Corky Nelson didn’t have the best facilities or the biggest budget during his tenure as North Texas’ coach during its stint in what was Division I-AA in the 1980s.
What Nelson did have was access to was the fertile recruiting grounds in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and a group of players who bought into his philosophy of hard work and not backing down from anyone during his tenure from 1982-90, not even teams like Texas.
That combination helped the Mean Green win the Southland Conference title in 1983 and advance to the I-AA playoffs three times under Nelson, who was part of a six-person class that was inducted into the UNT Athletic Hall of Fame on Saturday before the Mean Green’s spring game.
Jim Cooper, Scott Hall, Heather Hutyra, Ernie Kuehne and Cody Spencer rounded out the class.
“I was demanding,” Nelson said. “I felt like that is what it takes to win and be successful. You also had to get the players to believe in what you were doing. The guys who played for me then did.”
That approach helped UNT not only succeed at the I-AA level but also pick up a series of upset wins. The Mean Green beat Texas Tech, Kansas State and SMU and nearly upset Texas in 1988 under Nelson, who finished with a 48-52-1 record.
Those wins were all the more impressive considering the Mean Green was still playing at Fouts Field, which was in poor condition even in the 1980s.
“Corky was fiery, expected a lot of his players and he didn’t let us back down from anybody,” said UNT Hall of Fame linebacker Byron Gross. “Anytime we played Texas or Texas Tech, he wanted to be the best-conditioned team out there. We might not have had the most scholarships or the most resources, but regardless of what happened, whether we won or lost, the other team was going to be in for a battle.”
Nelson’s players knew they would have a tough week of practice if they ever gave less than their best on game day.
Lou Smith, who played for Nelson from 1986-89, said the connection the players felt with their coach was the reason they responded to his approach.
More than two dozen of Nelson’s former players attended the Hall of Fame ceremony.
“Corky was a father figure to a lot of the guys on the team,” Smith said. “You connected with him so much that you would run through a brick wall for him. That is how much he cared about the guys. That was how he was successful when we didn’t have a lot.”
Nelson’s time at the school was just one of several eras UNT revisited during the induction ceremony.
UNT also recognized Cooper, an All-America offensive lineman who played for the Mean Green in the 1940s; Hutyra, a soccer standout who played for UNT in the 2000s; not to mention Hall and Spencer, who were stars for the Mean Green during its four-year run as Sun Belt Conference champion from 2001-04.
Spencer shined at linebacker for UNT and became the Mean Green’s last player selected in the NFL draft back in 2004, while Hall is one of the top quarterbacks in UNT history.
UNT also honored Kuehne, a former member of the track team who received the Fred McCain Award for his contributions to the program as a booster.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.