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Brett Vito: Breakout season changes game for UNT

Not long after he began his postgame speech on the Cotton Bowl turf on New Year’s Day, Dan McCarney turned his attention to North Texas’ future.

“This is not the end,” McCarney said in front of a sea of fans decked out head to toe in green following UNT’s 36-14 win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. “This is only the beginning.”

McCarney delivered a similar message before the 2011 season when he took over a downtrodden program that hadn’t been to a bowl game in six years. The former Iowa State head coach saw a ton of potential in the Mean Green’s program back then.

He wasn’t the only one.

UNT has touted its potential for years. School officials talk about the size of the student body, the resources being located in the Dallas-Fort Worth area provides and the advantages of being the only public school in the region playing college football at its highest level.

McCarney bought in to that vision. Then he turned around and sold it to a host of key players, from those who were already at UNT when he arrived, like Derek Thompson and Zach Orr, to those who made their way to Denton after he took over, like Marcus Trice.

Those players all played key roles in a win over UNLV that changed the Mean Green’s program in several ways, none more important than the bottom line:

UNT isn’t selling dreams and visions any more. The Mean Green has arrived. It has a bowl win and a host of veteran coaches who helped UNT get there. It has a terrific venue to serve as its home in Apogee Stadium, which opened in McCarney’s first year, and a spot in Conference USA.

If the crowd of 38,380 fans who showed up at the Cotton Bowl for UNT’s first bowl game since 2004 is any indication, the school also has a fan base that is starting to jump on board.

“It’s immeasurable,” McCarney said of how far UNT’s bowl win and breakout season can carry the program. “It’s a jolt of confidence and something to show for everyone’s hard work. These sophomores and juniors have seen how these seniors have led and forged this path.”

That path led UNT to its first winning season in nine years and a 9-4 finish. The Mean Green beat in-state rivals Rice and UTEP and earned just its third bowl win — all in its first season in C-USA.

That performance gave McCarney a stable base from which to build UNT’s program, not to mention tangible evidence to present to recruits that the program is on the rise.

That ammunition will make a world of difference for UNT.

In the end, that will be one of the most important aspects of the legacy left by a senior class that McCarney has been raving about since the spring.

Thompson and Orr have their names all throughout UNT’s record book now.

Orr finished in a tie for third in school history with 365 career tackles, while Thompson wrapped up his career with 7,447 passing yards — second only to Mitch Maher at UNT.

Those stats don’t begin to tell the tale of what Orr, Thompson and other seniors did for UNT’s program.

“There is so much character in the program, and character does make a difference in athletics,” McCarney said. “It really makes a difference in football.”

UNT’s players developed that character over the course of several years, including some trying times before McCarney arrived. Along the way, they also formed a bond.

“I love those guys,” Thompson said of UNT’s seniors. “I’d take a bullet for every single one of them.”

That bond helped UNT develop the drive it needed to post the kind of season few expected a few months ago — one the Mean Green desperately needed as a program.

UNT wouldn’t have that season and a bowl championship on its resume if it wasn’t for those seniors, several of whom leave large holes to fill.

UNT will lose its leading rusher in Brandin Byrd (1,075 yards) and its two top receivers in Brelan Chancellor (792 receiving yards) and Darnell Smith (791 yards).

Some of the key players who will try to step into those voids are already in place. Midterm junior college transfer Josh Greer and sophomore Dajon Williams are expected to battle to replace Thompson when spring practice begins in a few weeks.

There is little doubt that the Mean Green will begin preparations for 2014 in a lot better position than at perhaps any time in its history. A winning season and momentum should do UNT a whole lot of good, no matter how those spring battles play out.

The 2013 edition of the Mean Green will be remembered for putting UNT in that position.

“To be a part of this turnaround with these seniors is great,” said Trice, who spent three years at UNT after transferring from Oklahoma. “Some of these guys were part of some of the worst seasons in North Texas history. They never quit, they never backed down or gave up. They kept working.”

That work resulted in McCarney talking about possibilities again, just like he did when he took over the program a few years ago.

Only this time, he had a bowl championship trophy by his side.

There is just no way to overstate how big a difference that will make for UNT.

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