EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the second story in a three-part series on the 100th anniversary of the North Texas football program. Today’s story examines the program’s history.
Joe Greene kept trying to correct the people he ran into who called him “Mean” Joe Greene after he joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969, fresh off a standout career at North Texas.
The UNT football team’s mascot is an Eagle, and at the time so was its official nickname, one that was starting to fade away with the rise of the moniker Mean Green.
“The Mean Green was our defense, but people kept calling me ‘Mean’ Joe,” Greene said. “The name elevated me in the minds of people who might not have remembered me as well otherwise. It’s not uncommon for football players to have nicknames like that, so I stopped fighting it.”
Joe Greene was known as “Mean” Joe from that point on during a career that earned him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. UNT held out a little longer, but eventually adopted Mean Green as the nickname for all its sports teams as well.
The rise of the Mean Green nickname is a part of the colorful history of UNT and its football program that will celebrate its 100-year anniversary this fall.
UNT played its first season in 1913 and has left its mark on the college football world.
UNT was one of the first schools in the Southwest to integrate its football team in 1956 when Abner Haynes and Leon King joined the freshman team. Greene helped elevate the program in the late 1960s before legendary coach Hayden Fry put it on the national map in the 1970s.
UNT will celebrate that history throughout the 2013 season and unveil throwback jerseys in the next few weeks for its season opener against Idaho. Those uniforms will incorporate elements of the jerseys worn in the Greene and Fry eras. The school announced a 100th anniversary team at its spring game.
“It’s very important,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said of recognizing the program’s history. “You talk about the history of the program with the teams, the players, the coaches and their families. We want to make them proud throughout my career at North Texas, but we are going to put a lot of time into that first game this year with throwback jerseys and a 100-year celebration.”
That celebration will include looking back on the integration and the Greene and Fry eras, which are arguably the highlights of UNT’s football history.
Breaking the color barrier
King can still remember being spit on and kicked, heckled and mocked during a game in Corsicana in 1956, the year he and Haynes, his friend from Dallas, arrived at UNT and made college football history.
King and Haynes were black. Their coach, Ken Bahnsen, and the rest of his players on the freshman squad that season, were white.
That mix made UNT unwelcome when the team arrived for a game against Navarro Junior College.
Bahnsen was met at the gate to the stadium by three men who asked if he was going to put his two black players into the game.
Bahnsen did, despite the threat of violence.
“That game was the worst part of it,” King said. “We were heckled, and it was all directed at myself and Abner. They shouted at us from the stands. It was even worse on the field.”
Bob Way, a lineman on the team, credited Haynes for helping UNT handle the situation.
“Abner huddled us together and told us it didn’t bother him and not to let it bother us,” Way said. “The boos turned to cheers before it was all over.”
The reason for those cheers was obvious after UNT rolled to a 39-14 win and rushed to the bus to get out of town.
“I called the paper to tell them we won and told them that Abner scored twice,” Bahnsen said. “They asked who else scored. I couldn’t remember, so I asked the players. They told me Abner scored all our touchdowns.”
That night was one of the few rough times UNT experienced that season or in the subsequent years, when Haynes developed the talent that would carry him through an NFL career that earned him a spot in the Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame.
“It was a lot of fun to play with those guys,” said C. Dan Smith, who played with Haynes and King later in their careers at UNT. “They weren’t any different. I enjoyed it tremendously because of the type of guys they were. I remember Abner’s locker was near mine. We had so much fun. It was all related to friendship.”
The bond UNT’s players formed during that era helped them make college football history as one of the first teams to integrate in the Southwest, nine years before Jerry LeVias became the first black player in the Southwest Conference to receive a scholarship at SMU.
“SMU brags about LeVias,” Bahnsen said. “Heck, we were way before that. People forget that North Texas was first.”
That achievement fostered a bond with the team’s players that has lasted a lifetime.
“The guys who played on that team have been getting together for 50 years and are really close,” Haynes said. “I am so proud of those guys who played on that team.”
Fry puts UNT on map
Fry is best known for his time at Iowa, but he also oversaw one of the highlight eras of UNT’s 100 years of football from 1973-78 before leaving to take over the Hawkeyes program.
Some of the best seasons and biggest wins in UNT history came after Fry arrived to coach a team that had finished 1-10 in 1972.
UNT beat Tennessee 21-14 three years later. The win is among the most memorable in school history and ushered in a run of success.
UNT went 7-4 in both 1975 and 1976 before rolling to 10-1 and 9-2 finishes in Fry’s last two years at the school.
Fry attributed those breakthrough seasons to a simple plan a few years ago after UNT hired McCarney, one of his former assistant coaches at Iowa.
“My dad told me that he didn’t know what I was going to do, but that if I was going to be successful, I needed to surround myself with winners,” Fry said. “I never hired a coach who wasn’t motivated to become a head coach.”
Legendary Kansas State coach Bill Snyder worked for Fry at UNT, where he tutored quarterback Jordan Case.
Case led UNT to wins over Oklahoma State and Memphis in 1978 and was later inducted in the school’s Hall of Fame.
“Coach Fry knew how to bring out the best in his players,” Case said. “You wanted to do well for him. He strongly believed in team cohesiveness and he was an innovator.”
Fry became famous for his psychological tricks, including painting opponents’ locker rooms pink, but his former players attribute his success largely to an ability to get the most out of them.
“[Former Cowboys coach Tom] Landry was a good friend of mine,” Fry said. “I wanted to copy what he did, but learned really quickly that I didn’t have his players. I had to do what I could teach and what the players could execute.”
Fry looked at the players when he arrived at UNT and liked what he saw, even though many of them had been members of teams that suffered through three consecutive losing seasons.
“I inherited a bunch of players who had had their tails kicked,” Fry said. “Those are the easiest players to teach because they are hungry.”
Fry molded those players into some of the greatest teams in the history of the program at UNT, where his presence still lingers. McCarney credits the time he spent working for Fry for helping launch his career.
“My relationship with Hayden makes coaching here mean so much more,” McCarney said. “To say that it wouldn’t would be crazy. I love him and stay in touch with him.”
Greene’s mark still lingers
UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal was walking through a hotel lobby a few years ago when he noticed a familiar man.
“I thought, ‘That’s John Madden,’” Villarreal said of the former NFL head coach and legendary broadcaster.
Madden found out Villarreal worked for UNT after the two struck up a conversation and immediately asked about Greene.
“He asked me if North Texas was where Joe Greene went to school,” Villarreal said. “I told him it was. He immediately told me, ‘I hated that guy. Well, OK. Maybe I didn’t hate him, but I hated what he would do to your football team.’
“To have that kind of respect from a guy like John Madden speaks volumes.”
Greene’s stature in the game, both on the college and NFL levels, makes him arguably the most important figure in UNT’s 100-year football history.
Greene was a consensus All-American defensive tackle after his senior season at UNT in 1968, was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year the following season and was selected for the Pro Bowl 10 times with the Steelers.
Greene credits his success largely to his time at UNT, where he arrived as a strong but raw athlete from Dunbar, a segregated high school in Temple.
“When Joe first came out, we had a seven-man sled,” Bahnsen said. “He asked what we did with it. I told that we hit it. He did and bounced 10 yards back. I told him you had to dig in when you hit it. He only played one year of high school football and didn’t know how to hit.”
Greene was a polished player by the time he finished his college career. He played in an era before defensive statistics were kept, but UNT allowed only 2,507 rushing yards on 1,276 carries, an average of less than two yards a carry, in the 29 games Greene played.
The manner in which UNT shut down opponents’ running games and the team’s 23-5-1 record during Greene’s time on the team show his impact.
“The style of play didn’t change when I got to Pittsburgh. Herb Farrell was a good coach,” Greene said of the former UNT assistant. “His favorite phrase was, ‘Sick ‘em. Go get the ball.’ The style that I developed at North Texas didn’t change when I went to Pittsburgh.”
Greene won four Super Bowls with the Steelers but still cherishes the memories from his time at UNT, including winning the Missouri Valley Conference title in 1966 and 1967. UNT capped the first of those championship seasons with a win over Chattanooga that is among Greene’s favorite games for his time at the school.
“What stands out is when coach [Odus] Mitchell retired,” Greene said of UNT’s head coach at the time. “We were playing Chattanooga and beat them up pretty good. Our holder Ted Pospisil ran in a two-point conversion after our last touchdown, which gave us 42 points, the same number of years coach Mitchell spent coaching. That was special.”
Greene has thought about that 42-7 win and the other highlights of his UNT career over the past few months as the school’s football program prepared for its 100th anniversary. It’s a time that will be special for the people who played roles the UNT football team’s first 100 years, including Greene, who made as big an impact as anyone involved with the program in that time.
“I really started thinking about this being the program’s 100th year when they announced the anniversary team back in April,” Greene said. “When you start thinking about participating in the 100th year celebration, you realize the experience of being there for part of that time is important and meaningful.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-68970 or via Twitter at @brettvito.