EDITOR’S NOTE: North Texas became a member of Conference USA at the beginning of July 2013. Over the next three days, the Denton Record-Chronicle will look at the impact that UNT’s move to C-USA after 12 years in the Sun Belt Conference had on the school, how its athletic program fared and where the Mean Green is headed. Today’s story looks at the overall impact of the move, one year later.
Images of a sea of green linger in Rick Villarreal’s memory from arguably the highlight moment of his 13-year tenure as North Texas’ athletic director.
UNT emerged from its locker room at halftime of the Heart of Dallas Bowl, as Villarreal looked down the sideline at the Cotton Bowl and thought about the memorable games he attended over the years.
The mob of green-clad fans who gathered to watch UNT end a nine-year bowl drought that day reminded Villarreal of what he routinely saw while working at big-time schools in prominent conferences, solidifying his feeling that UNT had made the right move by joining Conference USA.
“I looked up into the stands, and they had filled to the point where our fans wrapped the entire side of the stadium all the way through the end zones,” said Villarreal, who spent time at LSU, TCU and Southern Mississippi before coming to UNT. “It was the same kind of feeling I had at those other games. I could see that this is what we could be.”
Nearly everyone at UNT, from administrators to coaches to players, considered those possibilities and the potential for moments like the one Villarreal described when the school jumped from the Sun Belt Conference to what is considered a higher-level league in C-USA on July 1, 2013.
UNT officials said joining C-USA, where UNT would be one of four Texas schools, would increase the exposure it would receive across the state, spark fan interest and help its programs improve.
UNT on Tuesday hit the one-year mark from the day that switch became official, setting up a natural time of evaluation for the program as a whole.
Villarreal, his coaches and UNT’s athletes saw plenty of highs and a few lows along the way in the school’s first year in its new league after 12 years in the Sun Belt. That wide range of people involved with UNT athletics have come to the same conclusion: The move to C-USA paid dividends across the board, as expected.
UNT’s teams appeared on television more frequently, its football program was afforded more bowl opportunities and the in-state rivalries created with Rice, UTEP and Texas-San Antonio bolstered football attendance and interest.
Along with those opportunities came a host of challenges. UNT was competitive in most sports but went an entire school year without winning a conference or division title for the first time in five years and struggled in men’s and women’s basketball — two-thirds of the trio of revenue-producing sports led by football.
That title drought wasn’t nearly as painful thanks to the performance of UNT’s football team in a breakout season that ended with a 36-14 win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The win was just UNT’s third in a bowl game and came in front of a national television audience, not to mention a crowd of 38,380. The vast majority of those fans cheered for UNT and donned everything from green shirts and hats to green-and-white feather boas and eagle costumes, forming the sea of green that filled Villarreal with hope.
“People from all over the country got to see us play,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “That gave us an identity. They saw our uniforms, saw us succeed and a big mob of green when we played in the Cotton Bowl with our fans. That is what I keep hearing from people. That game made a lasting impression with people that this program may be on the rise.”
Opportunities of a new league
Former UNT quarterback Derek Thompson wondered in the weeks after he led the Mean Green to its Heart of Dallas Bowl win if playing in front of that mob would have been possible had UNT not made the jump to C-USA.
UNT fell to UTSA 21-13 on Nov. 23, ending the Mean Green’s hopes of winning C-USA’s West Division title outright and advancing to the conference championship game. UNT finished the regular season with an 8-4 record and was all but assured of a bowl bid despite that loss because it was a member of a league with six bowl tie-ins in 2013.
Western Kentucky finished 8-4 in the Sun Belt and was left at home when the bowl season came around. Middle Tennessee suffered the same fate after finishing 8-4 as a member of the Sun Belt in 2012 before making the move to C-USA with UNT.
“It was huge for us to be in Conference USA from two standpoints,” Thompson said. “One, we played a lot more regional teams and developed rivalries that mean a lot more to players. Secondly, the bowl tie-ins were big. If you’re 8-4 in the Sun Belt, you might not even get into a bowl. If you’re 8-4 Conference USA, you’re going to a bowl.”
UNT beat in-state rivals UTEP and Rice on its way to the postseason in its first season in C-USA and played three Texas schools competing at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, equaling the total from the previous three seasons combined.
The crowd of 26,119 that watched UNT topple UTEP at Apogee Stadium was the fourth-largest for a home game in program history, while a crowd of 22,835 that saw the Mean Green’s win over Rice just missed cracking the top 10.
The bowl tie-ins that C-USA possesses allowed the league to place the Mean Green in a bowl game 43 miles from campus on New Year’s Day in a season when neither TCU nor SMU played in a bowl game.
“We woke up the sleeping giant like we always talked about,” Thompson said. “People in the metroplex noticed North Texas football again. North Texas was all people talked about over Christmas break. That was huge.”
Media exposure — especially in the form of television games — was another area where UNT benefited from the move to C-USA. The league guarantees 47 football games and 32 men’s basketball games can be televised through Fox Sports channels and CBS Sports Network. The Sun Belt guaranteed just two televised football games per season.
UNT played in 11 televised games in 2013 and capitalized, sometimes in spectacular fashion.
UNT not only beat UNLV in a nationally televised bowl game, but also pulled off a dramatic 28-16 win over Rice on Halloween night highlighted by an eight-play goal-line stand that was extended by a holding call on UNT in the end zone.
That performance would have been notable if the game was broadcast or not, but more people saw it than otherwise would have because it was nationally televised.
“People tuned in not expecting a lot, and it turned out to be one of the best games you will ever watch,” Villarreal said. “It was competitive, and that eight-play stop on the goal line will be remembered. I run into people across the country who come up and say that they saw it and that it was unbelievable.”
UNT’s football team was just one of several that benefited from C-USA’s television package. The Mean Green’s softball and soccer teams also had games broadcast last season.
UNT’s soccer team beat Oklahoma and TCU in televised games and was on the air again when it lost to Colorado College in the C-USA tournament final.
“There were so many people who saw us on TV when we played TCU and OU,” UNT soccer coach John Hedlund said. “I heard from a lot of people who saw us beat TCU who said they like our style of play.”
The exposure that UNT’s programs received and the credibility C-USA provided helped several of the school’s programs with recruiting.
Canton defensive end Sam Miller committed to play for UNT this spring despite having an offer from Kansas State.
“It wasn’t that hard of a decision,” Miller said when asked if it was difficult to pass on an offer from a Big 12 school. “UNT is only an hour and a half away from home. I wanted to stay in Texas. I felt comfortable and know I will get a good education.”
Those are the types of recruiting battles UNT is winning more often now that it is in C-USA and taking advantage of what it has to offer in all of its programs.
“Conference USA has really helped with recruiting,” Hedlund said. “We get a ton of email from kids who want to play for us now.”
The high level of enthusiasm during UNT’s first season in C-USA carried over to its fan base.
UNT drew a record 126,182 fans for six home football games in 2013, easily eclipsing the school record for total attendance of 113,186 set in 2011.
UNT’s move to C-USA also will have a long-term financial impact, because of its television contracts with Fox and CBS that pay $1.17 million to each member school per year. Teams in the Sun Belt receive less than $100,000 per year in television revenue.
The impact of the additional revenue UNT received from C-USA in its first year in the league was mitigated somewhat by the $2 million entrance fee UNT is paying to join the league. The school will make the third of four payments to cover that fee in August and have more financial freedom as a C-USA school in coming years.
While UNT officials were thrilled with the way the school’s first year in C-USA unfolded, they acknowledge their teams have room to improve.
UNT ranked among the top overall programs in the Sun Belt and won conference titles in each of its last two seasons in the league in men’s golf, women’s tennis, women’s track and women’s soccer.
UNT officials said that the school would go through an adjustment period in its first year in C-USA, which is exactly what happened.
UNT lost to Colorado College in the C-USA tournament final in soccer and fell to Rice in the semifinals of the tennis tournament. Those two setbacks were among a few close calls in a year when UNT failed to win a conference title.
UNT tied for 11th with Marshall among C-USA schools and in a tie for 236th overall in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup standings that measure Division I athletic programs’ success on a national level.
The transition to C-USA was difficult for some of UNT’s programs.
The UNT women’s track team finished 12th at the C-USA outdoor meet just one year after winning the second of back-to-back titles in the Sun Belt. The women’s basketball team finished in a five-way tie for ninth in the 16-team C-USA and lost its opening game in the conference tournament to Louisiana Tech. The men’s basketball team finished 11th in the standings and won its opening-round tournament game against Rice before falling to Tulane.
UNT officials knew joining C-USA would present challenges. The switch wasn’t always easy and success didn’t arrive immediately for all UNT’s programs, but in the end school officials say the move paid off.
C-USA officials also were happy with the results.
“North Texas has already begun to make its mark,” C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky wrote in response to a question about how UNT contributed in its first year. “Rick Villarreal and his staff should be commended on their vision. The commitments they made even before joining the league have contributed to their successes, from the win in the Heart of Dallas Bowl to their student-athletes competing in NCAA championship events.”
The scene at the Cotton Bowl, where thousands of UNT fans packed the stands to see the Mean Green’s historic Heart of Dallas Bowl win, and the impression that scene made on people like Banowsky, wouldn’t have been possible had the school still been a member of the Sun Belt.
“The results and ramifications of a great season will be felt down the line,” McCarney said. “There is no question that being in Conference USA was a key part of it.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
A historic win
The highlight of North Texas’ first 12 months in Conference USA was its football team’s 36-14 win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Here is a look at the game:
MVP: Senior quarterback Derek Thompson threw for 256 yards and two touchdowns.
Historical significance: UNT picked up just the third bowl win in program history. The Mean Green also beat Cincinnati 24-19 in the 2002 New Orleans Bowl and Pacific 14-13 in the 1946 Optimist Bowl.
Looking back: Thompson was just one of several players who shined for UNT, which broke open a game that was tied at 7 at halftime by outscoring UNLV 29-7 in the second half. Wide receiver Brelan Chancellor finished with 181 all-purpose yards and scored two touchdowns, while linebacker Zach Orr posted nine tackles, 1 1/2 sacks and 2 1/2 tackles for loss.
North Texas went a full school year without winning an overall conference title or division title for the first time since 2008-09 during its debut campaign in Conference USA. The following is a look back on the titles UNT won over the last six years.
2013-14 — none
2012-13 — Six: Men’s golf tournament, women’s soccer regular season (tie), women’s soccer tournament, women’s tennis tournament, women’s outdoor track meet, volleyball regular season division (tie)
2011-12 — Four: Men’s golf tournament, women’s soccer regular season, women’s tennis tournament, women’s outdoor track meet
2010-11 — One: Volleyball regular season division (tie)
2009-10 — Four: Women’s tennis tournament, men’s basketball overall regular season (tie), men’s basketball division title, men’s basketball conference tournament.
2008-09 — none