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UNT, ESPN settle dispute over 'Mean Green' nickname

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

University of North Texas athletic director Wren Baker and ESPN quickly settled their dispute over the nickname "Mean Green" on Wednesday.

Baker took to Twitter on Tuesday night after ESPN used Mean Green in reference to Michigan State University in a commercial promoting its broadcast of the Spartans' game against the University of Michigan on Saturday.

@nick_pants/Twitter
@nick_pants/Twitter

Baker defended the school's exclusive right to the Mean Green nickname.

"You can't just try to steal #MeanGreen," Baker wrote. "It's trademarked and has been for a very, very long time. Cease and desist letter on the way."

The dispute was resolved by late Wednesday morning, when Baker issued a statement:

ESPN said it did not intentionally infringe on UNT's brand.

"This was an honest oversight and the spot is being adjusted to remove the Mean Green reference," ESPN said in a statement provided to the Denton Record-Chronicle. "We have been in touch with the leadership at North Texas and they are appreciative. Michigan State had no involvement in the creation of the promo spot."

UNT's mascot is an Eagle, but the school has gradually moved toward using Mean Green as the nickname for all of its teams over the last several years.

The common misconception is that the nickname is a reference to "Mean" Joe Greene, a former UNT defensive lineman who is considered one of the greatest players in program history.

The nickname started out as a reference to UNT's entire defense that was the backbone of its standout teams of the late 1960s.

Greene was a key part of those defenses and was an All-American in 1968. He went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Media members and fans began referring to Greene as "Mean Joe" when he arrived in Pittsburgh in the belief that the nickname was in reference to him. Greene quit correcting people and the nickname quickly became associated both with Greene and UNT.

The Mean Green nickname is one of the most cherished traditions in UNT athletics.

Baker defended that tradition Tuesday night and won over UNT fans in the process.

Baker said his phone started buzzing shortly after the commercial aired. He was hosting UNT's track and cross country teams at his house at the time.

"I wanted to protect the name and take a good-natured jab at ESPN," said Baker, who has been active on Twitter since he arrived at the school.

What he didn't expect was how the Tweet and ensuing controversy would become a talking point nationally. USA Today and Sports Illustrated both picked up the story.

"I was amazed," Baker said. "I had no idea it would take off nationally. Any time you get that kind of national attention, it's a positive.

"We got a lot of free publicity out of it."

UNT has shown significant signs of progress since Baker took over as the school's athletic director a little more than a year ago.

The Mean Green played in the Heart of Dallas Bowl last fall, marking just its second bowl appearance since 2004 and has also significantly upgraded its facilities since Baker's arrival.

UNT has renovated the Mean Green Athletic Center, the Ernie Kuehne Basketball Practice Facility and the women's basketball team's locker room in the Super Pit.

The school is off to a good start this fall in several sports. UNT's football team is in first place in Conference USA's West Division at 2-0 and is 3-2 overall heading into a key showdown with the University of Texas at San Antonio on Oct. 14.

UNT's volleyball team is 16-2, while its soccer team is 7-2-2.

Baker talked about building UNT's brand when he took over the program.

He defended it early this week.

"It's absolutely important," Baker said. "Mean Green is as important to us as Crimson Tide is to Alabama. It's unique to us."

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