MY CUE TO LEAVE CAME WHEN exactly one half of the more than 75,000 fans at the Cotton Bowl flew out of their seats and flashed the upside-down "Hook 'em, Horns" sign. With two minutes to play, Oklahoma safety Roy Williams had blitzed Texas quarterback Chris Simms. The ball had popped loose and found its way to Oklahoma linebacker Teddy Lehman, who in turn found his way to the end zone. As many of my fellow Austinites waved bye-bye to the hope of a national championship that October afternoon, I marched down the sidelines, hustled out the south tunnel, and made a beeline to my car. A casual observer might have thought I just wanted to beat the crush of ill-tempered Texas fans to the parking lot. In fact, I was interested in another college game, one that was far more important to me, if only slightly less publicized. My alma mater, the University of North Texas, in Denton, was just minutes away from the kickoff of its first-ever Sun Belt Conference game, and more than 7,000 fans were gathering on the campus of the University of Louisiana at Monroe to watch.
As I tuned in to KNTU, the campus radio station, I began thinking about the many odd parallels between the mighty Longhorns and the lowly Mean Green Eagles. On that day, both teams were playing tough conference games that were vital to their postseason plans. For Texas, a victory meant a shot at the Rose Bowl. North Texas needed a win to have a prayer of going to the inaugural New Orleans Bowl. The Longhorns and the Sooners had come to Dallas with a combined record of 8-0. North Texas and Monroe were also perfect—if you consider a combined record of 0-8 a type of perfection.
I enjoyed making those connections because usually the football programs in Austin and Denton have nothing in common except for being located on Interstate 35. The summer had left no doubt that these schools were polar opposites. As college football hype hit fever pitch in August, my friends and neighbors were abuzz. They congratulated themselves when Sports Illustrated gave the Longhorns a preseason ranking of fourth. I felt equally giddy that North Texas came in at ninety-ninth. Sure, there were only 117 teams playing Division I-A ball, but in my mind, cracking the top 100 meant that the Mean Green had made the cut. Chris Simms and his golden locks had graced every magazine in the country except Martha Stewart Living and Playgirl, but the argument still raged over whether Simms or Major Applewhite deserved to be the starter. I knew that North Texas could cause a quarterback controversy only if our coaches decided not to use one. And while Longhorn fans wished for their first national title in more than thirty years, I rolled my eyes. "Thirty years is nothing!" I thought. "North Texas hasn't been to a bowl since 1959. That's the longest current drought in the NCAA!" Of course, every now and then, honest suffering is rewarded. Four weeks earlier North Texas had also played Oklahoma. The Mean Green had lost, but the team rushed for more yards and scored more points than Texas would. On Monday I'd brag about those stats to countless uninterested co-workers. How's that for a clear-cut moral victory?
And that afternoon in October, while most Longhorn fans were convinced that their team had blown a shot at the national title, I knew that North Texas still had a chance at a bowl. The Mean Green had lost every single non-conference game so far, but to go to New Orleans on December 18, all that mattered was winning the Sun Belt. That dream would start with beating the Monroe Indians. As I listened to the game, my faith was soon bolstered. North Texas scored a touchdown on its first possession. Monroe returned the favor to tie the game, and then the teams settled in for a defensive battle. By the time I reached Waco, static had overwhelmed my radio. Still, I remained confident that the Eagles would prevail. This was Monroe, a team often mentioned as the worst in the country. A team SI had ranked 115th. A team that had won just one game in 2000. Later that evening, when I arrived home in Austin, I kissed my wife, petted my dog, and logged on to gomeangreen.com. Scottie Franklin began his account of the game this way: "The North Texas football program reached the absolute rock bottom on Saturday night . . ." Maybe, I thought as I puzzled over the 19-17 loss, Monroe isn't the worst team in the country after all.
"Absolute rock bottom" is not an expression one just throws around, but I had to agree. Fourth-year head coach Darrell Dickey had managed a record of 8-30, earning him the worst winning percentage of any North Texas coach who had stuck around for more than one season. After spending twelve years in exile in Division I-AA, the Eagles had been playing big-time football again for just the past six years—without a single winning season. Because the university is better known for its nationally recognized music program than for its athletics, my friends joked that the most talented part of the football team was the marching band.
Having top-notch athletics has little to do with a university's academic quality, but what had always bothered me was a sense of second-class citizenship, one in which North Texas ranked just above a community college compared with a school like Texas. It wasn't that we had a bad team; it was the feeling that we deserved one. "The first week that I got here, I met with one of our teams," said athletic director Rick Villarreal, who came to the university last April. "When I went into the locker room, there were kids in there with University of Texas hats on, and I made it real clear that if you didn't have pride in