean Green Eagles are not having such a good time right now; the team has a 3-7 record and is headed towards their second consecutive losing season. Last week, the UNT administration decided that it was time for a change at the helm and fired head coach Darrell Dickey. Dickey will coach out the remainder of the season. Dickey was UNT's head coach for nine years; the Mean Green's record over those nine seasons is 42-62.

News of the firing did not sit well with Houston furniture mogul Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale. McIngvale, an alumnus of the University of North Texas and a personal friend of Dickey, even took out a full-page ad (click here to see it in .pdf form) in the Denton Record-Chronicle to protest the firing. In the ad, which is an open letter to the UNT administration, McIngvale asks that UNT's football practice field, which was named after him when he donated one million dollars to the school for construction of a new athletics facility a few years ago, be re-named after Darrell Dickey instead. If not, McIngvale demands that his donation be transferred to the school's famous One O'Clock Lab Band.

In his ad, McIngvale argues that Dickey should not have been fired because he led the Mean Green to four consecutive appearances in the New Orleans Bowl, which he claims is a "a feat which is nearly unparalleled in college football." (One wonders what Mattress Mac would say, then, about Michigan's record of 31 [and counting] bowl appearances, all of which in games much more prestigious than the New Orleans Bowl.) McIngvale lauds Dickey's leadership of the team following the tragic death of quarterback Andrew Smith two years ago as well as his loyalty and support for the University of North Texas, and declares that "UNT will not find a better coach for the price they were paying, period." He continues:
I teach my children that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear — Darrell often did — four bowl games on a pauper’s, not a prince’s budget. He should be recognized as such and should have been given a fair chance to turn around the team he loves so much.
Whether Dickey should have been fired, now, only two years removed from his last bowl appearance, is certainly a subject of legitimate debate. However, McIngvale's implication that Dickey's four consecutive bowl appearances constitute some sort of amazing feat, given UNT's meager resources, is slightly overblown. While the Mean Green did indeed win the Sun Belt Conference and go to the New Orleans Bowl four years in a row from the 2001 season through the 2004 season, it also needs to be pointed out that:
  • the Sun Belt is by far the weakest conference in Division I-A;
  • in spite of the fact that they dominated the Sun Belt, UNT's out-of-conference record during those four seasons was an abysmal 3-18 (with one of the three wins coming against a I-AA school);
  • these out-of-conference losses were not all "body bag" games for big paychecks against powerhouses like Texas, Oklahoma or Arkansas (as McIngvale suggests); UNT lost a considerable number of out-of-conference games to "lesser" programs such as Florida Atlantic (before they joined the Sun Belt), Baylor, Air Force and South Florida as well; and
  • the Eagles lost the New Orleans Bowl in three out if its four appearances there (Lori and I were at the Superdome for UNT's lone victory in 2002 against Cincinnati).
So, while it's true that the North Texas program did experience a level of success that it hadn't seen since the Hayden Fry days of the 1970s, it's equally true that the program was never mistaken for a national powerhouse during those four seasons. Dickey, furthermore, was never able to use the success he had in the Sun Belt Conference to take his team to the next level, i.e. winning out-of-conference games and making appearances in top 25 rankings. The last two years, in fact, were a step backwards for the program, and UNT's administration simply felt that it was time for a change to be made.

You would think that McIngvale, as a businessman, would understand this "produce-or-get-fired" concept; Dickey stopped producing and now he's out of a job. However, Mattress Mac instead blames the program's recent downturn on the untimely loss of Andrew Smith. This is a peculiar scapegoat. Smith's car crash occurred right before the start of the 2004 season, in which the Mean Green had a winning season and made their fourth bowl appearance. That would suggest that the team regrouped from the emotional devastation of losing a fellow player to have a reasonably successful year. Why would the emotional trauma of this loss not manifest itself until the 2005 season?

Even more peculiar is McIngvale's demand that his one million dollar donation to the athletics program be transferred to the One O'Clock Lab Band if the practice field is not re-named in Dickey's honor. This donation was made in the summer of 2004 and was intended for construction of a new athletics center; this facility is now complete so it can be assumed that McIngvale's donation has been spent. It would be difficult for North Texas to transfer one million dollars from the athletics department to the music department if said money no longer exists. Furthermore, McIngvale's demands regarding the use of his two-year-old donation imply that such gifts somehow have "strings" permanently attached to them. While it is logical to assume that big-dollar boosters (such as McIngvale) expect influence and access in return for their generousity, there's something about his demands that go against the basic premise of charitable giving: his money was a gift to UNT. Once you give something away, it's not yours anymore.

One point McIngvale raises that is legitimate is the relatively low funding level for UNT football. Mattress Mac correctly argues that head coaches at UNT make less than assistant coaches as powerhouse schools and notes:

Albert Einstein’s definition of Insanity: Keep on doing what you’ve always done and expect different results. If the football budget isn’t raised considerably – the results will never get better.

Interestingly enough, USA Today just released a comparison of compensation packages for all but a handful of Division I-A's 119 head coaches. Dickey's total compensation package (salary plus incentives) of $266,625 falls towards the bottom of the list, a far cry from the $3,450,000 package received by Bob Stoops or the $2,840,000 earned by Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. Perhaps, as Mattress Mac suggests, the Eagles would see better on-field performance if they were able to afford a more talented and experience coaching staff than the one they currently possess. Of course, for a program that plays in the low-profile Sun Belt and only averaged 16.4 thousand fans per game in 2005, finding the money to raise the football program's budget will be something of a task.

While UNT's decision to fire Darrell Dickey can be debated, Mattress Mac's decision to place a full-page ad in the local newspaper, publicly denouncing the UNT administration and placing conditions upon his donation to the school, is disappointing. It reveals a sense of narcissistic arrogance and entitlement on his part. "Look at me," McIngvale screams. "I'm a big donor with influence, and if the UNT makes a decision I don't agree with I'll throw a temper tantrum!" It also indicates that McIngvale is more concerned about Darrell Dickey as a person than he is about UNT football as a program.

This afternoon, UNT officials announced that they would honor McIngvale's demand.

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