Mean Green Mania
by Randena Hulstrand
Fort Worth firefighter Rick McKinney (’90) has a passion for the Mean Green that burns as intensely as some of the fires he puts out. John "Jack" Fincher (’57), who met his wife as a student and attended the first football game at Fouts Field, has been a fan for more than 50 years, while season ticket holders Robert Alonzo and his family had no ties with the university until last year.
All are part of the growing Mean Green Nation, where the fervor to "bleed green" has always run deep, but the excitement is reaching farther and resonating louder than ever.
Legendary defensive tackle and NFL Hall of Famer Joe Greene (’69), who helped put Mean Green football in the history books, says he senses a new winning attitude at UNT.
"You can feel something happening at North Texas in a positive way, with the administration, the new facilities, a new stadium and a promising head coach. All of this is getting people excited," Greene says. "I feel the momentum. It’s a good thing."
The Mean Green Nation
Fans excited about the growth of the athletic programs have a lot to cheer about. Donor pledges and UNT’s commitment to the Mean Green have led to the building of 10 new athletic facilities since 2002, and the university is in a planning phase for a new stadium. The new facilities include softball, tennis, soccer, swimming and volleyball venues for women’s sports and a 7,000-square-foot academic center dedicated to helping student-athletes succeed off the field. With the student-athletes’ current overall GPA the highest in eight years, the zest for green success is attracting recruiting classes that grow stronger every year.
And with more conference championships and postseason play across all sports — women’s and men’s — fans are gathering like never before to share their collective experiences. Six of the 10 largest crowds in UNT athletic history have occurred since 2001. These fans, flocking together with waving Eagle claws and elaborate tailgating parties, are transcending the individual experience.
"UNT is a great university that provides our students and our extended family with a complete experience, and I am committed to growing our programs and expanding upon our successes in every way possible," President Gretchen M. Bataille says. "A new stadium, just like our new life science and business buildings, will provide our students with the first-class facilities they deserve as they earn a top-quality education and have a top-quality experience. Our student-athletes and all of our fans deserve a venue that is today as up to date as Fouts Field was when it opened in 1952 for its first football game.
"We can’t just succeed academically or athletically. We need to work together to succeed in all of our endeavors and to fully claim the national recognition our university deserves."
Athletic Director Rick Villarreal says he is more excited than ever about the opportunity to see the Mean Green football team play in a state-of-the-art facility.
"Our staff has worked very hard over the last six years to provide student-athletes with the level of facilities necessary to be successful both on and off the fields of play at the Division I level," Villarreal says.
"In sports like basketball, swimming and diving, tennis and soccer, we’ve seen the ascent to regional and national recognition that is possible when you put the right coach and an outstanding facility together. I truly believe a new football stadium would continue that trend, while standing as a symbol of pride for the entire Mean Green Nation."
Taking it to the streets
Among the faithful fans is McKinney, whose intensity is not only evidenced by the colorful "FirefightnRick" persona he’s created attending every home game, cheering relentlessly on the 50-yard-line with his fire hat painted to match the team’s colors. He also decorates his locker at Fort Worth’s Station No. 14 like a Mean Green shrine.
Amid football posters and schedules, he pastes newspaper clippings of UNT sports highlights as a constant reminder of UNT’s successes.
"I keep it updated to show people UNT’s impressive history," he says, pointing to stories of the New Orleans Bowl games and Sun Belt Conference championships.
He describes 1988, the year he says he became a "rabid Mean Green fan," as "the most amazing time at North Texas." That year the football team played three Southwest Conference schools, beating Texas Tech and Rice, and the men’s basketball team made it to the NCAA Tournament.
"North Texas caught lightning in a bottle," McKinney says. "That whole year just got me."
That lightning struck again in 2006-07 when the Mean Green men’s basketball team racked up a program-best 23 wins, its first Sun Belt Conference Championship and its second-ever advance to the NCAA Tournament. Last season the team recorded its second-straight 20-win season and notched a school-record 15 home wins.
Beginning in 2001, ending a 42-year bowl drought, Mean Green football made the trip to New Orleans an annual tradition for four years, creating waves of impassioned fans. In 2005, UNT opened new football practice facilities and a new 50,000-square-foot Athletic Center in the heart of the Mean Green Athletic Village, providing state-of-the-art strengthening, conditioning, training and rehabilitation services, as well as new coaching and administrative suites, squad and team meeting space and a first-class football dressing room.
But UNT green isn’t contained on campus. It is seen throughout the Denton community, where banners line the main drags and Mean Green posters decorate the storefronts.
Off the historic square in Denton, Industrial Street businesses — Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, Rooster’s Roadhouse, Little Guys Movers and Dan’s Silver Leaf — pump green pride through the community. With business plans catering to students and with alumni among the owners, teaming up in support of UNT comes naturally.
"We’re definitely business people who want to see to it that the university does well," says Mel Knight, owner of Fuzzy’s Taco Shop. Fuzzy’s and Rooster’s host sports watching parties on their many TVs, while Little Guys Movers is the official moving company for Mean Green football.
"Our company was born and raised here in Denton since 1992, and ever since, the university has been a big part of our lives and our business," says Chris Hawley, co-owner of Little Guys Movers who attended UNT in the 1990s. "We’ve got hometown pride and UNT is a big part of it."
No place like home
Longtime fan Fincher, in addition to meeting his wife, Jessica Klinglesmith Fincher (’57, ’75 M.A.) at UNT, remembers that first game played at Fouts Field in 1952.
"North Texas played the University of North Dakota and beat them unmercifully!" he says.
The Finchers, who were both officers of the Rally Club (precursor to the Talons), married just days after graduating. Fincher says he has always felt like he belonged at UNT.
"There’s a great camaraderie among the team and those who follow it — you always could be connected at North Texas," says Fincher, who rarely misses a game and has had opportunities to know many coaches and players.
"I’ve met and talked with Joe Greene, Ron Shanklin, Bill Carrico (’68), Vernon Cole — people who kept you on course to be a big fan," he says. "It’s amazing what it does to your spirit."
In addition to those football greats, a wealth of acclaimed athletes have called the university home. Future football star Abner Haynes (’62) and Leon King (’62, ’72 M.S.) helped break the color barrier in Texas in 1956 by becoming some of the first African American football players to integrate any college team in the state. Track and field star Bill Schmidt (’70), the first Mean Green athlete to win an Olympic medal, took the bronze for his javelin throw in the 1972 Munich games. And in 1978, basketball statistical champ Ken Williams, the only Mean Green player to lead the NCAA in a statistical category (14.7 rebounds per game), followed golf great Sandra Palmer (’63), who was named LPGA Player of the Year in 1975.
Although decades younger than Fincher, Emmitt Jackson (’01) also equates UNT with family and home. Growing up in Denton, he remembers running up and down the aisles of the Super Pit during basketball games. At 5, he knew he would become an Eagle. Missing only one home football game in 12 years, he says, "If it is a Saturday, I’m there."
But going to the games wasn’t enough for Jackson. He and his wife, Lera Brown (’02), converted a room in their Lake Highlands home into a "Mean Green Room." Complete with walls painted UNT green, the space houses prized memorabilia that Jackson has been collecting for 10 years — a signed Joe Greene jersey, vintage pennants and a series of miniature UNT football helmets, to name a few.
"It was my one stipulation when we bought our house," he says.
Most recently, the couple added an entire line of UNT baby wear to the collection. Jackson hopes to re-create the same memorable experiences for his new daughter, Cassidy, who already owns a T-shirt that reads "North Texas Class of 2030."
"Some people just bleed green by nature," he says.
From the inside out
Spirit also is percolating within the walls of residence halls and campus courtyards more than ever before. With the committed efforts of housing leaders and student organizations, every UNT student has opportunities to experience the Mean Green connection.
When senior Dana Cardone came to UNT, she knew she was coming to a major university but says, "It feels like a small one." Living in West Hall her sophomore year, she joined student housing activities and now is president of the Residence Hall Association. Working to engage other students, Cardone helps organize the campus pre-game pep rally, Friday Night at Clark Park, and student tailgating events.
"There’s nothing better than looking up in the stadium and seeing painted-up fans and waving pom-poms," she says. "It’s an awesome experience; you can feel the green."
The Alonzo family of Southlake also exemplifies the growth of the Mean Green Nation, which is building community outside of students and alumni. After attending a neighbor’s reception for the university, Robert and his wife, Pam, bought season football tickets to create a family experience for their 11-year-old daughter, Ally. They have since become donors and regulars in the stands.
"The Junior Mean Green Club was one of the biggest selling experiences," Alonzo says, adding that head coach Todd Dodge took time to meet Ally after last spring’s game. "There’s a specialness with the people at UNT.
"The leaders have a true commitment and passion that is vital to a successful university."
Turning a corner
From student-athlete to professional NFL superstar, Greene, now retired from his coaching career, helps scout for the Pittsburgh Steelers, traveling to colleges across the nation looking for winning talent.
He sees UNT’s commitment to building facilities as the cornerstone of a nationally competitive school. All the major universities get publicity from their athletic programs, he says.
"It’s just the way it is. Prospective students may not have anything to do with athletics or even like athletics, but they see the whole university through an athletic window. It’s very important," says Greene, who has fond memories of playing in a packed Fouts Field in 1966 during his sophomore Homecoming game and of the close friends he made as a Mean Green athlete.
Not only does Greene see the building of a new stadium as important in allowing the university to compete athletically, he says it will strengthen the whole Sun Belt Conference and provide opportunities such as TV contracts and a larger alumni and donor base.
"Alumni and fans like to come see athletic events in a comfortable venue," he says, "And hopefully it can reach some people who could come back into the fold.
"In my view, a new stadium is good for the university all around," he says. "The facility is not going to win ball games, but it will help by attracting more fans and ball players."
The newest athletic facilities — including the Mean Green Volleyball Center, Lovelace Stadium (for softball) and the Mean Green Soccer Field — give the teams and those who love them an edge, and UNT programs are gaining national recognition. The Mean Green women’s soccer team played in its ninth straight Sun Belt Conference Championship game in 2008, winning conference titles and bids to the NCAA tournament in 2004 and 2005. The team also earned a spot among the NCAA’s Top 10 teams nationally in 2007 for academic performance.
ESPN ranked the 2008 football signing class seventh in the nation of non-Bowl Championship Series schools. And UNT’s dedication to Title IX earned it a first-place national ranking on the Gender Equity Scorecard, a study by Penn State University at York that measures a university’s commitment to women’s athletics based on participation, scholarships, coaches’ salaries, recruitment budget and operating expenses.
In addition to Mean Green teamwork, stellar individual performances are garnering national recognition. Football’s Casey Fitzgerald was named a 2007 All American after leading the league in receptions and yards, and volleyball’s Brooke Engel ('08) was the first player in NCAA history to lead the nation in service aces in back-to-back years.
Recently, the Mean Green Nation has taken on a life of its own, inspiring fans and donors like Ronald Waranch (’54). Aside from a $1 million gift to build the Waranch Tennis Complex in 2006, he has pledged $150,000 for basketball scholarships over the next 10 years.
"My contribution to the university is because I love North Texas and I want to be a give-back person," he says.
Whether it’s a freshman’s first Homecoming bonfire or an alumni celebration at the Big Dance, UNT is producing loyal fans.
"I want to puff out my chest with pride for my school," says Steven Pettit (’02), an active recruiter for tailgating over the last several years. Read about Steven Pettit's Mean Green wedding!
Jackson, who tailgates with Pettit, agrees.
"People are connecting with the university like they never have before and there is a genuine excitement," he says. "Going to the games and making friends, you develop a love for UNT — anyone can turn into a super fan and get hooked."
The Mean Green Nation also is capturing the hearts of future generations. When McKinney isn’t fighting fires or attending a game, he’s passing the torch of fandom on to his children, ages 4 and 7.
"They think Scrappy is second to God," he laughs, "And when it’s raining and thunder claps, they yell ‘Boomer’ and ‘Go Mean Green!"