You know that weird feeling in your stomach when you know something isn’t right?
Everything might seem okay at the time, but no matter how hard you try, you just cannot shake the creeping feeling that the sky is going to fall. When the North Texas men’s basketball team only beat Division III Sul Ross State by eight in their 2016 season opener, I had that feeling in my stomach.
Turns out, that was only the beginning of one of the worst campaigns in program history.
Plagued by injuries, turnovers and poor offensive execution, the Mean Green finished the year 8-22 and said goodbye to head coach Tony Benford last weekend.
I really do feel bad for Benford. He is an outstanding man. He took the time to get to know me this season, and I always enjoyed our chats in his office before and after interviews.
Sadly, kindness does not win basketball games.
Over the course of his five-year tenure, that was a recurring theme. Benford could never win the games that mattered. His teams, for whatever reason, always seemed to stumble, even when it looked like they were set up for success.
Like this year.
When this season began, Benford knew he had to win to save his job. The theme of the preseason press conference was “win now.” With a majority of his roster back, Benford thought he would have all the necessary puzzle pieces to string it together. He knew he had a preseason all-conference selection and a McDonald’s All-American ready to suit up for him.
Then injuries came in and flipped the table, sending those same puzzle pieces flying.
And while the injuries are unfortunate, Benford has no one to blame but himself. He put himself in this situation. In five years, none of his teams finished above the .500 mark. The Mean Green won only one conference tournament game under Benford and were a dismal 62-95 from 2012-2017.
Over the years, Benford was given plenty of chances to make things work. But after five years with no real signs of progression on the court, the writing was on the wall.
With an expiring contract, Benford’s hourglass was moving even faster than normal this season, and ran out when the Mean Green lost to Southern Miss on January 19th. When he was not shown the door by athletic director Wren Baker that night, I had another bad feeling in my stomach – no matter what he did, Benford would be gone at season’s end.
The rest would be nothing more than a farewell tour.
When you really break down the difficulties North Texas had this year, it boils down to injuries. Yes, you have to overcome them, but Benford had to play poker and was given Uno cards.
Look at who he was missing.
Junior forward Jeremy Combs averaged a double-double in 2015. He was shut down in mid-January with an ankle injury. Senior guard Deckie Johnson averaged 14.5 points and hit 33 percent of his threes last season – he battled a hip injury all season, only appearing in 17 games and averaging 8.0 points.
Senior guard Keith Frazier was the only McDonald’s All-American to play at North Texas after transferring from SMU. He appeared in four games before bowing out with what the team called “sore knees.”
What may be even worse is that Frazier was actually decent in the 75 minutes he played for the Mean Green. He averaged eight points and three rebounds. What could have been? Who knows.
Now the rebuilding begins. It will start with the hiring of a new head coach, who will be tasked with turning around a program that has lost its way over the years. Indeed, the winds of change are echoing through the Super Pit.
Don’t fret though, there is a bright side.
The Mean Green has a solid core returning. Barring transfers, which could be a very real possibility after a miserable season, Combs should be back for his senior season. North Texas will also hopefully hand the keys over to freshman guards A.J. Lawson and Ryan Woolridge, who combined to average 21 points, 9.3 rebounds this season.
The duo could make for a menacing backcourt over the next three years with the right coaching and pieces around them. Having a healthy Combs next year will help, too.
But what North Texas really needs is a clean slate.
Letting Benford go was the first step in that process.
Featured image: Head coach Tony Benford stands on the sideline during the game against Texas College. Benford is in the last year of his contract. Colin Mitchell