Tony Benford didn’t try to lower expectations in 2012 when he took the reins of the North Texas men’s basketball program.
“With the alumni base that we have here and the support we have, there is no reason why this can’t be like a Butler or a Gonzaga,” said Benford, who is now in his fifth season as UNT’s head basketball coach.
Talking about teams that emerged from the largely anonymous ranks of college basketball’s middle class to become household names made sense then. Tony Mitchell, who was projected as an NBA lottery pick, just announced his return for the 2012-13 season to lead a loaded team that won at least 18 games in six straight seasons and played in two NCAA tournaments.
That level of success is a distant memory now. UNT’s program has fallen through the floor since head coach Johnny Jones left for LSU after the 2011-12 season. UNT (8-20) has lost at least 20 games three times under Benford and will have nothing to play for tonight at Western Kentucky, which raises the question: What went wrong?
The Mean Green is headed for its fifth straight season with a .500 or worse finish under Benford and hit rock bottom in a 76-53 loss to Southern Miss on Saturday that eliminated UNT from playing in the Conference USA tournament, an event that will include 12 of the league’s 14 teams.
Benford, two players from his debut season and current players cite numerous factors that contributed to UNT’s downfall, including injuries, player turnover and the higher level of competition UNT faces after moving from the Sun Belt to Conference USA in Benford’s second season.
“We took over a program that was good, but we had some injuries and didn’t have any luck,” Benford said recently. “We went 16-16 my second year and had a team that could have won 20 games but didn’t quite get there. We also had some guys who left the program. That might have hurt us. Every year, it seemed like we have a significant injury. We never were able to get the chemistry right.”
Those struggles have left the program in limbo as Benford’s fifth season comes to a close. He is in the final year of a five-year contract that will pay him $400,000 this season and has no guarantee he will be invited back. In the five years prior to Benford’s arrival in Denton, UNT went 104-57. The Mean Green have plummeted to 62-93 in five seasons since Benford took over.
The odds seem overwhelmingly stacked against Benford returning.
“Coach Benford is our basketball coach,” first-year UNT athletic director Wren Baker said. “He has my full support. At the end of the season, we will sit down and evaluate the basketball program. At that point, we will evaluate the future. Right now, I am in the trenches doing everything I can to give us the best chance to win.”
Dallas lawyer and key UNT booster Ernie Kuehne is less diplomatic. Shortly after Benford was hired, Kuehne gave $1 million to the basketball program as the seed donation for a fundraising campaign. The money led to the construction of a new basketball practice court and the addition of a jumbotron in the Super Pit, the coliseum where UNT plays home games.
UNT announced it raised $2.5 million in a month following the campaign, an astronomical figure for an athletic department that has announced only a handful of $1 million-plus donations in its history.
“There were a lot of people with positive feelings about athletics at the time,” Kuehne said. “I was able to raise a lot of money.”
Those feelings since have faded.
“I like Tony personally,” Kuehne said. “But I supported him too long.”
Positioned for greatness
The only way to grasp where UNT is now — and why it’s such a bitter pill to swallow — is to understand the state of UNT’s entire athletic program when Benford arrived in spring 2012.
The UNT football team just wrapped up its eighth straight losing season, while the women’s basketball program had finished under .500 six straight years.
UNT’s men’s basketball program was a point of pride for the school.
The Mean Green made the NCAA tournament in 2007 for the first time since 1988. UNT played in the NCAAs again in 2010 and fell one game short of qualifying again in 2011 and 2012.
UNT’s men’s basketball team offered the school’s fans and boosters something exciting heading into the 2012-13 season. Tony Mitchell, Jordan Williams and Chris Jones only played half the season the previous year because of various eligibility problems. But now they were ready to go.
Sun Belt Conference coaches unanimously picked UNT as the West Division favorite in the league’s preseason poll.
Mitchell was named the Sun Belt Preseason Player of the Year, while CBS Sports, Athlon Sports and ESPN’s Blue Ribbon Report all named him to their Preseason All-American teams.
UNT averaged more than 4,000 fans per home game in 2011-12 — almost double the 2,147 average for 2005-06, the year before its six-year run of success began. Fans were ready to turn out in droves to see what Benford could accomplish after getting his long awaited break in coaching.
Benford had been an all-Southwest Conference pick as forward for Texas Tech during his collegiate career. He then spent 20 years as an assistant coach at New Mexico, Arizona State, UTEP, Nebraska and Marquette.
UNT officials were confident Benford could handle the transition to being a head coach, especially after he hired Rob Evans, a close friend who was the head coach at Ole Miss and Arizona State, as his associate head coach.
“We had been so good for so long,” said John Hansen, a UNT graduate and ardent fan who attended more than 100 games and traveled to see the Mean Green play in six states in the five years before Benford’s arrival. “Two out of three times, you went home with a smile on your face. That season was supposed to be our brass ring.”
What UNT got was something entirely different.
Fall from grace
Benford’s first game at UNT was against Creighton, a national power that would provide a gauge of how good the Mean Green would be in a season of high expectations.
The Bluejays hammered UNT 71-51.
That was tough. But disaster struck three days later in the NIT Season Tip-Off.
The Mean Green lost to Division II Alabama-Huntsville 78-75, its first loss to a non-Division I team in 26 years.
“That was the worst loss I have been a part of in 21 years,” Benford said after the game. “That’s all on me. I will always be accountable. That is a game we should have won.”
Louisiana-Lafayette later hammered the Mean Green 74-55 in the opening round of the Sun Belt tournament.
Benford finished his first season at UNT with a 12-20 record despite his trio of star players. Jordan Williams finished his career ranked ninth in program history with 1,501 points, while Alzee Williams ranks 19th with 1,064.
UNT is only 1-4 in the postseason in five seasons under Benford. Jones, his predecessor, went 11-5 in the postseason during his final five seasons in Denton.
“I’m not sure why it didn’t work out,” Alzee Williams said recently while looking back on Benford’s ill-fated first season. “We had a lot of talent. Coach Jones let everyone play and didn’t try to force the ball to one person. Coach Benford forced it to Tony a lot. Teams knew what we were doing and focused on stopping Tony.”
UNT, a team once known for pushing the ball and scoring at a high rate, put a greater emphasis on the defensive end and saw its efficiency on the offensive end decline.
The Mean Green’s scoring average drop from 70.3 to 66.2 points per game in Benford’s first season.
UNT’s current 3-point shooting percentage of 31.5 ranks 12th out of 14 teams in Conference USA. The team’s 65.2 percentage from the free-throw line ranks 13th in conference.
“I don’t know what it was, but there was something missing on the offensive end,” said Brandan Walton, a key guard on Benford’ first team at UNT.
Injuries to key players haven’t helped.
UNT lost Walton for the season with a broken foot in Benford’s first game with the Mean Green. Point guard Chris Jones was lost to a similar injury a few weeks later.
Mitchell, one of the most highly regarded players to don a UNT jersey in any sport, saw his production drop as UNT struggled to compensate for those injuries. The 6-8 forward averaged 13.0 points and 8.5 rebounds per game as a sophomore but declared for the NBA draft anyway.
Mitchell fell all the way to the Detroit Pistons in the second round as the 37th overall pick and raised eyebrows when he said he didn’t always play hard for Benford in the days leading up to the draft.
“[Former Pistons general manager Joe Dumars] asked me why I didn’t play hard some possessions,” Mitchell told Brendan Savage, who covers the Pistons. “Regardless of if you don’t make shots or the team is bad, you have to compete. I was telling him that the season was tough and it was hard for me to get up for some games.”
Trying to recover
UNT has struggled to recover from Benford’s disastrous first season.
Initially, Benford appealed to UNT because of his proven track record of recruiting top Texas high school players. UNT officials acknowledge he has brought talented players to the school.
Not nearly enough have panned out.
Point guard P.J. Hardwick, Benford’s first recruit, transferred to Arkansas State after one season. Hardwick was the first of more than a dozen players in the Benford era who have either signed with the program and never shown up on campus or elected to transfer after arriving.
Starting point guard Chris Jones left the program after the 2013-14 season and transferred to Division II Angelo State in West Texas.
“I didn’t have the freedom I had under coach [Johnny] Jones and wasn’t sure of my role a lot of the time,” Jones said. “I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do.”
Over the years, Benford touted several transfers as the quick-fix addition that would change the teams fortunes, including Keith Frazier, DeAndre Harris and T.J. Taylor.
None made the impact Benford hoped.
Taylor, who came to UNT after spending time at Oklahoma and Marquette, never reached his potential while battling injuries. He abandoned his appeal to the NCAA for an additional year of eligibility in 2015.
Harris, a Tyler Junior College guard, was dismissed from the team a year ago after being ejected from multiple games and struggling to control his emotions.
Frazier, a highly regarded transfer from SMU, played in four games for the Mean Green this season before a knee injury sidelined him.
Rising fortunes of SMU, TCU and UT-Arlington have not helped UNT’s cause. The Mean Green once had claimed to be the premier college program in the D-FW area, but no longer.
Now, UNT is something of an afterthought for fans, the media and — worst of all — recruits.
SMU is ranked 14th this week in the Associated Press poll. TCU is in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid, while UTA is in first place in the Sun Belt Conference standings.
UNT moved from the Sun Belt to C-USA in Benford’s second season. The move increased the level of competition the Mean Green face.
“There is a lot more competition out there,” said Mike Kunstadt, a former Texas high school coach who now runs TexasHoops.com, a website that covers high school basketball and recruiting in the state. “North Texas might struggle with the way they have fallen off and other programs have improved.”
A final push comes up short
Last summer, UNT danced around the Benford question but finally acknowledged he would return as head coach for the 2016-17 year.
“I am confident that we will be better,” Benford said in his preseason press conference.
Those hopes have gone unfulfilled.
Preseason All-Conference USA selection Jeremy Combs never recovered from offseason ankle surgery and played in onlu 14 games before Benford shut him down for the year. Starting shooting guard Deckie Johnson played in 17 games before hip injuries that will require surgery forced him to the bench.
UNT floundered without both and dropped 11 straight games late in the year.
“We thought we would be better,” senior guard J-Mychal Reese said. “We had most of the team from last year returning and healthy. We added a lot of pieces, but with the injuries we have had, guys have had to try to do more than they would have had to otherwise.”
The seats at the Super Pit largely have sat empty while the Mean Green have struggled to get back on track. UNT is averaging 2,089 fans per home game, just more than half of the 4,006 it averaged in the season before Benford arrived and vowed to take the program to greater heights.
That goal seemed like nothing but a memory during a loss to UTEP on Feb. 16 at the Super Pit. The number of Miners fans nearly outnumbered fans in the UNT student section and could be heard chanting, “Defense … defense” in the closing moments as UTEP pulled away for the win.
That is far from what UNT hoped for when Benford arrived and Jesse Auer was one of the Mean Green’s most avid fans.
Auer moved to Denton after getting out of the military. He didn’t know much about UNT or its men’s basketball program before becoming hooked while watching Mean Green basketball grow into a source of pride.
Now Auer is pondering if he ever will attend another UNT sporting event because of the way the past five seasons have unfolded. UNT’s fall has caused him to question whether the school ever will have a high-profile program that can compete on a national level and whether it is committed to winning.
“It’s been soul crushing,” Auer said. “When Tony Mitchell stayed, I told people it was going to be awesome. We are in a markedly different position now.
“This might be the end of it for me.”
THE BENFORD ERA
The following is a look at the tenure of North Texas men’s basketball coach Tony Benford. UNT won at least 18 games and went 15-4 in the conference tournament in the six seasons before his arrival:
Conference tourney result
0-1 (lost to Louisiana-Lafayette)
1-1 (beat Rice, lost to Tulane)
0-1 (lost to Rice)
0-1 (lost to Western Kentucky)
Failed to qualify