North Texas opens at Clemson in win-or-else season for former high school boss Todd Dodge

Todd Dodge is no longer the hot shot high school coach hired to energize the North Texas football program.

After 31 losses in three years, he's just trying to hang on to his job and avoid becoming another case study in why it's so rare for a coach to be plucked from the preps and put in charge of a major college team.

The athletic director who grabbed Dodge after he went 79-1 in five years at Southlake Carroll High School expects a winning season, which means at least seven victories when Dodge has just five in his college career.

Clemson, nearly a four-touchdown favorite Saturday in the season opener, inadvertently illustrated how far Dodge has fallen, referring to him as "Tom Dodge" in pregame notes.

"It's been very disappointing at times, with not being where I thought we'd be," Dodge said. "We've taken a lot of black eyes and bloody noses."

Dodge's first two years were tough and tougher, marked by routine blowouts on the field and sticky issues off it. Players kicked off the 2007 team accused him and his staff of racial bias, although the coaches were cleared by administrators. A year later, Dodge suspected some players were using drugs and tested every one of them during the season. Fifteen came back positive.

Perhaps the biggest setback came next, when two-year starting quarterback Giovanni Vizza left the team after the 2008 season. Not only was it critical to lose experience at the most important position in a four-receiver spread offense, but Dodge was hearing from others that Vizza figured the coach would start his son, then-redshirt freshman Riley Dodge.

"I recruited my son because he was the best possible option," Dodge said. "But that didn't mean he was going to start over a guy that started for two years. When you go 1-11, everybody on the football team has to compete. But still, I'd invested 20 starts in a guy."

With Vizza gone, Riley Dodge started 10 games, but the results were about the same. Now the coach's son — who won a state title in his dad's last high school season — isn't a full-time quarterback thanks to shoulder and arm injuries. He is listed as a receiver and just hoping to contribute for the next three years as a utility guy on offense.

"It's just different going from winning all the time to kind of struggling," Riley Dodge said. "It builds a lot of character. It has humbled me and my dad a little bit."

Nathan Tune is the quarterback now. The fifth-year senior with just two career starts holds the keys to a pass-happy offense that will go a long way toward determining whether Dodge stays or becomes Gerry Faust, the last coach who went straight from the prep ranks to the highest level of college football. Notre Dame fired him in 1985 after five mediocre seasons.

Defense will have to play a role, too. North Texas was last in the nation in scoring defense Dodge's first two seasons, another setback for him because he was criticized for bringing too many high school coaches with him, including his defensive coordinator. That coach was fired after the first season when the Mean Green gave up more than 70 points twice and 66 in another game.

All four former Carroll assistants are gone, leaving Dodge surrounded by assistants with more much college experience.

"We need a very experienced staff that has been at this level and understands some of the things at this level," athletic director Rick Villarreal said. "And I think today Todd understands more about this level. I don't think he could have imagined that when he first took the job."

Dodge was hired to help create a buzz and complete a push for a new stadium. The stadium part of the plan succeeded, but the buzz among alumni has been replaced by doubt. There's a chance Dodge won't be around when the new stadium opens next year.

Such circumstances are nothing new to Dodge, the former Texas quarterback who endured stinging criticism when he led the Longhorns in the 1980s. He knows what his athletic director expects, and he's "fine with it."

"The tough times here have not gotten in the way of me believing in how I can lead a football team and what our football team can do," Dodge said. "When my time is over with, there won't be any excuses. Would I have done things differently? Sure."

The victory count isn't likely to start against Clemson, but the Tigers should be the toughest opponent on the schedule. While last year's 2-10 record was the second in three years under Dodge, the Mean Green were much more competitive. Six of the losses were by a touchdown or less.

North Texas also has hope of a strong running game to complement Dodge's pass-first scheme. Lance Dunbar finished among the national leaders last year with 1,378 yards and 17 touchdowns rushing in just eight starts. Six of the team's top eight defenders return, including Craig Robertson, the leading tackler.

"Are we going to go 12-0? No. I don't think so," Dodge said. "But we do have the potential to win seven or eight ball games. We're in a window of the 2010-11 seasons where we can really flip this thing and not look back."

If not, it's probably back to high schools for Dodge.