By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
With a bold, brilliant pop of its fingers, the University of North Texas placed its football program in good hands. Great hands. Skilled, innovative, virtuoso hands.
Todd Dodge's hands.
Hear that, SMU? You too, TCU? Dodge, who's built Southlake Carroll into the area's all-time best high school sports dynasty, is stepping up and horning in on your recruits, on your publicity, on your success.
And he'll do it with his bare hands.
Hands that, as a high school quarterback at Port Arthur Jefferson (the same school that produced former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson), held every state passing record. Hands that, if only momentarily, inspired stubborn University of Texas coach Darrell Royal to buy into the forward pass. Hands that motion and maneuver Carroll's pre-snap offense, orchestrating the calm before the scoring storm. Hands that for 15 years have taught Texas' best quarterback prospects proper footwork and perfect spirals at the Todd Dodge Quarterback Camp.
Hands that, in the summer of 1987, almost burned to nubs.
Newly married to wife Elizabeth, Dodge was supplementing his first coaching job search by servicing electric meters in Austin. One day he plugged in his equipment and it instantly overloaded, shooting a searing fireball over his hands, up his arms. Suffering second- and third-degree burns, doctors prepared him to lose two fingers from each hand. But eventually the skin that had melted like candle wax rejuvenated and, amazingly, he walked away with merely scars, his formidable future intact.
With Dodge, even devastating losses morph into miracle wins.
"There have been ups and downs along the way," he says. "I'm just thankful I've had caring people around me. Thankful that the road has led me here."
A suburban legend before his 44th birthday, Dodge landed the UNT gig because he's a no-nonsense coach who's perfected a silly offense. His spread system—a hybrid of the University of Houston's old run-and-shoot passing game and former University of Miami coach Dennis Erickson's one-back running game—sprouted when he was an assistant at McKinney High School and matured into the no-huddle, hand-signal-manic metronome that has scored 40 points a game and revolutionized Texas high school offenses forever rooted in dive plays and option pitches.
"It's hard to say," Dodge says when asked to explain Carroll's offensive success. "We always try to spread the ball around and be difficult to predict. That makes us unique."
Dodge, too, is one of a kind. In style. And substance.
Doesn't post a list of rules in Carroll's field house, only a sign demanding "Protect the Tradition." Openly admits he's too hard on his son, quarterback Riley. And loses about as often as Terrell Owens embraces humility.
Under Dodge, Carroll's names have changed, but its legacy of players sporting bleached hair and blowouts remains the same:
If Carroll beats Austin Westlake for the state championship Saturday night in San Antonio's Alamodome, Dodge will cement his status as the state's best coach—in any sport, at any level—with 48 straight wins, four titles in five years and a fifth consecutive MVP, one who also happens to be his son.
Said Dodge, "We've about accomplished all we can."
While Carroll is left to post the most daunting of job openings—To improve on the predecessor, applicants must have the potential to go 80-0—UNT secured a shortcut to respectability.
Dodge was in Denton once before as an assistant coach on underachieving teams in 1992-'93. His re-route included nurturing the dynasty in Southlake, declining an interview at Rice and flirting with a job on Bill Parcells' Dallas Cowboys staff.
"He's a coach who knows how to put together a successful operation and compete at a high level for an extended period of time," says Parcells, who interviewed Dodge to be a tight ends coach last spring. "He has built a team and a philosophy that has staying power."
Dodge admits he would've accepted the job at Valley Ranch had it been offered. While that dream awaits, he's content—no, make that rabid—at living out another fantasy at UNT.
"I feel good knowing that I'm leaving Southlake Carroll in good shape," Dodge says. "If I didn't believe in my heart I could help North Texas have similar success, I wouldn't be here."
In the end, Dodge's most difficult opponent was an emotional one—the decision to miss Riley's senior year.
"That I would make the move and step away from coaching him," Dodge says, "that tells you right there how much I think of this job."
At UNT, Dodge must dig the Eagles out of shit before he can hint at success.
In Southlake he enjoyed a culture rich in pride, publicity and prosperity. In Denton, the football team sucks, usually in the shadows.
Coach Darrell Dickey momentarily revived UNT early this decade, developing national rushing leaders Patrick Cobbs and Jamario Thomas and qualifying for four New Orleans Bowls. But the run-based offense stagnated, fans grew disenchanted and the Eagles stumbled to 5-18 over the last two seasons.
Enter the Dragon, with a five-year contract worth $265,000 a year and the toughest rebuilding job since Quincy Carter asked God for forgiveness and Randy Galloway for bail. UNT's 2006 offense averaged a wimpy 12.8 points per game, 115th out of Division I-A's 119 teams. Johnny Quinn, the school's all-time leading receiver, is graduating. And the returning quarterbacks—Daniel Meager, Woody Wilson and Matt Phillips—combined for 19 interceptions last year and threw for only 1,382 yards and nine touchdowns, totals Riley long ago surpassed in this year's playoffs alone.
None of this, of course, remotely worries Dodge.
Thanks to his proficient system and popular camps, he's already leap-frogged SMU and TCU in the recruiting war. He'll command media attention. He'll influence the school's proposed plans for a new stadium.
And, most important, Todd Dodge and his healing hands will win.
Merry Christmas, Mean Green.