Mike Petersen has just finished talking about his team on a weekday afternoon in his office at the Super Pit. He has run through his depth chart that’s spelled on a white erase board on the wall and detailed the challenges he faces at North Texas, which has changed women’s basketball coaches in recent years like other teams change their socks.
The former Wake Forest head coach came to North Texas to turn around a program that has suffered through six straight losing seasons and will have its third coach in three years when the Mean Green tips off its season tonight at home against Texas State.
That team is his focus, his mission.
Now that he’s run through the challenges and faces and the assets at his disposal, he’s ready to talk about his other team — the one in which he considers himself just another cog in a big, wonderful machine like so many others he’s been a part of over the years.
There’s Dan McCarney, UNT’s head football coach, and Tony Benford, his neighbor in the offices at the Super Pit who coaches the men’s basketball team.
There’s the athletic department staff, the guys who play on the football team and even all the girls who play on the soccer team.
To Petersen, the athletic department is his team beyond his team, a place where he can do everything from support UNT as a whole to feed his passion of studying the art of coaching.
“One of the cool things about having the job that I have, and I’ve had this job my whole adult life, is that you always have a team to root for,” Petersen said. “To me this athletic department is like one big team. Why not root for them?”
That’s just what Petersen does, showing up at everything from the football games that put thousands into the stands to coming to see the swimming team compete.
Everywhere he’s coached, Petersen has set the goal of seeing every athlete on campus compete each year.
Petersen says it’s a point of pride for him — always has been, always will be.
“You see those kids all the time in the weight room and in the training room,” Petersen said. “It’s fun to know who they are, what their story is and what they do. I enjoy it and like watching people compete.”
For Petersen, it’s like going to coaching school on a regular basis.
Petersen credits days spent watching coaches coach and players play in just about every sport one could imagine — often dragging his wife, Patty, along with him — for helping him develop an approach that has helped him become something of a Mr. Fix It in the world of women’s college basketball.
When TCU needed a coach to fix its program that had never had a winning season and had gone 3-52 in its last two seasons, the school called Petersen.
He won 13 games his first year with the Frogs.
When Wake Forest was mired in the midst of a run of 12 straight losing seasons, it turned to Petersen.
The Demon Deacons won 17 games and played in the WNIT right off the bat.
The story was pretty much the same at New Mexico State and Gonzaga.
So what’s the secret?
Petersen says it all goes back to what he’s learned watching all those games and practices — it’s about building relationships and getting the most out of players.
“That’s one of Mike’s strengths, communicating with kids,” said Steve Shutt, an administrator at Wake Forest who also worked with Petersen at New Mexico State. “He has a great mix of humor and seriousness and is able to communicate with his players and get them to buy in.”
Bridging the gap
It’s the lack of whistles, raised voices and the general calm that jumps out these days when one watches UNT practice.
The atmosphere is different.
Petersen knows coaches who do a lot of yelling and intimidate players. It’s just not his style.
“I think it’s fake,” Petersen said. “That’s not my personality. I want the players to play hard for me. I want them to play hard for our program. I want them to play hard for their teammates, but I want them to do it because it’s the right thing to do. I want them to do that because we have a great relationship and we have invested in one another.”
Petersen has been investing since he took over the program.
That’s what Petersen does, and he knew it would be particularly important when he took over a program where stability has been a foreign concept the past few years.
Shanice Stephens coached the Mean Green for three seasons before being fired and giving way to Karen Aston, a former UNT assistant who left her first job as a head coach at Charlotte to return to Denton. Aston stayed only one year before Texas called and offered her the dream scenario — taking over the Longhorns program, where she also worked as an assistant.
When Aston left, UNT was in the market for a coach again and turned to Petersen.
For some of the Mean Green’s veteran players, Petersen is the third coach they have worked with so far their college careers.
“When he first got here he asked about us and said he wanted to get to know us,” senior forward Sara Stanley said. “That’s important with any coach. You want to be able to trust them and know they trust you.”
Stanley and UNT’s veterans were used to Aston’s coaching style, which was a little more intense. UNT’s players bought into Aston’s approach, one that paid immediate dividends last year when the Mean Green won 10 more games than the previous year, but have also come to appreciate Petersen.
“He’s very positive and patient with people,” said Laura McCoy, a junior who is adjusting to playing for her third head coach. “When you start to get frustrated with yourself, he can tell and will come talk to you, help you understand what he wants and gets you through it.”
UNT has had a ton to get through while making the adjustment to Petersen’s up-tempo style, one he has fine-tuned through decades in the game.
Rising through the ranks
Duane Cox didn’t even bother jumping up off the bench to yank one of his star players who broke a team rule from a game during his tenure at Northwest Christian University in Eugene, Ore., during the late 1970s.
Petersen headed straight for the bench.
“It may sound crazy now, but we would always miss it when we tried to dunk,” Cox said. “We were a small school and didn’t have a lot of guys who were 6-10. I made a rule that we couldn’t dunk unless we were up 10. We were down 10 in the first half and Mike stole the ball, went straight down the court and stuffed it. He came to the bench with a big old smile on his face.
“That was OK because the dunk sparked us. We won by 10.”
Petersen threw his share of dunks down during his playing career. He was a team captain at College of the Redwoods in California in the 1977-78 season and scored 413 points in two years in junior college.
Petersen then played two years at Northwest Christian.
Even then, Cox figured Petersen would end up in coaching. Petersen was picking up everything he could by watching his head coach and everyone else around him.
“He would question things,” Cox said. “We would be sitting in the locker room and he would say, ‘Well, coach, I think we can do this or that.’”
Dave Lipp was one of Cox’s assistants at Northwest and eventually took over for him. Lipp gave Petersen his first job in coaching at his alma mater.
Lipp put Petersen in charge of coaching his team’s defense and saw him develop a trait he sees in all good coaches.
“John Wooden would have clinics and lay out his entire offense,” Lipp said. “He would finish up and people would ask what else there was. There wasn’t anything else. They just ran it better. That’s what Mike does. He coaches his players to do things better.”
Finding a way to improve
Lipp comes in every year to see Petersen’s teams play and offers him advice.
Having his old mentor take a look at his team every year is just another way Petersen goes about turning over every rock in search of a way to make his team better.
He’s already made the rounds at UNT.
“Mike’s great that way,” McCarney said. “He loves being around coaches. Whatever the sport, you love to listen to coaches coach and watch players practice. He’s come to me and said he has liked something I said or the way I did something. He’s a sponge.”
Everything Petersen has soaked up over the years tells him that he made the right decision to leave Wake Forest to try to revive the program at UNT.
Petersen says the school has all the assets necessary to have a big-time women’s basketball program, including being a large university with a strong academic reputation, having great facilities and a fertile local recruiting base.
Petersen knows he has a long road to travel to make UNT his latest turnaround story. The Mean Green lost a few key players from last season’s team and star forward Jasmine Godbolt is recovering from a knee injury.
UNT just missed .500 season last year under Aston, finishing 15-16, and still hasn’t had a winning season since capturing the Sun Belt West Division title in 2006 under Tina Slinker.
Petersen knows UNT is facing an adjustment period and likes how it’s going so far.
“We are making a ton of progress,” Petersen said. “It will be a work in progress. I’m not a doom-and-gloom guy, so if you win a few games, it makes you look like a genius. I like this team. This team has a ton of potential if we get everyone on the same page and understand the dynamics and chemistry of having a really good team.”
It’s a process Petersen has been studying for years while making the rounds and watching every athlete at each school he coaches.
The approach has helped Petersen pick up all kinds of tricks from coaches in all kinds of sports while also helping him fulfill one aspect of team-building in which he firmly believes.
Petersen believes that to have a good team, you need players who are good teammates.
That’s just what he intends to be for the team he plays for — the UNT athletic department.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .