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New UNT coach optimistic about future because of commitment from athletics department

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

Grant McCasland named a host of factors that led him to leave one rebuilding project at Arkansas State for another at North Texas during a whirlwind debut Tuesday.

McCasland talked about growing up in Irving and having family in the area during his introductory appearance at Apogee Stadium, where hundreds of fans and boosters gathered to meet the school’s new coach. He also cited the opportunity to work for a pair of administrators with a basketball background in athletic director Wren Baker and his right-hand man Jared Mosely as attractive aspects of the job.

Those factors helped, but they didn't make nearly the impression than did UNT's overall commitment to building a winner in a sport that has always been something of an afterthought at a football-first school.

UNT signed McCasland, 40, to a five-year contract that will pay him about $600,000 per year. The school also committed to renovate the locker room at the Super Pit and buy out McCasland's contract with ASU.

That buyout payment represents a major commitment as well, and it will cost UNT $500,000.

The combined cost sent a clear signal to McCasland that UNT is serious about fielding a winner again after five down seasons.

"You can't deny the commitment North Texas is making," McCasland said. "A lot of people say they want to be great, but are they willing to allocate the resources to make that happen? That is what makes it a different conversation from saying this is a sleeping giant or a goldmine. This is now a place with expectation. I like expectations. That means there is a commitment on everyone's part. "

Baker made that clear over the past few days. He fired Tony Benford at the end of his fifth season at the school.

UNT didn't finish above .500 in any of Benford's seasons and hit bottom this spring. The Mean Green went a dismal 8-22 overall and finished last in Conference USA at 2-16.

Baker immediately set a goal to hire a sitting Division I head coach after firing Benford, a move UNT never had made before. He saw hiring an experienced coach as the best way to quickly rebuild a program that enjoyed one of its best periods in program history not too long ago.

UNT averaged 21 wins per season and played in two NCAA tournaments under Johnny Jones, a longtime college assistant who grew into the job during 11 seasons on the job before leaving for LSU after the 20110-12 campaign.

The Mean Green hired another assistant in Benford to replace Jones and watched the program quickly fall apart.

Baker wasn't willing to watch another coach try to grow into the job. He wanted to hire a successful head coach and found the financial backing to make that possible.

"To hire someone who has not been a head coach and let them grow on the job puts them behind," Baker said. "I wanted to hire a sitting Division I coach. If you are going to do that, you want to hire one who has been successful. That takes money. As we talked to the president, donors and the board, we came to a level where we would be comfortable and went out and got our guy."

The commitment UNT made financially allowed the school to land a coach who has been successful throughout his career at a variety of levels.

The Irving native's career record is 219-56, a mark that includes a 20-12 record this season at Arkansas State. The Red Wolves improved their win total by 10 this season, the second-best turnaround among Division I teams.

McCasland also led Midland to the NJCAA national title in the 2006-07 season. He later took Midwestern State to the Division II Elite Eight in consecutive seasons beginning in 2009-10.

Mosely hired McCasland to be the head coach at Abilene Christian during his tenure as athletic director at the school in 2011 only to see him stolen away by Baylor. Scott Drew hired McCasland as an assistant at Baylor just two months after he arrived at ACU.

Mosely was involved in UNT's search, which he said quickly focused on McCasland due to his track record.

"When we made a list of what we were looking for as far as Texas ties, recruiting ties and someone who has been a head coach before, we couldn't think of a better fit," Mosley said.

McCasland will take over a program with more assets than ever before. UNT opened the Ernie Kuehne Basketball Practice Facility in 2013 and will add to its overall assets when the locker room upgrades are finished at the Super Pit in a few months.

"I feel good about it for two reasons," Kuehne said of UNT's future under McCasland. "We have the facilities in place and have a proven coach who has been successful at every level."

McCasland is convinced he can turn UNT's program around largely because of that commitment and the school's leadership in its athletic department.  

Baker is the former head basketball coach at Rogers State in Claremore, Oklahoma. Mosley was a standout player at Abilene Christian and is in the school’s Hall of Fame.

"I believe in this university and that we can win championships," McCasland said. "We can be one of the best college basketball programs in the country."

The prospect of helping McCasland rebuild the program is an exciting one for Ryan Woolridge. The sophomore guard was among a handful of players who attended McCasland's introductory press conference.

Woolridge expressed confidence in McCasland’s ability to turn the program around and is excited about the commitment UNT is making to its basketball program.

"The commitment they are making makes me feel like people are starting to care about basketball," Woolridge said. "It's going to make a big impact on the program."

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.