J.T. Smith has always been a bit of a pack rat, squirreling away mementos from the milestones in life and football.
The former North Texas defensive back has plenty of trinkets from his UNT Athletic Hall of Fame career, including old photos. Those snapshots brought memories flooding back of the day he and his teammates beat SMU at Texas Stadium when he came across them not too long ago.
That 24-13 win was special in 1977, and remains so as the teams prepare for their now-annual showdown Saturday at Ford Stadium in Dallas.
Smith and his teammates remain the only UNT team to beat SMU outside of Denton since 1933 — the height of the Great Depression and the rise of Adolf Hitler.
"Everyone thought we were the underdogs, but we didn't think so," Smith said. "We were prepared and just had to go out there and play. That's what we did."
UNT will try to follow the same plan this weekend while facing a similar situation to what Smith and his teammates encountered 40 years ago.
SMU had won 11 straight against UNT and was expected to roll past the Mean Green that fall. UNT had a young coach named Hayden Fry who had provided the Mean Green a jolt and was hoping to vault the program to a higher level.
This Saturday it will be Seth Littrell who will have similar aspirations heading into a game against the Mustangs, who lead the all-time series 30-5-1.
UNT is on a slide again when it comes to games against SMU, albeit a much shorter one at two games. The Mean Green will be the underdog again, despite cruising past Lamar 59-14 in their opener last week. SMU, which is also 1-0 after beating Stephen F. Austin 58-14, is a 13.5-point favorite in the Las Vegas odds.
And just like the 1977 edition of the Mean Green of which Smith was a key member, UNT will be trying to make history.
"There is no doubt our players understand the importance of this game," Littrell said. "Anytime you are playing a school in your own backyard, it's important to your players, your fans and coaches. It's going to be an important game for SMU as well. It's important that we prepare and give ourselves a chance to win."
That's just what Smith and his teammates did in 1977 when the Mean Green rolled to a win behind Fry, arguably the greatest coach in UNT history.
Game against SMU motivated Fry
UNT never lacks for motivation when it comes to playing SMU.
Fry's history with the Mustangs only added to ill will UNT's coaches and players had for the Mustangs heading into the teams' meeting in 1977. Fry coached SMU from 1962-72 before being fired.
UNT quickly snapped Fry up in the hope that he could turn around its program.
"Every year we played, it was a big game for us," said Ken Washington, UNT's quarterback that year. "A lot of that was because of coach Fry. He would tell you it was like any other game, but we felt the vibe. We wanted to win it for him and to have the respect of the Metroplex."
UNT was on its way to earning the respect it craved as it prepared for SMU.
The Mean Green had won seven games in each of the previous two seasons and beaten Tennessee in 1975 in one of the biggest upsets in UNT history.
What Fry's teams hadn't done was beat SMU. UNT fell to the Mustangs 7-6 in 1974 and 38-31 in 1976.
The game in Irving in 1977 offered Fry and the Mean Green a golden opportunity to break through.
Kelly Fry, one of Fry's sons, lettered for UNT that season.
"It was a special game for me because my dad coached at SMU for quite a while and built a good program there," Kelly Fry said. "I grew up going to SMU games. It was also significant to me, a lot of my teammates and North Texas fans who grew up in Dallas."
Fry was a master motivator and amateur sports psychologist who went on to become known for painting the visitor's locker room at Iowa pink.
Tim Loftin remembers how well prepared UNT was for its showdown with SMU. The former UNT wide receiver described that season's team as a step above Fry's previous squads in terms of offensive prowess.
And as always under Fry, UNT was prepared, both tactically and emotionally.
"We had played some close games against big-time teams in that era and were confident," Loftin said. "With coach Fry, you always felt like you had a chance to win no matter who you were playing."
A win and its impact
Washington never really doubted UNT would beat SMU once the game kicked off.
Iseed Khoury kicked a 30-yard field goal to give UNT an early lead. Washington followed with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Loftin and a 4-yard TD run to put the Mean Green up 17-0.
"We pretty much controlled it from the beginning to the end," Washington said. "Offensively, we never let them pin their ears back because we did a lot of different things and were wide open.
"We had learned how to play in big games and finally got them."
The win served as a springboard for UNT. The Mean Green lost their opener to 16th-ranked Mississippi State and beat UTEP the following week before taking on SMU.
UNT went on to win seven of its last eight games. Its only loss in that span was at 20th-ranked Florida State.
Mississippi State later forfeited its 17-15 win over UNT, giving the Mean Green a 10-1 record.
Coach Odus Mitchell led UNT to a 10-2 season in 1947, the only other time in program history the Mean Green have won 10 games.
UNT went on to be ranked in the coaches poll in 1977 after beating SMU.
"That victory was an indication that North Texas was competitive against most teams in the country," Fry said. "It catapulted us to a higher level of recognition."
Those good times quickly faded.
Fry stayed at UNT just one more season, leading the Mean Green to a 9-2 finish in 1978 before leaving for Iowa. UNT dropped down to what was then Division I-AA five years after Fry's departure and lost six straight to SMU before breaking through again in 1990.
The Mean Green are 3-10 against the Mustangs since their historic win in 1977 and haven't beaten SMU outside of Denton since.
Looking for a breakthrough
Fry was on his way to the Dallas-Fort Worth area earlier this week and planning to attend Saturday's UNT-SMU game.
Washington will be there as well. Both will be watching to see if this year's edition of the Mean Green can pull off what they did 40 years ago.
UNT's coaches and players say they are capable. The Mean Green finished 5-8 last season and fell to Army in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, just their second bowl appearance since 2004.
A win Saturday would be another sign UNT is on the right track and closing the competitive gap against SMU.
"It's a really important game," UNT linebacker Brandon Garner said. "It's SMU-North Texas. They are right down the street. They might not think it's important, but we do."
Senior running back Jeffery Wilson is one of the few UNT players who know what it's like to beat SMU. He was a member of UNT's 2014 team that hammered SMU 43-6 at Apogee Stadium.
SMU coach June Jones stepped down the following week, an indication of just how big the game can be for both sides.
"Our fans take it seriously," Wilson said of the rivalry. "We have to make sure that they have bragging rights."
UNT hasn't had those rights following a game against SMU played outside of Denton in decades.
Smith enjoyed a decorated career at UNT and in the NFL. He amassed more than 10,000 total yards in 13 professional seasons.
And yet, he still held on to mementos from UNT's win over SMU in 1977.
UNT will try to pull off another stunner this weekend. A win would give a new generation of Mean Green players a victory to cherish in a series unlike any other for UNT.
"It wasn't hard to get up for because we were playing another team in the Dallas area," Fry said. "We knew those guys. It had a special meaning."
UNT's wins vs. SMU
North Texas will face rival SMU on Saturday in Dallas. The Mean Green trail the all-time series 5-30-1 and have beaten the Mustangs outside of Denton just twice in program history. The following is a look at UNT's five wins in the series:
|2014||Apogee Stadium, Denton||UNT 43, SMU 6|
|2006||Fouts Field, Denton||UNT 24, SMU 6|
|1990||Fouts Field, Denton||UNT 14, SMU 7|
|1977||Texas Stadium, Irving||UNT 24, SMU 13|
|1933||Ownby Stadium, Dallas||UNT 7, SMU 0|
Featured photo: Hayden Fry cheers from the sideline during his tenure as North Texas' head coach. Fry led UNT to one of its only two wins over SMU outside of Denton in a series that stretches back to 1922. UNT is 1-23-1 against the Mustangs in Dallas. The teams will play at Ford Stadium on Saturday.