By Travis Richmond
It's approximately 550 miles from Denton to New Orleans.
The Mean Green football team knows this path well, having played in the New Orleans Bowl for four consecutive years. So do thousands of UNT fans, who migrate to the Big Easy each December in support of the team.
A fine start
A fine starting point for any night out in the French Quarter is a bar called Tropical Isle, at the end of Bourbon Street. Tropical Isle is the home of the Hand Grenade, "New Orleans' most powerful drink."
There's already a good contingent of UNT fans in Tropical Isle when I arrive on Sunday night, two days before the game. This includes Raymond M. Rivas III ('01), an emergency management officer with the Fort Worth Fire Department who says he attended the last two New Orleans Bowls and expected to be here again before the 2004 season even began.
"I write this date on my calendar every year," Rivas says.
UNT winning four consecutive Sun Belt championships has had an effect on the crowds coming to the New Orleans Bowl, according to Lindsay Cronin, a bartender at Tropical Isle who has tended bar in New Orleans for eight years.
"Each year the crowd gets bigger and bigger," Cronin says. "The first year it was mostly students. But since then, more and more alumni come every year."
When eating in New Orleans, you've got to sample local establishments such as Johnny's Po-Boys and Café Maspero. There's shopping at unique places like Magic Bus Records where Duke Ellington music often plays, Zombie's House
of Voodoo and American Junk.
There's also the allure of gambling at Harrah's, which can be hard to resist. I should have tried, though, because after 20 minutes at the blackjack table my pockets were $70 lighter. Still, you've got to try your luck in the Big Easy.
Harrah's is across the street from the World Trade Center of New Orleans, where on the 33rd floor a revolving rooftop bar, appropriately called 360, provides an unparalleled view of the city.
When I arrive at 360 at 4 p.m. Monday afternoon, most people in the bar are UNT fans, including Chris Latham ('00) from Austin, who has been to all four New Orleans Bowls. He says he came to 360 for happy hour after reading about it on the UNT fan message board gomeangreen.com.
People from the board also worked with
the bar Utopia on Bourbon Street to create
an unofficial UNT bar in New Orleans. The
bar even called itself "UNTopia" in the days leading
up to the game.
Mean Green Mania
On Monday night, the House of Blues is the site of Mean Green Mania. Approximately 600 people attend the pep rally/party, and it looks like they're all waiting to get in when I arrive at 8 p.m., because the line snakes around the block.
Inside, fans are entertained by live music from Anthony Brown and the Renaissance, and UNT spirit is everywhere. The waitstaff is wearing UNT regalia, highlights of the Mean Green season are being shown on televisions throughout the club, and fans are dressed in their best UNT clothing with green boas, beads, cowboy hats and even beards.
I dub one superfan "Mean Green Man," because his sequined hat, bow tie, cape, vest and mask make him look like a cross between the Green Zorro and the Hamburgler.
Athletic director Rick Villarreal and football coach Darrell Dickey address the crowd, and everyone leaves fired up for the game, now less than 24 hours away.
A quick read of the morning newspapers on game day reveals this from USA Today: "The bowl season begins with what is becoming the North Texas Invitational."
For breakfast I drop by Café Du Monde, famous for its coffee and beignets (donut-like pastries covered with powdered sugar and every bit as good as advertised).
Pregame festivities begin at 3 p.m. at the Hyatt across from the Louisiana Superdome, where the Mean Green Village is in full swing. The UNT band enters at 4:15 p.m. and a ballroom packed with UNT supporters cheers as UNT President Norval Pohl declares, "It's going to be a great game for us. It's time to party!"
Shortly thereafter, the UNT band faces off with the band from Southern Mississippi outside the Superdome for a "Battle of the Bands." The Southern Miss band strikes first, and soon both groups are playing and the concourse is
At 5:18 p.m. the Southern Miss band leaves, apparently conceding the battle to its UNT counterpart, who plays for a few more minutes before leading everyone into the Superdome.
Taking the field
Anticipation builds as kickoff is just over an hour away, and when the Mean Green take the field at 6:35 p.m. to the sounds of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," it's showtime.
Unfortunately, Southern Miss is too much for the Mean Green, who trail 17-3 at halftime. UNT freshman sensation Jamario Thomas is held in check, except for one spectacular 17-yard run — it takes eight Southern Miss defenders to tackle him.
At the end of the third quarter, attendance at the game
is announced as 27,253, with most of the lower bowl of
the stadium full and split equally with UNT and Southern
Early in the fourth quarter, Southern Miss returns an interception for a touchdown to ice the game, but the Mean Green fight until literally the last second, when Johnny Quinn makes a diving touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone with :01 remaining. It's UNT's only touchdown, as Southern Miss claims
a 31-10 victory.
After the game, plenty of UNT fans still make it to Bourbon Street, disappointed by the loss but happy for the experience.
"I've been to every New Orleans Bowl," says UNT senior Amanda Webb, who is from New Orleans. "Nothing would keep
me from coming back. More people are coming every year."
With fun like this to be had, it's Easy to see why.
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