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 wearing green and white, you didn’t need to be a part of this program. We don’t have to take a back seat to anybody.”
That was exactly what I wanted to hear. North Texas was my school, so North Texas was my team. This is the university that produced Abner Haynes in the fifties! This is the school that Mean Joe Greene played for in the sixties! And this is the school that broke the color barrier among Texas’ major universities when, in 1956, Haynes and Leon King became the first African Americans to suit up—a decade before Southern Methodist University’s Jerry Levias would become the Southwest Conference’s first black scholarship player and more than fourteen years before Texas would integrate its football team. That alone was a cause for pride.
The oddest thing happened, though, as Coach Dickey’s neck moved closer to the chopping block. The week after its loss to Monroe, North Texas hosted undefeated Middle Tennessee State, the favorite to win the Sun Belt. With a homecoming crowd of 11,621 looking on, North Texas knocked off the Blue Raiders by a score of 24-21. In its remaining four conference games, the team pounded Arkansas State 45-0, came from behind to beat New Mexico State 22-20, clobbered Louisiana-Lafayette 42-17, and whipped Idaho 50-27. No team in NCAA history had lost its first five games and still earned a bowl bid. But that’s exactly what the Mean Green did. The turnaround was as exciting as it was baffling. When I asked quarterback Scott Hall if he could put his finger on what happened, he replied, “No, probably not.” The same goes for linebacker Brad Kassell, who was named the Sun Belt’s defensive player of the year. “I don’t understand it, and I couldn’t explain it,” he said. But they both agreed that the team had worked harder than ever. “After the Monroe loss, this football team could have gone in a couple of different directions, most of them bad,” said Coach Dickey. “They could have been pointing fingers, getting down on themselves, packing it in for next year, and waiting on the new coach. Instead they pulled together.”
As it turned out, both the Mean Green and the Longhorns still had games to play on December 1, something neither team expected—though for completely different reasons. Like North Texas, the University of Texas got hot after that fateful Saturday, winning six straight conference games. When Oklahoma State upset the Sooners on November 24, Texas earned the right to play in the Big XII championship. A win would send the Longhorns to the Rose Bowl.
Meanwhile, North Texas had scheduled a non-conference game against Troy State, a makeup for the contest against the University of Arkansas that had been canceled after September 11. Though the outcome would have no effect on its bowl appearance, North Texas needed the win for credibility. With a record of 5-5, a victory would make them legitimate. A loss would make them a laughingstock. My confidence was high. Remember that completely unreliable SI preseason poll? Troy State had been ranked just above Monroe, at 112th. I knew I was cursed when North Texas blew a fourteen-point lead and gave up a game-winning field goal with 23 seconds left. Not to be outdone, that evening Simms threw three interceptions and lost a fumble before taking a seat on the bench. Both teams lost by two points.
But if some Texas fans complained about a repeat trip to the Holiday Bowl, nothing dampened the enthusiasm in Denton for going bowling—not even the embarrassing fact that the school was going with a losing record. The bowl brought validation for a team that never quit—and that didn’t make apologies. “I was just delighted for our kids to be winning for a change, under adversity,” said Haynes, the starting halfback in North Texas’ 1959 bowl game who now runs Abner Haynes and Associates, a Dallas-based company that represents athletes and entertainers. “Even with the losses, it’s a great lesson. There are a lot of ways to succeed, and the message is don’t quit.”
In the New Orleans Bowl North Texas faced Colorado State, and the experts predicted that the Mean Green could hang tough until at least the first snap. But a sea of North Texas fans at the Superdome, a rousing pep rally, and a well-timed pile driver that Scrappy the Eagle delivered on the Rams’ mascot gave me hope. Unfortunately, Colorado State wasted no time on the field. Quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt hooked up for the longest pass of his career on the first play. The Rams would score two plays later and led 17-0 after the first quarter.
With North Texas trailing 24-7 with just over seven minutes left in the first half, Mean Joe Greene told ESPN2 during a telephone interview, “I want to tell you, North Texas has probably got ’em right where they want ’em.” The Eagles did score again before halftime, but Colorado State dominated the second half and won 45-20. Still, there wasn’t a glum North Texas fan poking around Bourbon Street that chilly Tuesday night. The team never stopped trying, and that made me prouder of my school than I could have imagined. Besides, even though North Texas finished the year at 5-7, the miracle season gave me new bragging rights: The Mean Green was the only Division I-A team in Texas to win its conference.
Now I’m looking forward to August 31. That date marks the start of the new football season, and the Mean Green will drive down I-35 to play the Longhorns. UT will be coming off its thrilling bowl win over Washington—and the first season since 1983 in which the team finished with a top-ten ranking in the AP poll. In eight tries, North Texas has never beaten Texas, but I was at their last meeting, in 1992, and I’ll be at this one, hoping for the upset. Until then, I plan to advertise one more fact that will surely make the Longhorn faithful quiver with fear. In 2002 the Mean Green will return more starters than any other team that went to a bowl last year. That’s just one more reason why I’ll be hoping for another conference title, another bowl bid, and—why not?—a winning season to top it off.