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Football: Big potential

Profile image for By Brett Vito / Staff Writer
By Brett Vito / Staff Writer

Generous boosters have UNT headed in right direction

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the final installment in a three-part series on the 100th anniversary of the North Texas football program. Today’s story examines the program’s potential for growth.

Mistaking Ernie Kuehne for a coach would be easy on a summer afternoon as the North Texas men’s basketball team works out in a gym on the fringe of campus.

Kuehne, a stocky man with gray hair and a vibrant smile, stalks the sidelines and chats with assistant coaches and players, who treat him like a member of the team as they go through drills.

“The godfather’s here,” UNT head coach Tony Benford yells as he crosses the court to greet Kuehne, whose name is plastered on the entrance sign outside the gym.

UNT opened the Ernie Kuehne Basketball Practice Facility this spring. The former UNT track athlete, who is now a prominent Dallas lawyer and businessman, donated $1 million toward the project. He then led a campaign that raised a total of $3 million in 30 days that covered construction costs.

UNT officials see the story of how Kuehne’s name ended up on the building as an example of growing support from boosters and fans. They say that growth must continue if the school is to advance during a key period in its history that will coincide with the 100 anniversary of its football program this fall.

Less than five years ago, Kuehne was a disconnected alumnus with no confidence in the direction of UNT’s athletic program.

“To say that I was not interested and apathetic toward athletics at North Texas would be an understatement,” Kuehne said. “That changed when I drove up here and saw Eagle Point, the stadium coming up out of the ground and the athletic center. The first words that came to my brain were, ‘This isn’t the same North Texas.’”

UNT officials believe that is the case. They see the investments the school has made as a key step toward UNT athletics becoming nationally prominent and a more important part of campus life.

UNT has dramatically upgraded its facilities over the last decade, a process that reached a pinnacle in 2011 when the school opened Apogee Stadium, its $79 million football venue.

UNT also joined Conference USA this summer, giving the Mean Green three Texas rivals — Rice, UTEP and UTSA — after spending 12 years as the lone Texas school in the Sun Belt Conference.

UNT officials believe they would never have been invited to C-USA had they not invested in the infrastructure that helped make the school attractive to the league. Apogee Stadium is one of more than a dozen facilities UNT has built in Rick Villarreal’s 12-year tenure as the school’s athletic director.

The contributions of Kuehne, C. Dan Smith and a host of other influential boosters helped UNT reach those milestones and improve its standing in college athletics. Those boosters believe bringing in more newcomers, from high-level donors like Kuehne to fans whose contributions are limited to buying season tickets, is vital to UNT’s hopes to capitalize on its new position in college athletics.

“We have had more donors step up in the last five to seven years than in the history of the university,” said Smith, a former UNT football player who is now one of the school’s most influential athletic boosters. “They are coming from every direction. I think we are getting it going. We can’t stop now.”

Former UNT football player and Houston businessman Jim McInvale gave $1 million toward construction of the Mean Green Athletic Center in 2004. Al Goldfield and Smith gave $1.5 million and $1 million, respectively, toward the construction of Apogee.

Kuehne gave $1 million to UNT athletics in 2011 to use at its discretion and followed up less than two years later with his seed gift toward an overall upgrade plan for the school’s basketball program. UNT installed a new center-hung scoreboard with replay screens in the Super Pit as a result of the campaign that also led to construction of the Kuehne practice gym.

UNT’s students also contributed when they voted in favor of an athletics fee of $10 per semester credit hour in 2008, adding millions of dollars to the school’s athletic budget.

A rise in attendance at home games also shows the growing support for UNT athletics. The school set a record for single-season football attendance in 2011, when 113,186 fans were in the stands for six games, an average of 18,864 per game.

UNT averaged 18,927 fans for five home games last season.

UNT officials are excited about the growth of the school’s base of support at a variety of levels.

“The gifts that Ernie Kuehne and C. Dan Smith have made [to UNT athletics] make an impact immediately,” Villarreal said. “But the impact of fans who come to games is immeasurable. I appreciate the person who gives what he can to the Mean Green Club, buys season tickets and shows up on Saturday.”

Coming back into the fold

Kuehne wasn’t involved at even that basic level until just a few years ago, largely because he didn’t believe the university was ready to take advantage of the financial help he could provide.

Kuehne met with UNT officials twice, the first time 15 years ago, about donating to the athletic department. He didn’t feel like UNT was in the position either time to capitalize on a large gift.

Those circumstances changed by the time Kuehne met with school officials a third time.

The UNT Health Science Center had contacted Kuehne about his interest in donating to support its growth. UNT Chancellor Lee Jackson followed up with Kuehne a short time later and set up a meeting with the school’s athletic department. Jackson — a former Dallas County judge who Kuehne knows from his work as an attorney — knew athletics was where Kuehne’s interests lie.

Kuehne sat that day at a table with several key UNT officials, including school President Lane Rawlins, Villarreal, Jackson and Smith and discussed their vision for the school’s athletic program.

“I actually said, ‘Rick, you’re a dynamic guy,’” said Kuehne, referring to Villareal. “It was obvious to me he loved what he was doing. He gained my trust rather quickly.

“What changed my perception was we had a president and athletic director who were interested in athletics and doing it the right way.”

That conversation convinced Kuehne that UNT was serious about moving up in the world of college athletics. He decided to become involved with the university’s athletic department a short time later and rekindle his connection with a school that helped change his life.

Kuehne grew up near Mart, a small town outside of Waco. There were 28 students in Kuehne’s graduating class in what he described as a segregated and highly prejudiced environment.

Kuehne’s time at UNT that included competing with the track team for a year changed his life.

“Any gift I give this university can’t ever repay what it did for me,” Kuehne said. “I was able to get an education and grow socially as an individual in an atmosphere that was not intimidating to a youngster from the country.”

Kuehne’s influence is felt throughout the program now.

He volunteered to be the athletic department’s “Secret Santa” last year, funding a promotion that allowed fans to pick up free tickets for a nationally televised men’s basketball game against Lehigh. Kuehne wanted to see the seats at the Super Pit full of fans when UNT had a chance to showcase its program in front of a national audience.

“Ernie made a commitment to our program and North Texas athletics,” Benford said. “A lot of people talk about it, but he is a giver and a doer.”

Benford worked as an assistant coach at Marquette, Arizona State and New Mexico before coming to UNT and said that all the successful programs he has been involved with have influential boosters like Kuehne who play vital roles in what they achieve.

UNT’s players see Kuehne, who shows up at practice often and travels to several road games each season, as something of a father figure.

“Just the way he talks to you makes you feel at home, like you are part of a family,” UNT senior guard Brandan Walton said. “He’s a funny guy who is down to earth. He will definitely get into you if he sees something is going on, but he’s always respectful.”

The dedication Kuehne has shown while supporting athletes like Walton has garnered the respect of several longtime UNT donors. He’s also convinced donors to either become involved with the program for the first time or increase their level of support.

Kuehne convinced his accountant, Brint Ryan, a fellow UNT graduate, to contribute to the fundraising campaign he led for the school’s basketball program.

“Ernie is very energetic and speaks from his heart when he talks about North Texas,” Smith said. “It means a lot to him. He has done some things for us financially, but what has been almost as important is how he has brought people on board who have not been involved before.”

Bringing in new blood

The challenge UNT faces now is finding more people like Kuehne — and at all other levels when it comes to fans and boosters — to help the program capitalize on its opportunities as it heads into C-USA and the 100 anniversary of its football program.

While UNT’s attendance has improved, the school has yet to sell out a game at Apogee Stadium, despite having a student body of more than 33,000 in a town of more than 110,000. The venue seats 30,850.

“With everything that has happened with the stadium and Conference USA and some of the recognition some of our other sports have received, it’s disappointing we can’t get more support,” said Jordan Case, a former UNT quarterback who chaired the fundraising committee that helped oversee construction of Apogee. “We have to get to the mindset that we are just as big as other schools in the state. It’s a shame we can’t fill a 30,000-seat stadium. It’s all about winning.”

UNT went to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 2007 and 2010 and also advanced to the NCAA tennis tournament and golf regionals last season, but has not posted a winning record in football since 2004.

UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said he and the rest of his teammates are well aware of how important this season is primarily because the school is moving to C-USA and also because of the 100 anniversary of the program.

“They are not going to shut down the program if we don’t win, but this is a big year for us,” Thompson said. “There are a lot of guys who are ready to help turn things and have a really successful year.”

If Thompson and UNT reach that goal, it could have a profound effect on the program.

“If we can have success in football — and I believe that we will — the students will get excited and involved and so will the alumni base,” Smith said. “A guy who I played with is not involved, which I find hard to understand.”

Kuehne was just like Smith’s former teammate before sitting down with several members of UNT’s administration.

The way Kuehne became emotionally and financially invested in UNT athletics since has changed the program.

“North Texas is very fortunate to have him as an alumnus, an ambassador and someone who is committed to our program being successful,” Benford said. “There are no excuses. He has given us all the tools to be successful.”

Kuehne, Smith, Villarreal and a host of others with an interest in seeing UNT athletics succeed have all played roles in helping set the football program up for its 100th anniversary season and beyond.

How UNT performs in the next few years will determine if those efforts were strides towards the vision of a nationally-prominent program Smith, Kuehne and so many others at the school share.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito