Kim Phillips: UNT bowl game puts spotlight on Denton

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The University of North Texas Mean Green is headed to its first bowl game in nine years! I am excited as both a Dentonite and an alum.

The Mean Green will face the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year’s Day at the Cotton Bowl stadium.

Back in the Sunbelt Conference days, UNT went to the New Orleans bowl four years in a row, from 2001-04. Since then, our football luck hasn’t been so great.

For head coach Dan McCarney and his team, this ball game has been their goal since he arrived on the scene three seasons ago to put Mean Green football back on the map.

Rick Villarreal, director of UNT athletics, is charged up about the bowl game but not surprised.

“This is an exciting time,” he said. “A lot of people thought with this being our first year in Conference USA, that we’d have to grow into it. But we’ve been getting ready for this for a long time.”

I am not fluent in “sports-speak,” so I won’t attempt to talk about stats or the why and how details that got us here.

The sports writing experts are doing a fine job of feeding those to you who truly understand the language of football.

What I do know is what this season and its culmination at the Heart of Texas Bowl means, not just to UNT, but to Denton.

With mere game day insight into the football religion, I know that being one of only 70 college teams to be invited to a bowl game is a really big deal.

I know that the Mean Green is the only team in our region going to a bowl game, meaning ours is the top team in North Texas.

I know that winning bowl status our first year in a new conference is huge. And I know that playing this bowl game on ESPNU on New Year’s Day, the colossal college football day of the year, will catapult the Mean Green, UNT and Denton into the consciousness of millions.

What will it mean? Ramped up recruiting for UNT, visitors scoping out a wildly successful story and the media’s spotlight on Denton as they watch the future of the Mean Green unfold.

Hank Dickenson is UNT athletics’ deputy director. He echoed Villarreal’s sentiment.

“We’ve been building for a number of years to be ready for the move to Conference USA, and being chosen for a bowl game our first year out shows we are on the right track. This is a launching point for what’s to come.”

When we visited, Dickenson went on to talk about the Mean Green’s goal to be Denton’s hometown team, not just UNT’s. Having a great, winning team definitely helps facilitate the passion and connection necessary between the two.

It’s evident even now with flourishing attendance at Apogee Stadium and the fun game-day frenzy in Mean Green Village as fans take up tailgating like never before.

Denton plans to celebrate the Heart of Texas Bowl accordingly. For starters, UNT athletics is partnering with the Denton County Transportation Authority to provide A-train service from Denton to the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day.

Villarreal explains that this partnership is nothing new.

“UNT and DCTA work together to reach the thousands of alums in the region every game day to ride the A-train, enjoy the restaurants and downtown, attend the game, and then enjoy more of Denton afterward,” he said. “This time we’re teaming up to get Denton to Dallas to cheer on the Mean Green.”

Alums who haven’t seen Denton since they left are always amazed when they return.

Case in point: my own brother. He lives on the other side of Dallas but toured his alma mater recently for the first time in more than a decade. He was incredulous at both UNT and Denton’s evolution from sleepy college town to vibrant, happening city.

His story is not unique.

The Mean Green’s drive into bowl glory may be the touchdown needed to reconnect with the vast, past UNT community living in easy train-ride distance from Denton.

A Heart of Texas Bowl Bash party will be underway when Denton comes home from the game.

All around downtown within walking distance from the A-train, restaurants and venues will be lauding our hometown team with specials, music and Denton-style festivity.

What a way to start a new year!

I already have my tickets. See you at the game.

KIM PHILLIPS is vice president of the Denton Convention & Visitors Bureau at the Denton Chamber of Commerce. She loves promoting Denton’s original, independent spirit through the city’s sense of place and cast of many characters. She can be reached at kim@discoverdenton.com.


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