Mike Petersen acknowledged that some might view his latest career move as a bit odd Monday, when he was introduced at Apogee Stadium as the new head women’s basketball coach at North Texas.
It’s not every day that a coach leaves a school like Wake Forest in the Atlantic Coast Conference to take over a struggling program like North Texas in a lower-level league like the Sun Belt.
That is just what the winningest coach in Demon Deacons history agreed to do, largely because of the potential he believes UNT has — and because he loves a challenge.
“One of the things about putting a program together is it’s like a big jigsaw puzzle,” Petersen said. “If you have never put a jigsaw puzzle together and don’t know what the picture looks like, it’s really hard. You don’t have any idea what the picture is. This will be my fifth head coaching job. The four previous jobs I have had I assembled that jigsaw puzzle. When I look at North Texas, I see all the things you need. I see the right picture to have a really, really good women’s basketball program.”
UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal named Petersen’s vision, not to mention a track record for turning around programs, as one of the reasons he pursued a coach who appeared to be a less-than-likely candidate to take over the Mean Green due to his impressive resume.
Petersen led Wake Forest to its first winning season in 14 years in his first year at the school in 2004-05 and guided a New Mexico team with no returning starters to a 17-11 finish in 1992-93, his debut season at the school.
And those two seasons might not have been his best when it comes to pulling programs out of a ditch.
TCU went 2-25 before Petersen arrived in 1996-97 and went 13-14 in his first season with Villarreal, who was then working in the school’s administration, watching from the stands.
“I watched the team the year before he got there and it wasn’t the prettiest thing,” Villarreal said. “To watch the change in the program and how hard the girls played — it was really fun to watch.”
Villarreal keeps a list of potential head coaches in his back pocket for every program on campus. Petersen was on his list for the women’s basketball program ever since he put it together a year ago after he hired Karen Aston.
The question was whether or not Petersen would be interested in taking on a challenge at UNT when Aston left for Texas after only one season.
Wake Forest finished 20-14 and advanced to the second round of the WNIT last season, when Petersen became the school’s all-time winningest coach with a 125-123 record. The Demon Deacons had won 20 games in a season only one other time in school history.
“Mike had been on my list,” Villarreal said. “Whether or not he would leave Wake Forest is a tough question, but you are not going to find out unless you ask.”
The more Petersen pondered the question, the more he liked the idea of coaching the Mean Green, especially after asking his wife what she thought.
“Patty looked right at me and said, ‘You fix programs. You need to go fix yourself another program,’” Petersen said. “My track record is that I have gone into places that are not winning and during my stay at those places, we have won at a significantly higher rate than the historical average.”
Petersen was quick to point out that UNT’s program isn’t broken, not after Aston led the Mean Green to a 15-16 finish with wins over Alabama, SMU and Oregon State last season.
But there is little doubt that UNT will have some adjustments to make following another coaching change. Some of UNT’s older players will play for their third head coach in three years — Shanice Stephens, Aston and Petersen — next season.
“It was hard, especially this year because coach Karen did so much for us and we had a close bond with her,” UNT guard Laura McCoy said of the constant turnover. “It was the right move for her. We will keep moving in the right direction.”
That is what Petersen, who has a 313-250 record in 19 seasons, has done with struggling programs throughout his coaching career.
Petersen has never left a job as a head coach following a losing season. In 1996, he left NMSU after a 20-win season to take over a struggling TCU program.
He left another 20-game winner Monday to come to Denton.
Petersen pointed out that he was leaving behind a class of seniors at Wake Forest that set the school record for wins in a career with 72 and said he is proud of what he built at the school.
The opportunity to take on another project program at UNT was just too good of an opportunity to pass up, even though the career move was a bit unconventional.
“This first thing is I’m not afraid of it,” Petersen said of what has helped him rebuild programs. “You can’t turn something around if you don’t go try. I have had good enough luck to turn around everyone I have tried.
“I haven’t had a misfire yet.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
MIKE PETERSEN — THE REBUILDING YEARS
The following is a look at the turnarounds new North Texas women’s basketball coach Mike Petersen has posted during his career:
New Mexico State
Petersen took a team that had averaged 15 wins in the two seasons prior to his arrival to a 24-8 finish in his second season at the school, the first of three straight 20-win campaigns. NMSU won 17 games his first year despite not having any returning starters.
The Horned Frogs went 2-25 the year before Petersen arrived before the 1996-97 season. TCU went 13-14 in Petersen’s first season and set a school record for wins. The Horned Frogs posted the first winning season in school history in Petersen’s third year.
The Demon Deacons finished 17-15 and played in the WNIT in Petersen’s first season, after finishing 12-17 the previous year. Petersen went on to finish with seasons of 18, 19 and 20 wins. Wake Forest’s 20-14 finish last year was the second 20-win season in school history.