Skip to Navigation Skip to Main Content
DRC

A family affair: New UNT coach's philosophy rooted in childhood lessons

Profile image for Brett Vito
Brett Vito, Staff Writer

Grant McCasland felt his heart drop as he sat in a doctor's office, his knee aching and his future in athletics in doubt.

North Texas' new men's basketball coach was a promising 12-year-old seventh-grader in 1989 and had just torn his knee up playing quarterback for a youth football team.

"The doctor told me I probably wouldn't play sports anymore," McCasland said while detailing the moment that shaped him as a man and his philosophy as a coach.

McCasland overcame the odds and started for his junior high basketball team just a few months later, thanks largely to his father.    

"My dad walked me through that time in a way that gave me a sense that there is more to life than sports, which were everything to me at the time."

Roger McCasland believes there is nothing more important than family.

Grant McCasland, 41, took that lesson to heart. It's why he's here, hunkered down behind his desk, surrounded by family photos in the days leading up to his UNT debut Friday, when the Mean Green host Eureka College. He's explaining why his family-first philosophy will work just like it has at every other stop in his career as he tackles a huge rebuilding project at UNT.

Leading the Mean Green was considered a prime job after Johnny Jones built the once-downtrodden program into a consistent winner that averaged 21 wins per season and advanced to two NCAA tournaments in a six-year span.

Jones' run that ended in 2012 when he left for LSU seems like a long time ago. Tony Benford took over and failed to finish above .500 in any of his five seasons before finally being fired in March after a clunker of a campaign that saw UNT finish 8-22.

UNT athletic director Wren Baker was looking for a proven coach after Benford's departure and was intrigued by McCasland. The former Arkansas State coach enjoyed success as a head coach in junior college and Division II and as an assistant coach at Baylor before guiding Arkansas State to a 20-win campaign in his lone season as the Red Wolves' head coach last year.

"I loved that he has had success at multiple levels," Baker said. "If you do it at that many schools with that diverse a background, then you are a winner. You have the DNA and competitive makeup to build a competitive program."

Baker was able to lure McCasland to UNT largely because of — you guessed it — family.

Every member of McCasland's immediate family lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including his two brothers and sister, the parents of his wife, Cece, and her brother. And that doesn't even count all the kids.

McCasland's father is right down the road as well, which might have been the biggest draw of all.

Roger McCasland, a former Baptist minister, lives in Weatherford with his wife. He is still dealing with the repercussions of a stroke he suffered three years ago.

Roger McCasland is healthy enough to carry on short conversations and will be at all of UNT's home games to see the Mean Green play and be with his grandchildren.

Photos of each hang in a row at eye level behind McCasland's desk — daughters Amaris, 13, and Jersey, 9, and sons Jett, 11, and Beckett, 7.

All four made an appearance at McCasland's introductory press conference and have been a steady presence at UNT ever since. They have participated in dance contests at football games and attended basketball practice.

"That is always the bottom line for us — how can we be together?" Cece McCasland said. "We get to go watch Daddy work. It's fun to be involved."

UNT's players can sense how McCasland carries his family-first philosophy over to his team.

The way McCasland sees it, his players are part of the family.

"Coach is a big family guy and invites us over to his house," UNT guard Ryan Woolridge said. "We have met his whole family. He puts a bigger emphasis on family than we did last year. That will improve our team chemistry, which is what we lacked last year."

Grant McCasland counts his father, Roger, left, as one of the most important people and influences in his life. McCasland left Arkansas State to take over as North Texas' head men's basketball coach largely to be closer to his father and the other members of his extended family.Courtesy of Grant McCasland 
Grant McCasland counts his father, Roger, left, as one of the most important people and influences in his life. McCasland left Arkansas State to take over as North Texas' head men's basketball coach largely to be closer to his father and the other members of his extended family.
Courtesy of Grant McCasland 

Growing up and the game

Memories came flooding back when McCasland talked about his days growing up in Irving with his father, mainly because Roger was involved in so many aspects of his life.

When Roger McCasland wasn't working at Plymouth Park Baptist Church or attending to his congregation, he was coaching his son's baseball team, or his basketball team. He helped organize prom.

"He felt like it was important to be involved," McCasland said. "He traveled everywhere we played."

Cece McCasland said her husband has the same philosophy when it comes to their family, even with all the responsibilities that go along with being a Division I head coach.

"I feel like family is my No. 1 responsibility," Grant McCasland said. "God has called me to be a good husband first and a good father. That is important to me."

Basketball was a secondary concern when Grant McCasland was growing up, but Roger McCasland taught his son about the game as well.

Randy Feemster could sense Grant McCasland had what it would take to develop into a solid player when he was the coach at Irving, despite the fact that McCasland was undersized at 5-9.

"He was a true basketball player and had a great understanding of the game even at that age," Feemster said. "He was tenacious and gave great effort. He was a small guy but was a great leader and someone you love to have on your team."

Roger McCasland watched from the stands during every game, sometimes with neighbor and former high school coach Mike Kunstadt.

Kunstadt runs TexasHoops.com, a scouting service and website, and counted Roger McCasland among his contributors.

"Roger was very friendly and outgoing, Kunstadt said. "You met him and you felt like you have known him for ages."

North Texas men's basketball coach Grant McCasland works with his players during practice this summer. McCasland picked up the nickname 'rat' during his playing days at Baylor because of his work ethic. That work ethic has helped him rise through the ranks of college coaches.DRC
North Texas men's basketball coach Grant McCasland works with his players during practice this summer. McCasland picked up the nickname 'rat' during his playing days at Baylor because of his work ethic. That work ethic has helped him rise through the ranks of college coaches.
DRC

The 'Rat' at Baylor

McCasland was a good player in high school but didn't garner much interest from colleges.

He credits Kunstadt with helping him get one of his big breaks — a chance to walk on at Baylor.

McCasland made the team and an impression on Harry Miller, who was the Bears' coach at the time. He quickly became popular among his teammates.

"We called him Rat," said John Perkins, one of McCasland's Baylor teammates. "He was always in the gym, like a gym rat, but that nickname also had to do with the fact he was small and scrappy. Coach said he worked like a rat."

McCasland didn't play a major role for Baylor but lettered in three straight seasons beginning in the 1996-97 campaign. He received All-Academic Big 12 honorable mention in 1999.

Miller could count on McCasland's family being at every game, even when they knew he was unlikely to play.

Miller said Roger McCasland always stopped by to visit after games and never complained about his son's playing time.

"Grant was one of the great human beings I have ever had the pleasure to coach from junior high on up," Miller said. "He was also one of the most competitive players I have ever coached. He wasn't big, but he didn't let that get in his way."

Grant McCasland and his family show eagle claws after McCasland was introduced as North Texas' new head coach in March. McCasland has made sure his family is involved with his team throughout rise through the coaching ranks.DRC
Grant McCasland and his family show eagle claws after McCasland was introduced as North Texas' new head coach in March. McCasland has made sure his family is involved with his team throughout rise through the coaching ranks.
DRC

Moving up the coaching ranks

McCasland hasn't let much get in his way since he went into coaching, either.

He started out as director of basketball operations at Texas Tech and has been moving up ever since.

He worked as an assistant coach at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado, for two seasons.

McCasland went on to win a junior college national title as a head coach at Midland in 2006-07 and narrowly missed winning another national title two years later. Midwestern State, a Division II program in Wichita Falls, hired McCasland away from Midland College and reaped the benefits in the form of trips to the Elite Eight of the national tournament in 2010 and 2011.

Scott Drew, Baylor's current coach, noticed what McCasland accomplished and gave him a job as an assistant coach and a shot to work at the Division I level heading into the 2011-12 season.

"Grant was a great fit with our staff because of his character and work ethic," Drew said. "He's a good recruiter and does a great job of developing players. He pushes his players hard, but they know he is behind them and wants them to succeed."

Arkansas State plucked McCasland away from Baylor and watched him tie a school record for regular-season wins with 20 on its way to a 20-12 finish last season.

"I don't know if I can put my finger on why I have been successful," McCasland said. "I have to point to the fact that I truly believe that God has put me here for a purpose that is bigger than basketball. I am trying to live that out in an authentic way."

Family is a big part of that purpose.

Cece and the kids have been along for the ride at each of McCasland's stops. She would load all four up in the family car and follow the team bus to games while McCasland was coaching at Midland and Midwestern State.

The extended McCasland family will have a chance to be involved with UNT's program and the family because they all live in the region.

"The kids are at such a pivotal time in their lives that you appreciate being close to family and the help they provide," McCasland said. "I was eight hours away from family at Arkansas State. Being this close has made a huge difference in my being able to do what I feel I was called to do here while having a support system. It's made an impact and played a major role in why I'm here."

New North Texas men's basketball coach Grant McCasland drove all the way to Bryan shortly after he was hired to talk to guard A.J. Lawson's parents about his future with the Mean Green. What he had to say helped convince Lawson to continue his career at UNT instead of transferring.DRC
New North Texas men's basketball coach Grant McCasland drove all the way to Bryan shortly after he was hired to talk to guard A.J. Lawson's parents about his future with the Mean Green. What he had to say helped convince Lawson to continue his career at UNT instead of transferring.
DRC

Building a new family

Sophomore guard A.J. Lawson realized quickly McCasland was serious about making his new players at UNT a part of his extended family.

Lawson was wavering on continuing his career at UNT after Benford was fired.

McCasland drove to Bryan to visit with Lawson's parents just days after he took over at UNT and convinced him to stay.

"My family got a feel for him," Lawson said. "We were sold.

"Family is important to coach, and it's not just his family. It's the team and our families as well. We are all one family. He pushes that."

The first meal McCasland hosted with his new team included members of his extended family and the families of his staff.

McCasland's kids are frequently wandering around the Super Pit. Cece McCasland is comfortable just dropping them off because of how well they know their way around.

"The kids are always around doing something crazy," Woolridge said. "It's fun."

The question now is whether McCasland's philosophy that has made him successful at so many other stops will work at UNT.

The Mean Green were picked to finish 11th out of 14 teams in Conference USA's preseason coaches poll and didn't have a player named to the preseason all-league team.

McCasland acknowledged that UNT could endure some growing pains, but he says the Mean Green's future is bright.

"I 100 percent believe we can build it here," McCasland said. "We have moved and worked in different places. This is a place we can establish a program and carry out a long-term plan."

That plan is based largely on the lessons McCasland learned from his father.

"Grant has his priorities in order," said Roddrick Miller, another one of McCasland's Baylor teammates. "Basketball is not who he is. It's what he does.

"Not many coaches would have the courage to pick up and move for their family after winning 20 games in their first season at a school."

That is just what McCasland did when he abandoned an ASU team he had headed in the right direction.

He elected to start over because of the opportunity UNT offered him and his family.

"We talk about it," McCasland said. "It seems like a miracle that we are all so close. You don't get many opportunities like this."

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