The 2001 Mean Green (left) and this year's squad (right) both feature swarming, punishing defense.
By Eric Capper
Senior Associate Athletic Director, Athletics Communications
There's a lot of excitement around North Texas football these days. After earning back-to-back victories for the first time since 2004 and having a winning record in the month of October for the first time since 2003, this team is starting to create a buzz. Students and faculty are talking about it on campus. Businesses and residents of Denton are getting more involved. Regional and national media have begun to take note. There have whispers of those two four-letter words that coaches don't like to hear midway through the season - bowl game.
There's something special about this team. For those of us who have been around the North Texas football program for more than a few years, we have seen that familiar shift in the mindset reminiscent of successful eras from the past. It's more than just talent. It's an attitude, a belief, a willingness to do whatever it takes to get this program back to a place of prominence. This team has it. Just like the 2001 team had it.
When the 2001 Mean Green team started its first season in the Sun Belt Conference with five straight losses, there were doubters everywhere. It was understandable to lose to teams like TCU, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and South Florida, but a 19-17 defeat at the hands of previously winless Louisiana-Monroe was more than most could take.
Except for a group of 105 players who decided to band together, circle the wagons and turn things around.
Starting the season 0-5, the 2001 team came home to face preseason Sun Belt favorite Middle Tennessee, which started 5-0 and had won those five games by an average of 18.0 points per game. The Blue Raiders were getting votes in the top 25 and had the nation's leading scorer, running back Dwone Hicks, who had just been mentioned by Sports Illustrated as a dark horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy. They had momentum... they had talent... they had it all. What they didn't have was an expectation of running into a team with a purpose. A team with a sense of loyalty to each other and the determination to do what nobody thought was possible. Nobody, that is, outside of that dingy locker room underneath the aluminum bleachers in the southeast corner of dilapidated Fouts Field.
There weren't a lot of lofty expectations by outsiders for this 2013 North Texas football team either. In its first year in Conference USA, the Mean Green was picked by league coaches to finish fifth in the seven-team west division. Many national preseason magazines noted that third-year head coach Dan McCarney had made improvements with the program, but none were willing to predict more than four or five wins. Inside the walls of a shiny new football complex across the highway from Fouts Field, however, a team of 105 guys decided it was time to make a change.
The 2001 team was young, made up of one senior starter on offense and two on defense. It was a team built around a hard-hitting, physical defense that created turnovers and an offense that was efficient and effective without making many mistakes. The Mean Green ranked in the top 45 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and turnover margin. The leader of the team was starting middle linebacker and senior captain Brad Kassell.
Kassell was a two-time all-conference selection going into his senior year and was within the grasp of becoming one of the top three tacklers in the history of North Texas football. He was tough and smart, and had led the team in tackles as both a sophomore and junior. The only thing that Kassell didn't have on his resume was a conference championship and a bowl game.
Surrounding Kassell on the 2001 defense was a bunch of youngsters who had a drive to make their mark. Sophomore defensive tackle Brandon Kennedy was perhaps the most decorated recruit to come to North Texas ever and mentioned by many as the best defensive tackle since Joe Greene in 1968. Sophomore outside linebackers Cody Spencer and Taylor Casey brought a toughness not seen around North Texas since the Mean Green earned its nickname. Sophomore safety Craig Jones and freshman safety Jonas Buckles made up the most menacing defensive secondary in the Sun Belt. Future Hall-of-Fame running back Patrick Cobbs, who went on to play six years in the NFL, to this day says that he has never been hit harder than he was hit by Craig Jones in practice.
It was a group of players led by a senior leader who embraced a collective attitude that enough was enough. They developed a pack mentality that, regardless of the outcome, they would be remembered as the toughest dog in the fight. Success followed.
North Texas beat Middle Tennessee that year, 24-21, limiting an offense that had averaged 557 yards per game to just 294. All-America candidate Hicks was held to 28 yards. The North Texas defense forced four turnovers and had four quarterback sacks. The team's tackle leaders were Buckles, Spencer, Jones and Kassell. It was arguably the best effort by a North Texas team in the history of the program.
From that point on, the Mean Green rallied. North Texas won its next four conference games to finish with a 5-1 league record - good enough for a conference title and a trip to the New Orleans Bowl. North Texas became the first team ever to start the season 0-5 and make it to a bowl game, a distinction which still stands. It was the beginning of something special. The 2001 turnaround was the beginning of four straight conference championships, four consecutive bowl games and a record 26-game conference win streak that spanned four years.
So here we are in 2013. Although the Mean Green didn't start this season 0-5, there were a couple dubious records that were hanging around like a dark cloud. After five games, North Texas was 2-3 and was coming off a 24-21 loss at Tulane on the last play of the game. Just like in 2001, the debut in a new conference started with a tough loss on the road. It had been 101 games since the last time North Texas had won back-to-back games.
It was time to refocus. Band together. Circle the wagons. Middle Tennessee was coming to town. Could this be the start of something special?
Leading the charge for North Texas in 2013 is senior middle linebacker Zach Orr - a two-time all-conference selection, who led the team in tackles as a sophomore and junior. Orr is currently 48 tackles away from tying Kassell at the No. 3 spot on the all-time tackle-leaders list at North Texas, and is on his way to another great individual season. But the one thing that he wants more than anything is a conference championship and a bowl game.
Then there is this safety duo of Marcus Trice and Lairamie Lee. If only I had a nickel for every time I've heard the comparison of Trice and Lee to Buckles and Jones. These two will hit you. They have broken collarbones, sent helmets flying and made opposing wide receivers a little apprehensive to go across the middle. And they have created turnovers. The two have combined for five interceptions and three forced fumbles in eight games. The 2013 Mean Green defense has brought back the Mean.
But how does it compare to the vaunted defense of 2001? Does this year's team have a unit that ranks in the top 40? Rushing defense, 22nd. Scoring defense, 23rd. Turnovers, 2nd. Check, check, check.
There were a lot of great players on that 2001 team. With Spencer and quarterback Scott Hall being inducted this year, there are six players from that team that are in the North Texas Athletics Hall of Fame. That doesn't include Buckles, Jones, Casey or any members of an offensive line that will undoubtedly send a couple into the North Texas Hall of Fame. But there have been talented teams around here since 2001 with no rings to show.
There are many parallels between this 2013 team and the 2001 team. Talent to accomplish the goals is not the difference between those teams and all the other teams that have come in between. The motivation to accomplish those is also similar for every team over the past 12 years. The distinction is in the attitude.
I stay in touch with many of the players from that 2001 team and consider many of them friends. I look forward to homecoming every year because I know that a lot of them will return to Denton. They have pride in what they accomplished here.
Earlier this year at the All-Century Team dinner on the night before the season opener, I could have engaged in the story-telling by Joe Greene, Abner Haynes, Cedric Hardman and J.T. Smith. I gravitated to the group of Cody Spencer, Brandon Kennedy, Andy Brewster and Patrick Cobbs. That was the era that I was connected to. It was an era that instilled a pride in people for North Texas that had been dormant for so long.
I am also around this 2013 team a lot. I watch these guys at practice. I see them throughout the week. I have met their families. I know what motivates them and makes them tick. They are a prideful bunch. There is a senior class who wants to leave a legacy. There is a shared purpose. Just like the team in 2001, they want to be remembered as the team who turned this thing around.
Will this team be the catalyst for the start of a special run like the one that began in 2001? Time will tell. Without trying to channel ghosts of the now- flattened east side of Fouts Field, remember, it all started in game six, on an October Saturday in Denton against Middle Tennessee.
||2001 (NCAA Rank)
||2013 (NCAA Rank)
||127.4 YPG (35th)
||125.8 YPG (22nd)
||354.2 YPG (42nd)
||379.1 YPG (43rd)
||22.5 PPG (40th)
||20.4 PPG (23rd)
Click here for highlights of the Mean Green's 2001 victory over Middle Tennessee.