North Texas linebacker Zach Orr could hardly believe the subject his defensive coordinator brought up earlier this year.
Orr and his teammates have always marveled at the breadth of John Skladany’s knowledge when it comes to football and a whole lot else. The senior just never expected the 65-year-old college football lifer to bring up pop-culture sensation Miley Cyrus.
“He mentioned that she did something crazy,” Orr said. “We all thought, ‘What? How does he know about her?’
“That’s what makes him so special to play for — he has that connection with us. He knows the rappers we listen to and can relate to us. That’s what we find too funny. We are like, ‘Coach knows about this kind of stuff?’”
UNT’s players realized long ago that Skladany knows a lot about football — particularly defense — in addition to what might be on their girlfriends’ MP3 players. It’s Skladany’s football knowledge and his ability to connect with his players that have allowed him to lead a defensive renaissance at UNT that is at the heart of its turnaround season.
UNT hasn’t allowed more than 16 points in a game while ripping off five straight victories heading into a game against Texas-San Antonio on Saturday at Apogee Stadium. That run has the Mean Green rolling at 7-3 and well on its way to ending an eight-year bowl drought.
The journey has been a rewarding one for Skladany, who has rebuilt UNT’s defense while working with Mean Green head coach Dan McCarney for the second time in his career.
The two spent 10 years together at Iowa State, the site of their first reclamation project, and are in their second year working together at UNT.
“We love the games and the players,” Skladany said. “That’s what keeps you going and keeps you young — dealing with the players. They are fun, and you have to make the game fun for them. It’s a lot of hard work. You have to enjoy your teammates, your fellow coaches and coming to work.”
There is little doubt that is the case with Skaldany, who has quickly found a comfort zone at UNT, not only because of his relationship with McCarney but also with the players. Orr and senior safety Marcus Trice compared Skladany to a wizard, describing him as a wise old man and something of a father figure.
Skladany, who is tall, thin and often grows out his gray beard, certainly looks the part.
“He’s funny and makes it fun to play football,” Trice said. “He teaches the game in its purest form. Play fast, play physical and everything else will work out. He makes the game easy and simple to play, and he can relate to players.”
The collected wisdom of John Skladany
Skladany has been a defensive coordinator for 19 years when one adds up his stints across the country, from Ohio to Iowa State to Houston to Central Florida and now UNT.
Along the way, he’s refined his 4-3 scheme that he says is a key reason for his success.
The scheme isn’t the most complex of defenses, but it works for Skladany, largely because it isn’t all that complicated, and because it’s something he and McCarney, a defensive coach by trade, know so well.
“We are very structured with our scheme,” Skladany said. “There has to be a lot of discipline to it. We teach our kids how to tackle, how to get off blocks, how to read keys and put them in the best position to be successful. Once that happens with a unit and a program, that is where the consistency comes in.”
UNT’s players say nothing matters more to Skladany than the fundamentals. He drills them on tackling, being in the right position and being accountable.
“What John is doing with our defense right now is no surprise to me or anyone of us who know John or have worked with him,” McCarney said. “He is relentless, his work ethic is amazing and he understands the game.”
McCarney is known as a workout warrior who heads to the gym every day. Skladany is usually right there with him.
Sometimes McCarney and Skladany will just sit in an office and talk about life and football, a game both still have a love for after more than 30 years in coaching.
“John hasn’t lost one bit of energy,” McCarney said. “He thrives on challenges and wants to be the best and turn this program around.”
Those traits have been evident throughout the season.
UNT has not allowed an offensive touchdown in the second half of six of 10 games this season and made an epic goal line stand in a win over Rice. UNT held the Owls scoreless on eight plays from inside its 6-yard line.
“Our players have taken on his personality,” McCarney said of Skladany. “Don’t back down from a challenge. Be tough, be physical, be relentless, do it with pride and make people proud.”
A lasting connection
McCarney still remembers the exact circumstances surrounding his decision to hire Skladany the first time around at Iowa State.
He was in Orlando, Fla., at the national coaches convention after his second season as a head coach. McCarney was looking for a new defensive coordinator and planned to interview Skladany and Mike Nelson.
“I interviewed John for the defensive line job and was so impressed that I offered him the coordinator job and brought in Mike Nelson as my defensive line coach,” McCarney said. “My life and my program have changed because I have those guys with me.”
McCarney and Skladany teamed up to take Iowa State to five bowl games in six years, beginning in 2000.
“We have as good a working relationship as any head coach and defensive coordinator in the country,” McCarney said. “It goes back to mutual respect and caring. I am so glad he is here. He can flat-out coach.”
UNT’s players enjoy watching McCarney and Skladany yelp at each other in practice, each pushing the other, and by extension their players, to be the best they can be.
Having Skladany back at his side has been special for McCarney because it wasn’t a certainty when he received a second chance to be a head coach at UNT. At the time, Skladany was the defensive coordinator at Central Florida, which in 2011 ranked ninth nationally in scoring defense (18.33 points allowed per game) and total defense (303.3 yards allowed per game).
UCF coach George O’Leary fired Skladany despite a solid year, but UNT already had a defensive coordinator in Clint Bowen.
“We talked right after it happened, but he didn’t have anything,” Skladany said. “He called later and said he might have an opportunity.”
Bowen was on the verge of taking a job at Kansas and eventually returned to his alma mater.
Skladany was on his way to rejoining McCarney in a matter of weeks for what is likely their last run together. McCarney is 60 and, like Skladany, likely at his last coaching stop, especially if UNT continues to thrive.
“I’m very happy here and comfortable with Mac,” Skladany said. “I’m not interested in a whole lot else right now.”
There isn’t anyone else McCarney would rather see guide his defense. He has too much respect for Skladany because of his work ethic and talent, not to mention his ability to connect with players and take them by surprise once in a while with a pop-culture reference or two.
If McCarney has his way, he will head south with his good friend after one more turnaround story both he and Skladany say is already underway at UNT.
“When we retire, we are going to go to Florida,” McCarney said. “Hopefully, it’s several years off. I’m going to try to keep him by my side as long as I can, because every year we have been together, my head hits the pillow knowing my defense is in really good hands.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.