The State of the Program Entering I-A
Less than two decades earlier, North Texas had deserted the Missouri Valley Conference and become a solidly contending independent. When the NCAA divided Division I into I-A and I-AA in 1978, the Mean Green posted their second straight 9-2 season in head coach Hayden Fry’s last of six seasons in Denton. But four years later, due to escalating athletic department debts, the school accepted the NCAA’s demotion to I-AA status and joined the Southland Conference for the 1983 season.
They would promptly win their new conference, Corky Nelson guiding North Texas to an 8-4 record in their first year playing in the second tier of college football’s hierarchy. It would prove to be their finest moment of Nelson’s tenure, as the team hovered on either side of the .500 mark for the rest of his tenure and failed to win another Southland title. After 1990, the Mean Green were hunting for a new head coach.
Dennis Parker had first chance, amassing 11 wins over three forgettable seasons before yielding to Matt Simon. A promising offensive coordinator at New Mexico, Simon’s inaugural 7-4-1 campaign was good enough for the school’s second Southland crown in their final season before moving back up to the I-A ranks after their 12-year ostracism to the I-AA wilderness.
The First Season
Returning to the I-A ranks proved a daunting task for Simon and the rest of the Mean Green staff. There was hope in September, as the Eagles upset a Pac-10 opponent at home. But a six-game losing streak followed the surprise win, and North Texas would ultimately replicate the 2-9 record they posted in the last year of their prior I-A life.
There was little to indicate that North Texas would beat Oregon State on September 16, even though the Beavers had gone 11-43-1 in the past five seasons and were on their way to another 1-10 campaign. The Eagles had lost their first two games of the season against Big 8 competition, falling 28-7 at Missouri and 27-10 at Texas Stadium to the Kansas Jayhawks.
Even the statistics from the game itself would hold little hope for a North Texas victory. Three Beaver running backs would rack up 100 or more yards on the ground, with Oregon State finishing with over 400 rushing yards as a team. The Beaver defensive backfield picked off five Mean Green passes. With ten minutes left in the contest, OSU led 27-16. Then a botched snap on a punt sailed out the endzone for a safety, the ensuing drop kick was returned into the red zone by North Texas, and the Beavers failed to convert a 4th-down play with 1:15 remaining. With nine seconds remaining, quarterback Jason Mills hit receiver Troy Redwine that capped the game-winning 72-yard drive in the 30-27 comeback.
But the momentum wouldn’t last. North Texas lost the following weekend 51-10 to Oklahoma, starting a six-game losing streak that mercifully ended on November 11 with a 41-38 win over I-AA Idaho State. After starting the year 1-2 against respectable competition, the first season back in top-flight college football devolved into disaster for the Mean Green.
How Have They Fared Since?
North Texas would fail to post a winning record in any of their six seasons of competition in the Big West Conference, peaking at 5-6 in 1996. Following the team’s 4-7 campaign in 1997, Simon was relieved of his coaching duties. As his replacement the school brought in Darrell Dickey, the former UTEP and SMU offensive coordinator.
Dickey’s first three seasons, coinciding with the final three years of Big West play, yielded just eight victories. But as the Mean Green moved on from the defunct league to the newly-elevated Sun Belt in 2001, the fortunes of both Dickey and his squad would soon change.
In their first Sun Belt season, North Texas once again failed to produce a winning record. But five of the six losses in their 5-6 season came against non-conference competition, and their head-to-head win over Middle Tennessee State gave the Mean Green the conference’s automatic berth in the New Orleans Bowl. Appearing in their first bowl game since losing 28-8 to New Mexico State in the 1959 Sun Bowl, North Texas failed to muster any serious challenge to Colorado State in a 45-20 defeat.
But the bowl appearance proved a catalyst for the school under Dickey. After losing their inaugural conference game the previous season, they would rattle off 26 straight wins over Sun Belt rivals through the 2005 season opener. After earning the tiebreaker for the league title in 2001, the Mean Green won the next three championships outright. Returning to the New Orleans Bowl in 2002, North Texas notched the first bowl victory in school history with a 24-19 win over Cincinnati; they would lose in their next two repeat appearances, falling to Memphis in 2003 and Southern Miss in 2004.
After winning the season opener over Middle Tennessee State in 2005, Dickey’s crew lost their next three before moving to 2-1 in Sun Belt play with a 13-10 road win over Florida International. Then the wheels fell off the former Sun Belt powerhouse, as the Mean Green lost their last six games of the season to plummet in the standings. The slump continued through 2006, and the former wunderkind of North Texas football was out of a job.
The university turned next to Texas football legend Todd Dodge, who sits among the career leaders among Texas Longhorns quarterbacks to this day. Dodge, in his new life as a high school coach, had guided Southlake Carroll to four 5A state championships and five consecutive title games (the only loss coming against Katy High 16-15 in 2003) prior to moving up to the college ranks.
The magic would not translate to the I-A ranks for Dodge, though, as his four-year stint in Denton merely exacerbated the drift into obsolescence. Dodge ultimately compiled a 6-37 record from 2007 to 2010, relieved of his duties on October 20, 2010 after losing 34-10 at home to FIU. Offensive coordinator Mike Canales took over the head coaching role in an interim capacity, and the Mean Green finished the season 2-3 under their new leadership.
But Canales was never a long-term solution as head coach, even had he won all five of the games he guided in his interim role, and after the 2010 season ended with another 3-9 record the university hired former Iowa State head coach Dan McCarney to fill the position.
Over the past two seasons, the Mean Green have proven to be more competitive than they were under Dodge. Still looking for their first winning season since Dickey’s departure, they finished 5-7 in 2011 and eked out a .500 record in conference play. But rather than pushing forward in 2012, they regressed to 4-8 and a losing record in conference play.
Starting in 2013, North Texas will shift over to Conference USA in the massive realignments that have adjusted the college football landscape. Whether they can recapture the giddy highs of their early days in the Sun Belt remain to be seen. The infrastructure, from two-year-old Apogee Stadium to a talent-rich region in which to recruit, are all in place for a return to winning ways.