North Texas is exactly where head coach Grant McCasland expected to be when he took over the downtrodden men’s basketball program in 2017 — in the NCAA Tournament. The journey to get there, however, wasn’t your typical path.
The Mean Green won the Conference USA Tournament on Saturday, clinching a berth in the Big Dance for the first time since 2010. It upset top-seeded Western Kentucky, 61-57, in overtime for the title. North Texas jumped out to a 17-0 lead to start the game, only scored 14 points in the second half, but rallied for 13 points in overtime. Senior Javion Hamlet hit a go-ahead runner with 14.1 seconds left to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
— North Texas Basketball (@MeanGreenMBB) March 14, 2021
The victory salvaged what otherwise would have been considered a disappointing season. UNT finished the regular season 13-9 and wasn’t favored to win the conference tournament. After closing the regular season with three straight losses, momentum certainly wasn’t on its side.
But as evidenced by North Texas winning the C-USA regular-season championship a year ago, the players knew they were a good team. And good teams win in the postseason, which the Mean Green did four times to take the conference’s 2021 NCAA berth.
North Texas was favored to claim that berth last year, but the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The team was devastated, and McCasland especially felt for his seniors, who wouldn’t get another chance to play in the pinnacle of college basketball.
As the coaching staff thought through how to address the disappointment, McCasland urged his players to focus on the positive of ending the season with a regular-season championship, the program’s first in 31 years. That squad also broke the program record for single-season conference wins (14).
Then, as the world went into lockdown, McCasland, and many others throughout the world, began to assess his priorities. He was forced to slow down, whether he liked it or not. Being a natural “doer,” he didn’t. But in spending more time at home with his four kids and wife instead of on the road recruiting, he discovered the pace of doing was not as important as he thought it was.
He felt God speak to him about giving his career its proper importance. He would say his family was a priority over work, but he didn’t always live that out.
“If I can go and love my wife the way I’m supposed to and love my kids, then I feel like that will carry over and God will honor it with how I coach our team and how I prepare them,” McCasland said on the Sports Spectrum Podcast prior to the 2020-21 season. “And that there’s space for the priorities that need to be in that order. If I can do that in that order, He’ll continue to honor what we’re doing as basketball coaches and maybe as a basketball program.”
Getting more time to connect with his wife, Cece, helped him rediscover his purpose. Grant played college basketball at Baylor, and Cece college soccer at Texas Tech, so they both understand what it takes to build an athletic program the right way.
“Really the heart behind all of it is that God’s put us in this position for a purpose that’s greater than just winning games,” Grant says.
The son of a baptist minister, McCasland said his life revolved around being at church and doing good when he was growing up. And also sports.
“At an early age, definitely my identity was severely attached to how good I was at different sports,” he said.
But in the seventh grade, he tore an ACL playing football. Doctors told him that because of his young age, he may not be able to play sports again until he can have surgery, which may not be until his senior year because his body was still growing.
“For me, that was a moment where God kind of floored me and took away what was an idol in my life. Then I was like, ‘What am I? If I’m not sports, then what am I?'” McCasland recalled on the podcast. “… To say I’d put my faith in Him, I think that was the turning point where I decided that, ‘OK, I get it now. Jesus can’t be a part of what I am, He has to be who I live my life for and give my heart to completely.'”
Soon thereafter, he memorized 1 Peter 5:6-10:
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on Him because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”
“So that was the moment that I did [humble myself]. I just said, ‘Lord, I want to serve You. I don’t want this to be about the sports that I play.’ So that was a big moment in my life; that was the turning point where I gave my life to Christ and decided that I wasn’t going to live for my own gain,” McCasland said.
He admits that he probably still lived mostly on his parents’ faith the rest of his time in middle and high school, but once he got to Baylor he realized what it meant to live out his faith authentically. He developed spiritual disciplines, became accountable to himself, and got involved in some local churches.
Upon graduation, McCasland knew he wanted to get into coaching because he loved being part of a team. He first earned a master’s degree at Texas Tech, where he served as the director of basketball operations and met Cece. He then coached in junior colleges, in Division II, as an assistant at Baylor, and then one year at Arkansas State before moving to North Texas.
At UNT, he became the first North Texas coach since Bill Blakeley (1975-78) to begin his Mean Green coaching career with three straight 20-win seasons. If the Mean Green (17-9) can win three games in the NCAA Tournament, he’d be the first UNT coach to start with four straight. North Texas, a No. 13 seed in the South Region, takes on fourth-seeded Purdue on Friday at 7:25 p.m. ET.
Mean Green and March Madness pic.twitter.com/AFK4Mu2BSv
— Grant McCasland (@UNTCoachGMac) March 17, 2021
Regardless of how the season turns out, however, McCasland knows his purpose is greater than how many wins he accumulates as a coach.
“The moment I make it about me or I make it about what I’ve achieved,” he says, “is the moment that I quickly realize that I’m failing in what God’s called me to do.”
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