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Kansas State Football Coaching Search: Let’s talk about Seth Littrell

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While Brent Venables is the top name on many K-State fans’ wish lists, North Texas coach Seth Littrell has arguably been the most rumored replacement for Bill Snyder

But were they ever going to?
Seth Littrell cut his teeth under several branches of the Bill Snyder coaching tree, now he might be on his way to replace the man himself.
Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, while we patiently (right?) waited for a decision from Bill Snyder, the media began to talk very seriously about North Texas head coach Seth Littrell as Snyder’s replacement, with some going as far as saying Littrell is the “expected” hire.

So who is Seth Littrell and why would he want him on the K-State sidelines?

Why Seth Littrell?

Littrell is one of the hottest names among mid-major coaches right now. He’s been mentioned either seriously or in passing for every open head coaching job this offseason. As Bill Connelly wrote in his North Texas preview before this season:

“No one has jumped from North Texas to a power conference head coaching gig in nearly 40 years. With another strong year or two, Littrell will probably end that streak.”

But why is he so coveted?

Littrell inherited the North Texas coaching job from former Iowa State coach Dan McCarney. McCarney had led the oft-hapless Mean Green to nine wins in his third season in 2013, but managed to win only four of his next 17 games and found himself unemployed after registering an 0-5 start in 2015.

The Mean Green finished 1-11 that season, but Littrell spun the culture around, winning five games in 2016 and nine in 2017. He led them to nine wins again this year, and may have 10 if he stays on and beats Utah State in the New Mexico Bowl. So he’s a winner, and he’s also young. At 40, Littrell is one of the youngest coaches listed among likely Snyder replacements.

Does he have any K-State ties?

Littrell doesn’t have his own branch of the Snyder coaching tree like Brent Venables or Jim Leavitt, but if the branches had branches, he’d be on several. Littrell was a running back at Oklahoma under former K-State defensive coordinator Bob Stoops in 1999 and 2000, earning a national championship ring his senior year.

After graduating, Littrell joined the Kansas staff as a graduate assistant for two seasons under Mark Mangino. He escaped the Snyder tree for two seasons as Mike Leach’s running backs coach at Texas Tech before joining the Arizona staff as Mike Stoops’ offensive coordinator until 2011.

While he’s not an alumnus and he’s never coached here, it’s safe to say some Snyder coaching DNA has probably crept in somewhere along the line.

What will he bring to K-State?

This is a hard question to answer, but one thing we do know is that Littrell is no slouch when it comes to offense — something K-State didn’t do very well this season.

North Texas finished 122nd in offensive S&P+ in 2015, the year before Littrell arrived. In his first season, the Mean Green improved slightly to 111th before rocketing up the rankings to 28th in 2017. They fell five spots to 33rd this year, but they averaged 36 points per game this season including almost 49 points per game through their first four games. They opened the season beating SMU 46-23 at home, then two games later, they destroyed Arkansas 44-17 in Fayetteville, where this happened:

(Of course, that’s not offense. But I couldn’t not include it.)

The North Texas offense under Littrell has managed to be fairly successful both on the ground and in the air. In 2017, the Mean Green ranked 36th in Passing S&P+ and 63rd in Rushing S&P+. This season, rushing improved to 36th while passing dropped 11 spots to 47. To quantify that offensive success into more easily understood terms, the offense was the 18th best in the country in 2018 in terms of yards per play, averaging 6.1. That’s up from 44th a year ago, where they averaged 5.8. The run game averaged 4.6 yards per play in 2018 and 4.1 in 2017. The passing game averaged just under eight yards per pass attempt in both 2017 and 2018.

Littrell’s offensive coordinator is Graham Harrell, who set the record books on fire as quarterback at Texas Tech from 2006-09. So, as you can imagine, North Texas likes to throw the ball. They have averaged just over 38 pass attempts per game in each of the last two seasons. Those aren’t Mike Leach numbers, but it’s safe to say if Littrell comes to K-State and brings Harrell with him, we’ll see a lot more passing than we’ve seen in many years in Manhattan, which might suit Skylar Thompson just fine.

But running the ball is in Littrell’s blood, which might be why his Mean Green don’t sling the ball around like Leach. I already mentioned Littrell was a running back at Oklahoma, but I haven’t mentioned that his father Jimmy was a fullback at Oklahoma in the Barry Switzer wishbone offenses of the 70s. North Texas ran the ball around 35 times a game in both 2017 and 2018, which is about five carries short of what K-State averaged.

I mention offense so much because that’s what Littrell knows best. His last season as offensive coordinator at North Carolina saw the Tar Heels finish tied for first in the nation in yards per play with 7.1. If he ends up in the Little Apple, it’s likely that Littrell will have his fingerprints all over the offense regardless of coordinators, much like Snyder did in the early days. His North Texas defenses haven’t been terribly successful, so his coordinator hire is likely to be crucial to his success.

OK, enough about the on-field product. What about recruiting?

Littrell’s recruiting numbers weren’t exactly stellar out the gate. According to 247, his first class in 2016 ranked 8th in Conference USA and the 2017 class dropped to 11th out of 14 teams. The 2019 class is much better, ranking 1st in the conference and 61st nationally as of this writing, 44 spots better than the current Kansas State class. With a renewed energy and likely a much bigger focus on recruiting coupled with K-State’s recent and future facility improvements, it’s easy to get excited about what a Littrell staff might be able to do here.

So what’s the bad news?

As mentioned, Littrell is easily the most talked about possibility to replace Bill Snyder, with at least one outlet going as far as to say he’s the expected hire. But that doesn’t mean a lot. We’ve been here before. Just two days after following GPC’s lead, the Denton Record-Chronicle reported that Littrell-to-K-State was far from a sure thing. Then North Texas AD Wren Baker tweeted that there was “no need to fret over rumors.”

While K-State is a much more attractive landing spot than it was in 1989, or even 2006 or 2009, it still comes with it’s share of challenges, the biggest of which is coming out from the shadow of Snyder. That’s hard enough on it’s own, and it might not help that Snyder is set to remain in the athletic department in an as-yet-undefined “ambassador” role. It’s hard to know whether Littrell wants that pressure, or even if his success at North Texas can translate to the Big 12.

But what if it does? If Littrell is a hot commodity now, imagine what he might be if he can be successful at K-State. College football’s coaching carousel is always volatile, and there are no guarantees Littrell will stay put if he can manage to win in the Big 12. Lincoln Riley is a hot name for an NFL coaching job and if he doesn’t leave this season, he may in the future, leaving Littrell’s alma mater open for the taking.

But the risk of a coach leaving exists with any name on the list, save for maybe Jim Leavitt. Yes, even the mighty Brent Venables is probably vulerable to being coaxed away for a higher profile gig if he comes to K-State and wins. That’s just a risk the Wildcats will have to be willing to take.