While a few of its old Sun Belt Conference rivals celebrated their move to Conference USA earlier this week, North Texas remained patient.
UNT officials and fans were thrilled about joining the league, a move that became official Monday. UNT just decided to wait a little longer to have what amounts to an unofficial celebration tonight when the Denton Noon Kiwanis Club sponsors the city’s annual fireworks show at Apogee Stadium.
The event that annually attracts thousands will offer UNT officials and fans a chance to celebrate the school’s move to C-USA, not to mention promote all that the new league offers to a large chunk of the city’s residents.
The event, which previously took place at Fouts Field, moves to Apogee for the first time tonight. UNT officials plan to promote C-USA with displays on the video board and also will be on hand for the annual parade through downtown, where they will pass out T-shirts and trinkets.
UNT spent 12 years as the only Texas school in the Sun Belt and now will be aligned in a league with Rice, UTEP and Texas-San Antonio, as well as regional foe Louisiana Tech.
Tulsa and Tulane will be in C-USA next season before moving to the American Athletic Conference in 2014.
“The proximity of the teams in our conference will create rivalries and more publicity,” UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal said. “We have three in-state schools in addition to us. People will pay attention.”
A look at UNT’s history shows that is the case.
A crowd of 25,476 packed Apogee Stadium last season for UNT’s game against Houston, a crowd that ranks as the fourth-largest in program history for an on-campus game.
Six of the top 10 crowds for on-campus games in UNT history have been for games with a Texas rival. The other four were for games against Tulsa and a pair of service academies in Army and Navy that have a national following.
Moving to C-USA will benefit UNT with increased revenue from the league and a better television contract, but there is little doubt one of the biggest benefits for the program will be the exposure the conference will provide.
“It increases our visibility tremendously with the media markets we will play in,” UNT women’s basketball coach Mike Petersen said when the school announced the move. “The television package is significantly better. Student-athletes want to be recognized, and the way they are recognized is through media exposure. This is a great step in that direction. There is no question about that.”
UNT officials will be pushing that idea tonight while trying to educate Denton residents outside the program’s traditional fan base about just what the school’s move to C-USA will mean. And, perhaps more importantly, UNT will try to give casual fans a better idea of whom it will face on a regular basis.
C-USA is undergoing a dramatic change in terms of its members, a shift that will begin this season and won’t be finished until the 2015 football season.
SMU and Houston left C-USA and will begin playing in the American Athletic Conference this fall. Tulsa and Tulane will leave C-USA for the AAC in 2014, when UNT’s old Sun Belt rival Western Kentucky will move in to help fill the void.
Villarreal said pretty much everyone who has stopped him to talk about the program over the last few months has wanted to talk about UNT’s move to C-USA and how it will impact the school.
While there is an excitement about the move, one of the questions UNT officials have been asked frequently is who will be in the conference this fall and in the future.
Tonight’s fireworks show will offer UNT a chance to address those questions as part of an ongoing promotional campaign that began when the school first announced the move in the spring of 2012.
UNT already has been promoting the move while building its 2014 recruiting class.
Noah Joseph, UNT’s recruiting coordinator and safeties coach, said in the spring that Texas high school coaches have developed a positive opinion of C-USA due to the league’s success over the years. The respect those coaches have for C-USA has filtered down to their players.
“Conference USA means a lot more to those high school coaches,” Joseph said. “They’re talking and the word is getting out.”
UNT will look to spread the word a little more tonight when it will celebrate its move to C-USA with thousands of members of the Denton community.
“We are going to have visibility that we haven’t had before,” UNT President Lane Rawlins said shortly after UNT was introduced as a new member of C-USA. “The door is open. The sky is the limit.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870.