"Rivalry adds so much to the charms of one's conquests."
A question long discussed among Mean Green fans: does North Texas have a rival?
Not a rival for one or two years, existing only in one or two sports. Not an unrequited rivalry with a reluctant geographic foe, but a genuine, long-term, natural rivalry.
The very fact that the question is raised suggests the answer. No one ever asks if Texas-Oklahoma or Duke-North Carolina are rivalries because the answer is obvious. It's just as clear here: North Texas does not have a rival.
That void is about to be filled with the Mean Green's entry into Conference USA, an alignment that brings North Texas into a league with three other Texas schools at the Division I level for the first time since the 1950s.
In Rice, Texas-San Antonio and Texas-El Paso, North Texas will have three Texas opponents. Add to that Tulsa and Louisiana Tech, two more opponents just five hours away, and Tulane, another adjoining-state foe, and the Mean Green suddenly gains six geographically-close adversaries to play in every sport, every year.
That is the stuff of rivalries.
It's something a number of Mean Green coaches have experienced in previous jobs and are looking forward to here.
"It's cool for the players, because they're going to have grown up playing against and sometimes with a lot of kids who get recruited in this conference, especially this division," said women's basketball coach Mike Petersen. "I think the student-athletes enjoy playing against people they know and have watched come up through the high school and club ranks."
Petersen has been especially close to some of the most intense rivalries in college sports during his time at Wake Forest in the ACC, where the distance between conference members is scarcely greater than a number of Texas high school districts.
"It intensifies the rivalry," Petersen said. "Every place I've been has rivals. The difference, in our case now, is our rivals are right down the road, and proximity tends to intensify those rivalries, and that's a really good thing."
There's no doubt that the Mean Green should have rivalries with SMU and TCU, both natural geographic foes but neither interested in playing often enough to generate anything more than an occasional anticipated meeting but not to foster a standing rivalry.
Beyond that, North Texas has experienced the stirrings of rivalry in the Sun Belt, but based only on brief spans when on-field meetings determined conference titles and never with any geographic component or any long-term motivation.
"One of those things I didn't really understand until I got in the ACC was why those rivalries were so intense," Petersen said. "I'd coached in the Pac 10, Big 10, and those conferences are really spread out. You have great rivalries, but in the ACC, because the schools are right on top of each other, you share that geography and the same thing will be the case here. We're going to share Texas with other conference members and that will make those rivalries more intense. Our fans will have close associations with fans of other conference members."
The Mean Green rivalries in C-USA will start largely from scratch. North Texas has faced three of its division mates in football in the last ten years, including multiple meetings with Rice and Tulsa. North Texas has not played UTEP since taking four-straight games from 1977 to 1980, and has never played Tulane or UTSA, which is just starting its football program but nonetheless seems a prime candidate for an I-35 rivalry
North Texas has faced all of its conference mates in women's basketball within the last ten years except for Louisiana Tech, which the Mean Green last faced in the 2000-01 season. Men's basketball has had recent games against Rice and Tulsa, but has not faced UTSA since the Southland Conference days, has not played UTEP since the 1950s and has never played Tulane.
In the newly-configured Conference USA, North Texas's division will include four schools within a five-hour drive (Rice, UTSA, Tulsa and Louisiana Tech) all closer to North Texas than any member of the Sun Belt. The most distant C-USA west-division members, Tulane and UTEP, are still closer to Denton than six Sun Belt schools and are accessible via Southwest Airlines.
While that proximity will lead to stronger rivalries, they also offer the enormous benefit of shorter travel distances, especially for programs that might travel more than once a week.
"It really helps academically," men's basketball coach Tony Benford said. "We can drive to Tulsa or San Antonio and our kids can be back in their beds that night and get ready for class."
"Being able to get out and back in a hurry, we will miss less class days," Petersen said. "That's a huge benefit."
The benefits are physical as well as educational.
"It's going to help with recovery time," Benford said. "They're not going to be up as late, traveling all night and getting to bed at 3 or 4 in the morning."
Petersen agreed. "It's a huge benefit just in terms of wear and tear over the course of the season," he said. "It diminishes that travel time and being away from school. It simplifies their lives."
There may also be recruiting value to playing against the neighbors.
"Those rivalries will keep many of the top players in Texas staying here at home," Benford said. "A lot of these kids play against one another in the summer circuits, at different camps, and they don't want to go far from home."
The shortened travel will also profit fans interested in attending road games, which now come within range without tremendous expense or taking extended time off from work.
"With four teams from Texas on our side of the conference, a couple from Louisiana, one from Oklahoma, I think about how close and convenient it will be for our fans to travel," football coach Dan McCarney said. "I just think of our fans and how easy it will be for them to get to some of the places we're talking about that are realistic driving distances."
North Texas will also enjoy a very tangible financial advantage from the move to C-USA. In addition to an expected increase in ticket sales, the reduced distances will significantly cut travel expenses.
"It's going to be cost-effective for us to get there, taking a bus instead of a team charter (flight)," explained Mike Ashbaugh, the Mean Green's senior associate athletic director for business operations. "It will have an effect all the way across the board, in all sports."
For example, the conference tournament for golf goes from the Sun Belt's Muscle Shoals, Alabama to C-USA's Texarkana.
"Things like that are going to help us watch what we spend on travel," Ashbaugh said. "Per sport, per year, it could be several thousands of dollars or tens of thousands of dollars."