DALLAS — North Texas officials couldn’t have been happier with what they saw Thursday morning at Apogee Stadium.
UNT officially put $25 student tickets up for sale for the Heart of Dallas Bowl when the office opened and found plenty of people waiting for the opportunity. The school announced late Thursday that it had sold more than 1,200 student tickets.
UNT officials said ticket sales for seats in the sections for Mean Green fans other than students also were brisk.
“We had some students camped out,” UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal said. “It was a really neat thing to watch.”
UNT officials talked about that line of students and a host of other signs of just how much enthusiasm is growing around their program as it heads into its New Year’s Day game against UNLV during a press conference at the Cotton Bowl.
UNT coach Dan McCarney, UNLV coach Bobby Hauck and several bowl officials made appearances at the event.
Both teams are breaking long bowl droughts. UNT hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2004, while UNLV’s drought stretched to 2000.
The novelty of a bowl appearance has created a buzz among UNT fans and a burning desire among the Mean Green’s players to capitalize on a rare opportunity. None of the players on UNT’s roster who began their careers at the school has played in a bowl game or experienced a winning season on the college level.
McCarney quickly realized that the novelty of the experience hasn’t created a sense of complacency among UNT’s players, but rather fostered a desire to capitalize on the opportunity to make history.
It will be the eighth bowl game in UNT history. The Mean Green (8-4) has won just two of those games, the 1946 Optimist Bowl and the 2002 New Orleans Bowl.
“They want this ninth win really bad and to have that feeling that we have had so many times this year with a celebration in the locker room,” McCarney said. “I showed them pictures of the trophy we are all going to be playing for. It’s a beautiful, fantastic sign of achievement that we can put in the halls of North Texas if we win this game. They are really excited.”
McCarney found out just how excited his players are when he called back to check in at the office over the last few days, when he has been on the road.
“All I’ve heard is that the players are in the office watching tape of UNLV,” McCarney said. “They know we are going to have our hands full. This is a good team.”
McCarney and Villarreal have sensed that UNT fans and boosters are just as excited about the game.
“The response has been really good,” McCarney said. “It feels and sounds different. Before I get done shaking someone’s hand, they said ‘Congratulations.’ It’s positive and good for North Texas.”
McCarney pointed out that the way the Mean Green’s season has unfolded has added to the buzz surrounding the program. UNT made an epic eight-play goal line stand in a win over Rice, beat another Texas rival in UTEP and put together a five-game winning streak, its longest since 2004.
UNT coaches and officials see the Mean Green’s breakout season as an opportunity to foster the program’s growth.
Boosters have become involed. A group of UNT supporters donated $37,500 to fund the school’s efforts to offer discounted student tickets.
“They thought it was important for students to be able to go,” Villarreal said of those boosters. “What it shows is that people want to help. They have gotten to the point where they understand how programs grow and work.”
Villarreal: New McCarney deal nearly finalized
UNT is close to finalizing a contract extension with McCarney, Villarreal said.
The former Iowa State head coach took over at UNT following the 2010 season, when he signed a five-year deal.
UNT officials have been negotiating with McCarney and his representatives on terms of a new deal for the last few weeks.
The process has been slowed somewhat over the last few days by UNT officials spending time preparing for the Heart of Dallas Bowl and by the transition the school’s administration is going through.
UNLV president Neal Smatresk is in the process of taking over in the same capacity at UNT for Lane Rawlins, who is retiring.
“We would like to get it closed up there pretty quickly,” Villarreal said. “We are down to the point where it is a tweak here or there.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.