North Texas football coach Dan McCarney knew for months that there was a good chance his longtime friend and assistant coach Mike Nelson would make the 2013 season his last in an illustrious coaching career.
Seeing Nelson head out following a bowl win made ushering Nelson off into retirement all the more rewarding for McCarney, who confirmed Tuesday that his defensive line coach is leaving the program.
Nelson’s last game was UNT’s 36-14 win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
“What a way to go out,” McCarney said. “We were nationally ranked this season in so many categories defensively and won a bowl game. We will miss him.”
Nelson came to UNT in 2009 under former coach Todd Dodge and stayed on staff when McCarney took over following the 2010 campaign.
The former Dayton football and hockey player was known at UNT for his boundless energy and for riding his motorcycle to work every day.
Nelson worked his way up through the coaching profession and built an impressive list of stops, including 13 colleges and two Canadian Football League franchises — the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Edmonton Eskimos.
Nelson’s college stops included Stanford, Wisconsin and Virginia.
Nelson’s final year at UNT was arguably one of his best during his time with the Mean Green. UNT entered the season with a host of questions along its defensive front due to injuries and the loss of starting defensive end K.C. Obi, who led the Mean Green in sacks and tackles for loss in 2012.
Nelson helped rebuild a defensive front that became a team strength. UNT tied for seventh nationally with an average of 3.0 sacks per game and was eighth in scoring defense at 17.8 points allowed per game.
Senior defensive end Aaron Bellazin posted nine sacks and 12 1/2 tackles for loss on the season and was a second-team All-Conference USA selection.
The Mean Green recorded five sacks in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
“It will be hard to replace his energy,” McCarney said.
UNT has begun looking for a coach to fill the void. McCarney and several members of his staff are at the American Football Coaches Association meetings this week in Indianapolis.
McCarney keeps a list of coaches he would be interested in interviewing for spots on his staff and has determined a list of finalists. Interest in the position is extremely high, McCarney said.
Nelson’s departure comes at a key time in the offseason and leaves McCarney and his staff with some challenges. National signing day is Feb. 5.
Nelson was active in recruiting for UNT. McCarney said he and defensive coordinator John Skladany would fill in for Nelson and stay in contact with the players he was recruiting.
“We will try to get it done fast,” McCarney said of hiring a new coach. “The sooner we can get it done, the better.”
UNT after first C-USA win
UNT didn’t exactly have a chance to ease into its first C-USA season.
The Mean Green was shipped to Middle Tennessee — which is just outside of the Top 25 — to start league play and then traveled to Charlotte, a team that has been to the postseason 11 straight years.
UNT (6-9) dropped both games but feels like it has a lot of positives to build from heading into a game tonight against Marshall (7-8). Perhaps the biggest is that the Mean Green will be at the Super Pit.
“It always helps to be back home — good trip, bad trip, it doesn’t matter,” UNT coach Mike Petersen said. “Everyone likes to be at home. We left Charlotte feeling reasonable about how we played. We weren’t happy that we didn’t win, but we had a positive film session the other day. We looked at all the good stuff we did.”
Petersen was particularly pleased with the effort UNT gave in charging back from a 16-point deficit to pull within two in the closing seconds at Charlotte. Freshman point guard Candice Adams had a layup that would have tied the game roll out in the final seconds as UNT lost 61-59.
That game marked a dramatic turnaround from the first game of the trip, when MTSU hammered UNT 86-42.
“We learned from that road trip,” UNT forward Ash’Lynne Evans said. “We learned that we have to play harder on the road, especially against teams of that caliber.”
Marshall is in a similar spot as UNT heads into tonight’s game after dropping its first two games in C-USA play.
Junior guard Leah Scott is averaging 12.1 points for Marshall.
“They are really athletic and want to drive and score,” Petersen said. “They want to be up-tempo and be fast.”
Junior forward Briesha Wynn leads UNT with an average of 10.0 points per game.
“Hopefully we will get these two,” UNT guard Hannah Christian said. “That would give us some confidence for the rest of conference play.”