By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (December 4, 2015) — Tarleton State football players, school administrators and supporters of the program crowded into the lobby of Wisdom Gym Friday morning as the university welcomed back the winningest football coach of its modern era.
Todd Whitten is back at Tarleton, his third stint as head coach at the school beginning with a press conference Friday morning. The university announced it was hiring Whitten Thursday afternoon. He coached the Texans to a 45-23 mark in 1996 and from 2000-04, winning a share of a Lone Star Conference championship and a national playoff game in 2001 and returning to the playoffs in 2004.
“Let’s go win some games and have fun,” said Whitten at the end of his speech in front of about 100 people in attendance and more listening on the Tarleton Sports Network. “How does that sound?”
While those words sound good to athletic director Lonn Reisman, it’s what Whitten has already done at Tarleton that impressed him in the hiring process.
“I went through all 90 plus applications for this job, and as I went through every one of those, one man kept coming to my mind. One man kept coming to the top,” said Reisman. “We’re at a pivotal time in our program. We’re getting ready to start a renovation to our stadium, as everyone knows. Our football program is very important to this university, and I can’t think of a better time for our program to bring back someone I know is a proven winner and has already been here and taken this program to the highest level it can go, and that’s to the NCAA Championship playoffs. He’s done that.”
Whitten, who specializes on the offensive side of the ball and coaching quarterbacks, left Tarleton following the 2004 season and spent five years as head coach at Sam Houston State. He was offensive coordinator at Lamar for one season before moving to the high school ranks as head coach at Fort Worth Arlington Heights in 2012. He spent the last three seasons coaching receivers at Texas-El Paso (UTEP).
“I believe to have a solid offense that you have to recruit a guy who can be a 1,000 yard rusher, a guy who can be a 3,000 yard passer and a wide out who can catch 1,000 yards, maybe a couple of them. Balance is the key word there,” said Whitten of his offense. “I’m going to adapt to what my guys can do. I’m not going to say, here’s what I do and by-golly, we’re going to do that every year.”
Whitten said he plans to hire a defensive coordinator, “In the next month, roughly. Certainly when the next recruiting push rolls around we would like to have that in place, and I’d certainly like to think there’s an opportunity for some of our remaining staff to be a part of that as well.”
Whitten let the players in attendance know his basic expectations.
“These boys are going to go to school every day. That’s not negotiable,” said Whitten. “We’re going to win. Somehow, some way, we’re going to find a way to win games on Saturday. And finally, we’re going to have fun. I will set this program up in a manner that you guys will enjoy going to that field house and getting on that turf.”
All that seemed to fall in line with what Tarleton President Dr. F. Dominic Dottavio says he expects from the program.
“There are three expectations I have. I want this team to demonstrate the characteristics (of the core university core values) in a powerful way both on the field and off the field. We expect there to be a primary focus on the academic success of these student-athletes, and we want them to graduate at a rate at least as high as the general student population if not higher. Lastly in my expectations, is to win.”
Dottavio said Whitten was a fit from the beginning of the coach search.
“When (Reisman) and I met about what we wanted to do with our football program and the type of person we had in mind, we said ideally we want someone with head coaching experience who knows the Division I, Division II and high school coaches in this state because recruiting the right players is essential to success as a team.
“We think he is the right man and this is the right time for he and his family to come back to the place they call home,” Dottavio concluded.
Whitten earned coach of the year titles twice in the LSC North and once in the LSC South, and was the league-wide LSC Coach of the Year in 1996. He was also named West Region Coach of the Year in 2001, when his Texans upset No. 3 nationally ranked Chadron State (Neb.) in the opening round of the playoffs before falling to California-Davis in the national quarterfinals.
Whitten has won more games at Tarleton than any coach since it became four-year university. The winningest coach all-time at Tarleton is WJ Wisdom, with 71 junior college victories in the 1920s and 1930s.
Whitten replaces Cary Fowler, who was 30-32 in six seasons as head coach. Fowler led Tarleton to a share of the Lone Star Conference title in 2013.
Photos courtesy Dr. Chet Martin