Seth Littrell, North Texas’ first-year head coach, has built an impressive track record as an offensive strategist, one achieved by doing things much differently than the Mean Green have done in recent years.
But one of Littrell’s first points of order after being hired in December was to let his new team know that while things are certainly changing within the program, he believed in the players he was inheriting and was intent on helping them contribute to the new way of business.
That was a lesson Littrell took from Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops as a fullback for the Sooners from 1998-01.
“It’s funny how life works. When I came and took this job I had been in a very similar situation, so I related very well to (the players),” Littrell said this week. “When Coach Stoops took over in 1999, that was my junior season. Just the relationships I had with the staff previous to him coming in … when they left I remember how that felt when a new coach is coming in. I didn’t really know what was going to happen, what is the culture going to be, and (I remember) just the great job he did during that transition with our football team. …
“The one thing that he always did is it wasn’t like he was saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to go out and we’re going to find all these different guys to recruit and I want my guys here.’ He said, ‘You’re our guys. This team is my team, and it doesn’t matter if I’m recruiting you or not, I’m going to come in here, we’re going to work extremely hard and we’re going to win with this group right here.'”
As the story turned out, the Sooners won the national championship in Stoops’ second season there in 2000.
Littrell, meanwhile, is simply trying to elevate a North Texas program that went 1-11 last year and 4-8 the previous season while struggling since its move to Conference USA.
Littrell spent the last two years as the offensive coordinator at North Carolina, guiding a Tar Heels attack that set school records for points and touchdowns in a season last fall. Before that, he served as the offensive coordinator at Indiana and Arizona. His 2013 Hoosiers team averaged 508.5 yards per game to rank among the national leaders, and his Arizona offenses were prolific as well.
“Obviously looking back at the schools he was coming from, everybody was excited. He’s an exciting guy,” North Texas junior running back Jeffrey Wilson said in a phone interview this week.
At 38 years old, Littrell is the fifth-youngest head coach at the FBS level this fall.
With his roots in Oklahoma and the connections he formed as an assistant coach on Mike Leach’s Texas Tech staff from 2005-08, he felt the North Texas job was the right move with his stock in the profession at an all-time high after last season.
He brought on former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell as his offensive coordinator and believes the Mean Green can tap into the state’s recruiting hotbed and elevate the program.
“The first thing is I’m from this area,” Littrell said. “Being 3.5 hours away from home, being in this area coaching and playing two hours up the road at Oklahoma and taking my first coaching job at Texas Tech, I’ve been in this area a long time and I have a lot of relationships. …
“You’ve got some of the best recruiting grounds in the country, some of the best high school coaching in the country. We just need to get some of those guys to stay home and help us compete for championships.”
That will take time.
As for a more immediate impact, Littrell is trying to reshape the offense in the mold of what has worked so well for him throughout his climb up the coaching ladder.
After the Mean Green leaned on a ground-and-pound attack in recent years under former Iowa State head coach (and former Florida assistant) Dan McCarney, Littrell wants to play with an up-tempo offensive style at North Texas.
He knows that will take some time, as well.
“The tempo hasn’t been as good, and some of that is not pressing it as much either,” Littrell said. “It’s a new system. Guys have to get comfortable in the system, just knowing all the ins and outs of it. It’s trying not to put too much on their plate. We have gone some tempo … but right now it’s about execution, knowing your job and overall just managing the game.”
Said Wilson: “It’s the part of perfecting every play, and (Littrell’s approach is) you have to perfect one play before moving on, rather than cram you with a bunch of stuff you don’t have a grasp on. I love his method.”
After opening the season with a 34-21 loss to SMU, the Mean Green enjoyed a 41-20 win last week over FCS foe Bethune-Cookman.
Littrell chose to have true freshman quarterback Mason Fine replace season-opening starter Alec Morris, a graduate transfer from Alabama, and Fine completed 11-of-22 passes for 108 yards while rushing 8 times for 46 yards. Overall, the Mean Green piled up 329 rushing yards.
Fine adds a multi-dimensional element to the offense while Wilson has rushed for 171 yards and 3 touchdowns through two games.
North Texas figures to only get better as they install more of Littrell’s system and as he advances the program’s recruiting efforts, but none of that will help Saturday night in The Swamp.
Wilson said the players’ approach is “it’s just like any other week.” Except it’s most definitely not.
Florida has given up all of 14 points through the first two weeks and may have one of the best defenses in the country. That’s a daunting matchup for any team, let alone one still learning a new offense and playing with a true freshman quarterback.
Having played on some of college football’s biggest stages himself, Littrell hopes his players can enjoy the experience and learn something along the way.
“It’s a great opportunity to come to The Swamp, a place that every single one of our guys have always watched on TV and have always dreamed about going to play a quality opponent like Florida,” he said. “… I want to see our guys go out and compete. I want our guys to realize what an unbelievable opportunity it is to go on the road and play in a venue like that. At the end of the day, it’s still football. It’s still 11 on 11. … It ought to bring out the best in you.”