Mac Engel

Harrell departure telling of how far UNT has come and the headaches it must endure

Former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell, who served as the North Texas offensive coordinator since 2016, was hired late Monday by Southern Cal for the same position.
Former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell, who served as the North Texas offensive coordinator since 2016, was hired late Monday by Southern Cal for the same position. kbouaphanh@star-telegram.com

North Texas has a major problem of its own making, and is now eyeballs deep in a “crisis” it only wants.

Once an athletic department that could not find, or attract, a good coach, UNT is finally in a position to fight off suitors from the outside from raiding its staff directory.

This is what happens when you win on the non-Power 5 level, when finding a good coach is not nearly as difficult as keeping them.

There is not a single non Power 5 athletic director who does not want UNT’s “problems.”

After three straight bowl invites, UNT was able to retain football coach Seth Littrell this offseason but just lost offensive coordinator Graham Harrell to USC.

Indirectly, UNT can “thank” the Arizona Cardinals for losing Harrell. The Cardinals’ hiring of former USC offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, who was on the job for about a month, created a vacancy that it filled with Harrell.

Harrell interviewed with USC coach Clay Helton over the weekend in Los Angeles, and returned to Denton on Monday night to talk about it with Littrell.

Harrell, 33, turned down an offer to join Mack Brown’s staff at North Carolina earlier this offseason, and passed on even talking to Florida State head coach Willie Taggart about joining his team.

Saying no to USC, however, was a no.

There was some hope at UNT that Harrell might pass on USC’s offer, but he had to take it. He agreed to leave for USC late Monday evening.

Passing on one promotion in an offseason is dicey. Two is a risk. A third is dangerous to a career.

As loyal and committed as he was to UNT, and specifically quarterback Mason Fine, Harrell had to accept an offer that simply may not be there again.

He goes to a team that is the class, or should be, of what is the weakest of the Power 5 conferences, the Pac-12.

He will join a team that was one of the worst offenses in the Pac-12 last season, and specifically a head coach in Clay Helton who’s desperate need of help. And points.

Helton is one of the least secure big-program coaches in America, who can’t feel safe that former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer wants to spend more time with his family.

Harrell leaves a program, which was once one of the worst in football, that is now firmly established as one of the “big” mid-majors in America.

UNT won nine games in each of the last two seasons, including a win at Arkansas last season, and just barely kept Littrell from leaving in the offseason for Kansas State.

Another good season, and no one at UNT expects Littrell to stay for 2020. The hope in Denton is Littrell will only leave not for just a Power 5 job, but rather the “right” Power 5 job.

The same thing is going on “down the hall” with the men’s basketball team under second-year coach Grant McCasland. The former Baylor assistant is climbing those “Hot Young Coaches” lists that major schools will lean on when searching for a replacement.

The Mean Green are 18-3 and in first place in Conference USA. They also received 10 votes in the latest coaches poll.

If the Mean Green reach the NCAA Tournament, McCasland is not necessarily out the door, but there will be knocks on it.

This is a headache, and this is what UNT wants.

The school invested heavily in athletics, and that cash commitment is finally paying off with the dividends it sought: Applications and enrollment are up, the revenue sports are winning.

Now, the other side of that equation: Coaches who leave.

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Mac Engel is an award-winning columnist who has extensive experience covering Fort Worth-Dallas area sports for 20 years. He has covered high schools, colleges, all four major sports teams as well as Olympic games and the world of entertainment, too. He combines dry wit with first-person reporting to complement a head of hair that is almost unfair.


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