Kevin Sparkman stakes out a spot near the gates at Apogee Stadium each Saturday during football season, searching for that little edge that might mean enjoying a better view at kickoff.
Once Apogee’s gates swing open, the North Texas senior races with the most enthusiastic of his fellow students to reach the best spots in the open-seating student section, just a few yards behind the visitor’s bench on the east side of the stadium.
That’s where Sparkman cheered for UNT during a key goal-line stand in a win over Rice last fall and felt like he had an impact on games all season.
Sparkman and his fellow students will have to cheer a bit louder to have that same feeling again this fall, when a change in seating policy will make their sprint to the student section shorter and the seats they claim a little farther from the prime spot near the 50-yard line.
Conference USA rules dictate that the seats behind the visitor’s bench be reserved for anyone other than students like Sparkman because they often create a hostile environment for opposing teams.
UNT officials became aware of the rule too late before the school’s first season in the league last year to enforce it, but will do so this fall, partly because of the complaints of the other schools in the league.
The Sun Belt, where UNT spent 12 seasons before moving to C-USA in 2013, did not have a rule prohibiting students from sitting behind the opponent’s bench, but several conferences have similar restrictions on student seating.
“I understand where the conference is coming from,” Sparkman said. “There is no doubt we had an impact. There were instances that you could tell the coaches and players from the other team were flustered. It was great.”
UNT found out this summer the majority of the athletic directors in the league aren’t nearly as enthused about the situation as students like Sparkman.
UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal lobbied to have the student seating rule wiped off the books before reaching a compromise with his counterparts in the league.
All C-USA schools will prohibit students from sitting in the first five rows between the 35-yard lines behind the visitor’s bench this fall, a significant reduction from the previously restricted area of 15 rows between the 25-yard lines.
The total number of seats in the restricted section at Apogee will be about 240, down from the 750 seats that would have been restricted had the old rule been enforced.
UNT will turn those seats over to young alumni willing to pay for the privilege of sitting in one of the prime spots in the stadium.
UNT is promoting the section to recent graduates, who can purchase seats that will have chair backs for $100. If fans pay an additional $25, they become members of the Mean Green Club and receive benefits that include a parking pass. The additional fee for a Mean Green Club membership that goes along with a seat in the section increases by $25 on an annual basis for five years.
At the end of that period, UNT is hoping the fans in the new section will move across to the opposite side of the stadium where older alumni typically sit.
“We are going to ask the people who sit in those areas to be loud and make noise for us,” Villarreal said. “We don’t want people to use bad language or talk about people’s relatives. That’s not what this section is for. It’s to give those people better seating and an opportunity to cheer for our team.”
The fans who pay for those seats will play a key role in maintaining what has become a distinct home-field advantage for UNT. The Mean Green is 12-5 at home since opening Apogee, a dramatic improvement over the 1-16 mark UNT posted in home games in its final three seasons at Fouts Field.
“The rule is the rule,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said. “There is nothing we can do about it. I just don’t want anyone who is up there falling asleep in their chairs. Any place I have ever been, the best stadiums have phenomenal support from the students. It’s not supposed to be quiet or easy. It’s supposed to be hard to go on the road and win. That’s the way we want it here.”
Creating a hostile environment
Andrew Morris and Kelby Jones are among the students who have helped create a tough environment at Apogee. Both yelled until their throats were sore during the win over Rice in a nationally televised game last season.
The Mean Green knocked off the Owls 28-16 and essentially sealed the victory during an eight-play goal-line stand in the fourth quarter that was extended by a holding call in the end zone. Rice ran all eight plays inside UNT’s 6-yard line, including all but one of them inside the 3-yard line, without scoring.
McCarney and the players involved credited their performance that night in part to the spark provided by the crowd, particularly the student section. UNT’s coaches and players rushed to shake hands with students after the win. The practice has become a tradition after games under McCarney, who said that will not change no matter where students sit in the future.
“The students absolutely help us,” McCarney said. “They were fantastic in the Rice game and in every game, even the four that we lost.”
The message is one that has resonated with students like Morris and Jones, who is entering his third year as a manager with the UNT women’s basketball team.
“The students feel like they are a part of it,” Morris said. “There are more students attending games and taking pride in North Texas. I was there for the goal-line stand against Rice. It was incredible. Apogee can get loud.”
UNT set a single-season attendance record by drawing 126,182 fans for six home games last season, when the Mean Green finished 9-4 and beat UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
UNT anticipates the momentum it gained during the program’s first winning season since 2004, which was capped by just the third bowl win in team history, will grow despite a small change in seating policy.
A few UNT graduates, including Justin Gibson and Christopher Walker, are heading up separate efforts aimed at making sure the hostile environment at Apogee remains unchanged.
Gibson, the chairman of the UNT alumni association’s young professionals group, was approached by the school’s athletic department in the hope he could help promote the section. He quickly accepted the challenge.
Gibson attended all of UNT’s home games during his time as a student that ended in 2006 and went to each of the four New Orleans Bowls the Mean Green played in from 2001 to 2004. After some time away from the school, Gibson became involved at UNT again and is trying to convince graduates from his era to follow his lead.
Gibson met with school officials, talked about ways to promote the new young alumni section and began talking to other recent UNT graduates. Gibson hopes those discussions will result in an effective marketing campaign.
“The section’s a great idea,” Gibson said. “Bringing people back when they are young will get them involved with the program.”
Walker, who graduated from UNT last year, is among a handful of other fans who decided to take matters into their own hands and raise money to purchase tickets and distribute them to the most enthusiastic young alumni they can find.
The group started a campaign on Crowdtilt, a fundraising website, to solicit money from UNT fans. Walker and others involved with the campaign plan to use the funds to purchase tickets in the young alumni section. The campaign is being run by young alumni who have confirmed with UNT officials that there is no limit on the number of tickets an individual can purchase in the section, as long as he or she qualifies under the rules for who can sit there.
Villarreal said UNT will not participate in any effort that sidesteps C-USA rules, but he appreciates the efforts of those who want to help fill the section.
The group has raised nearly $2,000 so far.
“We didn’t want to see an empty or half-empty section on television,” Walker said. “We thought we could buy tickets and make sure that they went to people who are alive and not golf-clapping.”
Reaching the audience
Ben Gooding is just the type of former student UNT is trying to convince to sit in its new section and help maintain the Mean Green’s home-field advantage.
Gooding was already a football fan when he arrived at UNT after serving for six years in the Navy and quickly adopted the Mean Green as his team. He never missed a home game in his time as a student and decided to purchase tickets in the young alumni section for both himself and his wife when he found out students would no longer be able to sit behind the visitor’s bench.
Sitting in those seats will be a familiar experience for Gooding, who often sat there during his time as a student.
“It’s an opportunity to help make sure the edge North Texas has at Apogee doesn’t cease to exist,” Gooding said. “I want to yell and harass the other team.”
Jordan Davis, who graduated from UNT in December, also sat in the student section last year and will return as a young alumnus after learning of the opportunity the new section provides in terms of seating and parking at games.
Davis often walked to games during his days as a student.
“The parking pass was a big deal for me,” Davis said. “That sealed it.”
Davis knows four friends he sat with in the student section who purchased tickets in the young alumni section as well.
UNT officials believe more recent graduates will purchase tickets when they find out about the section. Ticket manager A.J. Tomeny said UNT often struggles to reach its recent graduates because the school does not have contact information for many of those newly minted alumni.
UNT is working to get in touch with people like Gooding and Davis in the next few weeks to ensure the seats in a section Sparkman would rush to claim before kickoff will be full of rowdy fans again this year, despite the new rules at Apogee.
“From my freshman year to now, school spirit has really grown,” Sparkman said. “When Apogee opened, some of the students at that time are now young alumni. They will do their part.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.