Football

North Texas coach wins over players, wins on field in first year

In his first season in Denton, coach Seth Littrell has led North Texas to the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
In his first season in Denton, coach Seth Littrell has led North Texas to the Heart of Dallas Bowl. AP

North Texas coach Seth Littrell’s first priority in Denton was a task equivalent to that of the gentlemen in black suit and tie on bicycles going door to door with a Bible.

Littrell didn’t just need his senior class to follow, he also needed faithful followers.

He needed converts. He needed believers.

“I think the biggest thing was trying to [convey] what our core values were, who we’re going to be as a football team and implementing those standards,” said Littrell, who has been on the job since Dec. 7, 2015. “I was sensitive to where [the seniors] were. At the end of the day, you have to build relationships with those kids. Try to get them to trust you.

“I told them I wasn’t going to go out and get my own guys. ‘No, you are my guys now. As long as you’re part of this program, you’re my guys. We’re going to go out and compete and compete hard together.’ 

Tuesday’s appearance in the Heart of Dallas Bowl against Army (7-5) at Dallas’ Cotton Bowl is the result of a senior class that became faithful followers and leaders of a new way.

I told them I wasn’t going to go out and get my own guys. ‘No, you are my guys now. As long as you’re part of this program, you’re my guys.’

North Texas coach Seth Littrell

Make no mistake, the bowl appearance doesn’t represent a complete turnabout. The Mean Green (5-7) backed in to this opportunity after falling a win short of the mandatory six-victory bowl-eligibility plateau. North Texas is here on the basis of its high-ranking academic progress rate after other conferences couldn’t fulfill their bowl tie-in obligations.

However, there can be no doubting the achievement.

At 1-11 a year ago, if North Texas wasn’t the worst team in FBS, it was living on that side of the tracks. Many considered leaving the program through a transfer while others thought about quitting altogether.

Senior Kenny Buyers, who didn’t even play last year because of back surgery, called it the lowest point of his life in competitive sports, the lowest of the lows a blowout loss to FCS Portland State. Coach Dan McCarney was fired immediately afterward.

It was kind of surprising for a guy to come in like that, especially after a 1-11 season, to have that kind of confidence in us. We’ve been excited with the things he’s done with the program.

UNT linebacker Fred Scott on coach Seth Littrell

Littrell told his incoming senior class, linebacker Fred Scott said, in that first meeting that, yes, the future is a priority, but that he wasn’t waiting until his recruiting classes took hold two and three years down the road. The new coach was here to win now, and “it would be on us … our responsibility to lead it.”

“He’s leaned on us and I think we’ve responded,” said Scott, a senior from Kennedale. “It was kind of surprising for a guy to come in like that, especially after a 1-11 season, to have that kind of confidence in us. We’ve been excited with the things he’s done with the program. We’ve been excited to come to practice, to wear the uniform and green and white around campus. We didn’t have that last year. It was embarrassing.”

This senior class has seen the glorious highs and lows. Scott and Buyers, a product of Hurst L.D. Bell, both played on the victorious Heart of Dallas Mean Green team of the 2013 season. Buyers, then a cornerback, had an interception in the game. Wanting and needing Buyers’ speed and athleticism on the offensive side of the ball, Littrell moved him to receiver this season.

The Heart of Dallas Bowl in 2013 and 2016 is like two lifetimes ago. Most of the 40 true and redshirt freshmen on the roster were on their high school junior varsity teams.

“I wasn’t here and I wasn’t a part of that. I don’t think it would be fair to address” the team of a year ago, Littrell said. “What I do like about this group is they bought in and built great relationships.

“And they probably got to this point a little quicker than I thought possible.”

North Texas (5-7) vs. Army (7-5)

11 a.m. Tuesday, Cotton Bowl, Dallas

TV: ESPN

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