Tommy Perry wasn’t expecting to be impressed last fall when he visited North Texas for the first time as an assistant coach at South Alabama, not after what he had been told about the school and its football program for pretty much his entire life.
Perry grew up in East Texas before going on to play at Texas A&M and heard about UNT during its days playing in a rapidly deteriorating Fouts Field as a member of the Southland Conference.
“Coming out of high school, North Texas, to me, was so far down there compared to A&M,” said Perry, who is entering his first season as an assistant at UNT. “When I came back with South Alabama for the game last year and saw the new football stadium and the dorms right there, I could see it’s a great situation.”
Ask Perry, UNT head coach Dan McCarney or just about anyone else associated with the program and they will say people don’t know enough about what the school has to work with, including a veteran coaching staff, a new stadium and an impending move to Conference USA, especially not those who matter most — high school recruits in the talent-rich state of Texas.
The problem is one UNT will try to rectify during a statewide summer camp tour that begins today at Apogee Stadium.
Over the course of the next two months, UNT’s coaches will fan out across the state, making stops everywhere from Arlington to San Antonio to Tyler. Along the way, they will do all they can to get the top players in the state to come to the same conclusion Perry did when he joined UNT’s staff — that the program is changing for the better, thanks to the improvements it has made over the past several years.
UNT has always had a lot to work with, including a diverse student body with more than 33,000 students. McCarney is selling those attributes, the recent changes in the program and what could take place at a school looking to overcome a tough recent past.
“We can be part of a dramatic turnaround, a part of history and something that no one thinks we can do,” McCarney said. “I have done that so many times in my career. It’s so unbelievably special.”
McCarney helped take a downtrodden Iowa State program that finished 0-10-1 the year before he arrived in 1995 to five bowl games in six years, beginning in his sixth season.
UNT wasn’t in quite that big a hole when McCarney arrived after the 2010 season but had gone six straight seasons without winning more than three games.
The Mean Green has improved since, going 5-7 and 4-8 in its first two seasons under McCarney.
UNT is expecting more, including regular bowl appearances, after investing $79 million to build Apogee Stadium and $108 million overall on facilities over the past 11 years.
UNT hasn’t been to a bowl game since the end of its four-year run as Sun Belt Conference champions in 2004, when the Mean Green made the last of four straight New Orleans Bowl appearances.
UNT’s eight-year bowl drought puts the program in a tie with UAB for the sixth-longest slump nationally.
While there are a host of reasons for that drought, there is little doubt the quickest way for UNT to end it would be to increase the team’s talent level.
McCarney and ESPN recruiting analyst Jeremy Crabtree said they can see UNT’s talent level improving, but a look at the overall trends when it comes to the recruiting rankings show the program still has room to grow.
UNT has not ranked above 86th nationally in the Rivals.com team recruiting rankings since 2005.
“We need more quality Division I players,” McCarney said. “That is why we are getting better right now. We have more guys who can play at the Division I level and play on Sundays [in the NFL].”
Something to sell
The centerpiece of UNT’s efforts to improve the way top high school prospects see the program sits prominently on Interstate 35 (W/E).
Apogee Stadium was one of the largest capital investments UNT has made in the history of the school.
Add in the adjacent Mean Green Athletic Center, and the cost of the entire complex was close to $100 million.
The venue is a dramatic upgrade over what UNT had to work with at Fouts Field, its home from 1952 until the program moved into Apogee Stadium in 2011.
UNT’s three-prong pitch to recruits of having a chance to play in a new stadium after a move to C-USA under the direction of a veteran staff is starting to make a difference in the reputation of the program across the state.
“There’s no question those things have made North Texas more appealing,” said Guyer head coach John Walsh, whose program annually produces several top college prospects. “Before, kids didn’t want to stay home and play there. They were never a part of the conversation when you talked to players and parents about colleges. Now they are in the conversation.”
Apogee Stadium is perhaps the biggest reason why.
The venue that seats a little more than 30,000 has received rave reviews from fans, players and college football officials.
Vanderbilt officials recently toured Apogee. The school is considering renovating Vanderbilt Stadium after the Commodores made their second consecutive bowl appearance last season.
“We had the Vanderbilt coach [James Franklin] come in and look at our facilities, shake his head and say, ‘We’re in the SEC and we don’t have this kind of place,’” UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal said. “That means that if he can recruit kids and do what he has done, we have the ability here, and it has been validated by someone outside the program.”
There might not be a person with a better perspective of how the addition of the complex has changed the perception of UNT in Texas than Ryan head coach Joey Florence.
Florence annually sends players to top college programs across the country and had the nation’s No. 1 recruit, according to ESPN, two years ago in Mario Edwards, a defensive end now at Florida State.
Florence said he has seen high school players become more interested in UNT during his 14 years at Ryan and has seen the school’s profile rise quickly since Apogee opened. Crabtree has also seen UNT’s status improve.
“The new stadium and facilities have gotten them into the game with some kids,” Crabtree said. “A lot of players are interested in shiny new facilities, video boards and things like that. When you are recruiting against other schools in Texas, you have to have solid facilities and be competitive with your peers. They were behind everyone, but they have made a commitment to moving the program forward.”
The fact that UNT will be playing in the same league with some of those Texas schools after joining Conference USA this summer is another factor that could help make UNT more appealing.
UNT spent 12 years as the only Texas school in the Sun Belt Conference but will play Rice, UTEP and UT-San Antonio on a regular basis in C-USA.
“Players recognize Conference USA,” said Noah Joseph, UNT’s safeties coach and recruiting coordinator. “High school coaches don’t necessarily push kids to go to a school, but kids hear coaches talk. Conference USA means a lot more to those high school coaches.”
UNT is also banking on the impact McCarney can have in terms of making the program more appealing to Texas players.
The players UNT is recruiting now might not be familiar with McCarney’s exploits as the head coach at Iowa State over 12 seasons beginning in 1995, but their coaches are.
And while UNT’s last bowl game might seem like ancient history to today’s high school seniors, many remember Florida’s win over Oklahoma in the 2008 BCS national title game.
McCarney was the Gators’ assistant head coach and picked up a national title ring that season, one that is prominently displayed in UNT’s summer camp brochure.
Florence said McCarney lends UNT legitimacy that has helped the Mean Green significantly in terms of the way high school players perceive the program.
Making the pitch
One of the first moves McCarney made in the off-season was to add Perry and Ryan Walters to his staff.
Both are in the early stages of their coaching careers and have spent the summer on the road reaching out to the top players in the state.
Joseph, another young coach, will also play a key role in UNT’s recruiting push over the next few months.
“Recruiting is a big part of my job, especially being a young coach,” Walters said. “You can build relationships with younger kids and relate to them because you were in their position not too long ago. We probably listen to the same music. That helps.”
Walters is from Colorado but recruited Texas while he was an assistant at Arizona in 2011 and spent the 2012 season as a graduate assistant at Oklahoma, which also recruits Texas heavily.
Perry knows the high school coaches in Texas, dating back to his days growing up in Tyler, and recruits East Texas.
“There are a lot of kids with speed out there,” Perry said. “There are some small towns in that area, but if you are willing to get in there and work, you can get some good kids.”
While UNT will depend on some of its younger coaches to lead the way as it puts its class together over the next few months, McCarney doesn’t see any reason he shouldn’t be able to send out his assistants and see each sign at least a couple of the state’s top players.
“We are in the state of Texas,” McCarney said. “If you can’t sign two or three real quality guys, you are not a very good recruiter.”
Closing the deal
Chad Davis might be the best example of the type of player UNT has signed and hopes to bring in more often, thanks to its improved circumstances.
The former Fort Bend Bush standout was ranked No. 53 among cornerbacks in the country by ESPN for the class of 2013 and was also rated No. 51 on the Houston Chronicle’s list of the top 100 players in the Houston area.
Texas Tech, UTEP and Utah State all offered Davis a scholarship before he attended one of UNT’s summer camps and committed to the Mean Green because of what the program offers.
“I really like the campus, the facilities and the coaches,” Davis said when he committed to the program. “I also like that North Texas is going to Conference USA. My family will be able to see me play at close places like Rice.”
Davis also named the opportunity to help turn UNT’s program around as a reason he decided to play for McCarney.
UNT hasn’t won consistently in years, but Davis bought into the Mean Green’s plan to change that and became arguably the top player who signed with the team in the class of 2013.
UNT is hoping more players will follow his lead this summer.
DeSoto teammates Johnavhon Grahm and Shaquel Jackson gave UNT a base from which to build when the duo committed before the beginning of the Mean Green’s summer camp tour.
Both defensive linemen talked about their belief in McCarney and where he is taking the program after committing to the school.
The future of UNT’s program could depend on how the team’s coaching staff fares in convincing other top Texas prospects that what the school has — a new stadium, a spot in C-USA and an experienced coaching staff led by McCarney — will give the program what it takes to pull out of its run of eight straight losing seasons.
“We have the best high school football in America in Texas,” McCarney said. “Now we want to be one of those 12 Division I programs in the state that everyone respects. There have been some great success stories in Texas. We want to be the next one.”
UNT knows that to reach that goal, it will have to upgrade its talent and is banking on its ability to lure some of Texas’ best players to Denton.
A key step in that process begins today when UNT sets out on its tour of the state.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
North Texas camp tour
North Texas will stage the following summer football camps this summer:
Today — Apogee Stadium, Denton
Monday — Panther Stadium, Duncanville; James Martin High School, Arlington
Tuesday — Hanby Stadium, Mesquite; Tyler Junior College
Wednesday — Deer Park High School; Rhodes Memorial Stadium, Katy
Thursday — Harry B. Orem Stadium, San Antonio
Friday — Cedar Ridge High School, Round Rock
July 26 — Dan McCarney Kicking Camp, Apogee Stadium; “Friday Night Lights,” Apogee Stadium, Denton
Longest FBS Bowl droughts
Here are the longest bowl droughts among Football Bowl Subdivision schools. The schools, listed with the year of their last bowls, are:
New Mexico State, 1960
Eastern Michigan, 1987
Washington State, 2003
North Texas, UAB 2004
Building the talent base
Where North Texas has ranked in the Rivals.com national recruiting rankings:
2013 — Tied, 117
2012 — Tied, 99
2011 — Tied, 102
2010 — 98
2009 — Tied, 104
2008 — 86
2007 — Tied, 113
2006 — 113
2005 — 94