EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first story in a three-part series on the 100th anniversary of the North Texas football program. Today’s story is an overview of the program’s past and its future.
C. Dan Smith tucked away piece after piece of the North Texas memorabilia he collected over the years on a bookshelf across from the dark wooden desk in his Plano office.
A football commemorating the 1959 Sun Bowl, which Smith played in, sits front and center with a Pittsburgh Steelers helmet signed by UNT legend “Mean” Joe Greene to the right. Just below rests another football commemorating UNT’s 2002 New Orleans Bowl win over Cincinnati.
Those mementos — and 12 more that accompany them — represent a few of the great moments Smith has taken part in or witnessed over the more than 50 years he’s been associated with UNT’s athletic department. During that time, Smith has gone from being a player to the chairman of UNT’s Board of Regents to one of the school’s most influential athletic boosters.
That experience gives Smith an unparalleled perspective on where UNT has been and where it’s heading as the program reaches a milestone with its 100th anniversary this fall.
What excites and concerns Smith — and a lot of other UNT officials and boosters — is that the milestone coincides with circumstances that could make the next few years a tipping point in program history.
“The progression over 100 years has been very slow,” Smith said. “As you start growing and things start happening, it’s good to continue that growth, but it has to be accelerated. Once you move up, there is more pressure to continue moving up and get better and better. We are in a position where we could make a tremendous leap in the next three to five years.”
UNT made its long-anticipated switch to Conference USA from the Sun Belt earlier this month, a move that will provide the program with additional revenue and exposure. The 2013 campaign also is UNT’s third in Apogee Stadium, a 30,850-seat venue that came with a $79 million price tag, and its third under Dan McCarney, the most highly regarded coach the Mean Green has employed in decades.
UNT’s football program has never been in a better position to succeed, or under more pressure to capitalize on the investment the school has made to give it a better foundation.
Eight years have passed since the Mean Green last posted a winning record or played in a bowl game. UNT is tied with UAB for the sixth-longest bowl drought in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
UNT’s attendance has risen and financial support for the program has increased over the last five years, but both figures lag behind many of the school’s new peers in C-USA.
How the Mean Green fares in advancing, from the results on the field to the support the program generates from fans and boosters over the next few years, could impact UNT’s athletic program for decades.
“The program has the potential to go two ways,” UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal said. “With the investment we have made and the staff we have brought in, if we can get our fan base to come out and support this team in what is going to be a time of transition, I think we have the ability to be a program that is recognized nationally for success.
“If we don’t support the program, we could become average.”
A history of success, slumps
Jordan Case is confident UNT can become nationally recognized, largely because of his experiences as a player.
Case was one of the best quarterbacks in UNT history and played for Hayden Fry, one of the most successful coaches to ever guide the Mean Green.
UNT fans will look back on a host of great eras during the 100-year anniversary of the program. The time Case and Fry spent together will without a doubt be one of them.
Case was UNT’s quarterback in 1978 when the Mean Green beat Oklahoma State and hammered UTEP 49-0. Fry left for Iowa a short time later, but not before posting milestone moments, including a win over Tennessee in 1975, a 10-1 season in 1977 and a 9-2 finish in 1978.
“That was one of the bright spans for North Texas athletics,” Case said. “It put us on par with a lot of other Division I schools. We were ranked in the top 20. Those were big years for North Texas.”
UNT history is dotted with great eras, such as the six years the Mean Green played under Fry beginning in 1973.
UNT won two Missouri Valley Conference titles in three years from 1966-68 when Greene established himself as one of the greatest players in college football history.
Odus Mitchell led UNT to its first two bowl games in a three-year span, the 1946 Optimist Bowl and the 1948 Salad Bowl, while Darrell Dickey guided the Mean Green to four straight New Orleans Bowls from 2001-04.
UNT has honored some of those players during a series of 100th-anniversary year events, starting this spring when the school named its all-century team. UNT’s players will wear special jerseys designed to honor the Greene and Fry eras for its season opener against Idaho.
That history is a big reason Case and other UNT boosters are confident the Mean Green can once again be a college football power. UNT has been successful before and they believe the program can be again.
Faith in the future was one of the reasons Case agreed to serve as the chairman of UNT’s stadium fundraising committee that help guide the school’s efforts to construct Apogee.
“If we are going to get back to the top level, it takes everything,” Case said. “It’s about winning. What will help us get there is that with Apogee now we have something to sell that is on par with the other Division I programs in the state.”
What often has separated UNT from the competition is the fact that the school’s football program often hasn’t had much to sell and has been wildly inconsistent.
UNT spent 59 years playing at Fouts Field, a venue that deteriorated over the last 20 years to the point that wasps had nested in the press box and the school had to bring in portable generators to power concession stands on game day. The venue inarguably was the worst home stadium used by an FBS team in Texas.
“Unfortunately, for a long time this program wasn’t managed well by the university or whoever was in charge and given the infrastructure that allows you to have long-term success,” Villarreal said.
As a result, UNT has suffered nearly as many dark times as it has stretches of success.
The school dropped down to what was then Division I-AA in 1983, just five seasons after Fry left for Iowa, and didn’t move back up to Division I-A until 12 seasons had passed.
UNT went 1-16 at home from 2008 to 2010, leaving a poor impression on a whole generation of students and potential fans.
“In the past, we have made surges and then backed off,” Smith said. “We can’t do that anymore. We can’t go in at the bottom of Conference USA. We have to go in at the middle and keep moving up in a hurry. If we do that, our alumni base will slowly but surely come back.”
The challenges ahead
A look at C-USA schools and what they have to work with shows how big a challenge competing in the league right away will be for UNT.
Figures obtained by USA Today show that UNT ranked near the bottom of the league in several key financial categories in 2012.
UNT was 10th in revenue ($19,029,641), seventh in contributions ($2,830,658) and fifth in student fees ($9,434,446) among the 11 public schools that will compete in C-USA’s football league in 2013. Public schools are legally required to release the information, while private schools, including C-USA members Rice, Tulsa and Tulane, do not have to release those figures.
UNT’s average home attendance of 18,927 last season ranked ninth among the 14 teams in C-USA’s 2013 lineup.
“If you look at athletic fees, contributions to the athletic department, budgets for recruiting, coaches’ salaries and then look at the revenue side, we are not where we need to be,” Smith said. “That includes ticket sales, donations, product sales and student fees.”
The move to a new conference is expected to help UNT improve those figures for two reasons — the addition of three Texas rivals in Rice, UTEP and Texas-San Antonio and the higher revenue teams in the league will receive when compared with the Sun Belt.
UNT was the only Texas team in the Sun Belt during its 12 years in the league, an era when the Mean Green rarely played in-state rivals that have drawn some of the largest crowds in program history. Six of the top 10 crowds for a game on campus in UNT football history saw the Mean Green face a Texas rival.
UNT faced four Texas FBS opponents in the last five years.
C-USA’s projected $13 million television contract is expected to boost the amount of TV money UNT receives per season from the $40,000 it earned in the Sun Belt to more than $800,000.
Those factors could add to the momentum UNT has already built.
The school set a record for total attendance of 113,186 in 2011, the year UNT opened Apogee.
More donors also are coming on board. UNT’s contributions rose from $1.2 million to $2.8 million from 2011 to 2012 in USA Today’s listings, a 133 percent increase.
Ernie Kuehne, a former member of the UNT track team who is now a Dallas attorney and businessman, gave $1 million in the spring of 2011 to help fund construction of Apogee. He recently gave another $1 million toward the construction of a basketball practice facility.
Kuehne named the impact UNT had on his life and his confidence in the direction of the school’s athletic department under Villarreal as the reasons behind his financial commitment. He’s hoping others will follow his lead, from high-dollar donors down to those who can afford nothing more than buying season tickets.
“If we are going to be successful, the fans are where it has to grow from,” Kuehne said. “A program doesn’t grow from the large donor. The large donor may put things in motion, but the fiber of athletic programs has to be the person who buys tickets in football and basketball and is a member of the Mean Green Club [UNT’s fundraising organization for athletics].”
Apogee Stadium has helped attract fans, but school officials say UNT will have to produce wins and bowl appearances for the program to continue to grow.
The Mean Green hasn’t won consistently in years, but McCarney and his players say they are headed in the right direction.
While a 9-15 record at the two-year mark of McCarney’s tenure might not sound impressive, it’s a dramatic improvement. UNT won eight games in the four years before McCarney’s arrival combined.
UNT hired the former Iowa State coach largely because of his history of rebuilding programs as an assistant at Iowa under Fry, at Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez and as a head coach at Iowa State. The Cyclones finished 0-10-1 the year before McCarney arrived in 1995. Six years later, Iowa State began a run of playing in five bowl games in six seasons.
“At the heart of it is a foundation that has been built the right way,” McCarney said of UNT’s program. “It’s the conduct, behavior and academic success of players, not accepting losing and knowing what it takes to win that are important. Going to postseason play and being honored all sounds good, but who is going to go get it? Do we have the fiber and substance we need to get there? I sure feel good about it.”
UNT quarterback Derek Thompson acknowledged that the program’s 100th anniversary is significant, but he said the move to C-USA is what has the team excited.
“It can be a really big year, especially with going to a new conference,” Thompson said. “There is a lot of hype about it.”
There also is a sense that UNT’s ability to handle that hype, the move to C-USA and the pressure a milestone season presents will have long-term implications for the program. UNT has more to work with than ever before but must capitalize on those improvements.
“Do we need to start winning football games? Yeah,” Villarreal said. “Dan [McCarney] understands that. I understand that. The players understand that. And there is no reason we shouldn’t.”
Smith feels the same way. He helped guide UNT through its first 100 years of football and says that if the school meets the challenges of the next few years he could have a chance to add to his collection of UNT memorabilia.
He still has plenty of office shelf space left.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.