New Orleans Bowl Memories
Mean Green Have Storied History In Big Easy
DENTON - Going to bowl games for North Texas fans now seems like a semi-regular occurrence. When the Mean Green play in the 2017 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl this week, it will mark the third bowl appearance in the last five years and the seventh since 2001. North Texas will have played in as many bowls in the last five years as it did in the program's first 85 years.
For a 42-year period between 1959 and 2001, North Texas football fans thought bowl games were only a dream. The Mean Green was in possession of the longest bowl drought among all NCAA Div. 1-A (FBS) teams, having not received a bowl invitation since the 1959 Sun Bowl.
North Texas faces Troy in the 2017 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 16, at noon.
Tickets to the game are on sale. To purchase tickets and for information on ticket pickup, pre-game events and Mercedes-Benz Superdome directions and parking, visit MeanGreenPostseason.com.
In 2001, head coach Darrell Dickey and the Mean Green began their first year in the Sun Belt Conference, which was in its first year to sponsor football. The league had only one bowl tie-in: the winner of the regular season would play in the inaugural New Orleans Bowl. Not much was expected from the Mean Green, as both the Sun Belt coaches and league media picked North Texas to finish fourth out of seven teams in preseason polls.
North Texas started the 2001 season with a 0-5 record and there were rumblings of a coaching change. But a group of mostly underclassmen changed the direction of the season with a 24-21 upset of previously undefeated Middle Tennessee State. That game marked the beginning of a special run.
After four-straight wins, the Mean Green were playing for a New Orleans Bowl berth in the conference finale at Idaho in November. There was unprecedented excitement around campus and the Denton community. Local bars and restaurants held watch parties and the local media covered the game from every angle. Following a 50-27 win at Idaho, North Texas became the first team in the history of college football to start a season 0-5 and earn a spot in a bowl game.
"These kids decided we were a lot better than 0-5," Dickey said after the 2001 regular season. "They had their backs against the wall and could have easily given up, but they didn't."
Sophomore quarterback Scott Hall told Tim MacMahon of the Denton Record-Chronicle that "this was the last thing you would think could happen, but it happened. We hung with it. It's funny what determination will do."
In 2001 there were only 25 bowl games, so being one of 50 teams to earn a spot was more exclusive than the current 78 teams that play in 39 bowl games. North Texas took a young team to New Orleans that year, with only eight seniors among the 47-man two-deep roster. Of the 22 starters on offense and defense, only two were seniors. Despite their youth, the Mean Green placed 15 players on the Sun Belt's all-conference first and second team, which was the most ever for a North Texas team.
The success for North Texas in 2001 was built with a strong defense and power run game. North Texas led the Sun Belt in scoring defense and total defense and ranked in the top 50 nationally in categories, while a ground attack featuring junior Kevin Galbreath and true freshman Patrick Cobbs averaged over 160 yards rushing per game.
The bowl experience was entirely new for nearly everyone around the North Texas program. None of the 105 players on the roster had ever played in or even been to a bowl game. Most of the coaching staff had never coached in or played in a bowl game. It was also a first for the majority of the athletics administration staff. This whole bowl experience was going to be a journey they would all take together.
New Orleans is a fun town. There is a lot to do and see, especially for 18-22 year-old college kids, many of whom had never been out of Texas except for football road trips. While coaches and players all said the right things, like "This is a business trip," and "We are here to play a football game," the excitement of snapping a 41-year bowl drought combined with the allure of Bourbon Street had an effect. Riding the thrill of new-found success in a town known for throwing world-class parties turned out to be a bad combination, and North Texas fell to Colorado State, 45-20.
North Texas entered the 2002 season brimming of optimism, with a roster that included 20 of 22 starters who played in the bowl and 12 players who earned all-conference recognition the previous year. The only problem was, the schedule. In the first six weeks of the year, the Mean Green faced Texas, Alabama, TCU, Arizona and South Florida. Again, before the Sun Belt Conference season even started, North Texas was 1-5. But it featured one of the best defenses in the nation.
The Mean Green ran the table in conference play, outscoring league opponents 159-59. The defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in both scoring defense and total defense. The 168 points allowed in 12 games was the fewest allowed by a North Texas defense since 1983, and Alabama was the only team to score more than 30 points against the Mean Green that season.
The one-two running back punch of Galbreath and Cobbs combined for more than 180 yards per game on the ground, including over 200 yards rushing against five of the six Sun Belt opponents. North Texas placed 10 players on the Sun Belt all-conference first team, including six of the 11 defensive starters. Three more defensive players earned second-team honors.
The drive for a second-straight league title culminated with a winner-take-all showdown against New Mexico State. In a game in which both teams held leads in all four quarters, North Texas emerged with a 38-27 victory, sending a surge of Mean Green fans onto the field to tear down Fouts Field's goal posts.
North Texas returned to New Orleans for the 2002 bowl game with a team that knew what to expect and how to balance the Big Easy bowl experience with preparations for a game.
Just like it had been all season long, the Mean Green defense and rushing attack was the deciding factor. North Texas had five interceptions and Galbreath earned MVP honors by rushing for 130 yards and a touchdown in a 24-19 win over Cincinnati, the first bowl win for North Texas since 1946.
The 2003 season started off much like the previous two, with North Texas losing games to very good opponents. After the first four games, North Texas was 1-3 with losses to three teams ranked in the top 25, including No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 14 Arkansas. The NCAA ranked the schedule as the toughest in the nation through the first four weeks.
North Texas did beat Baylor 52-14 in week two, which is still the largest margin of victory over a Power Five opponent in school history. It was also the breakout game for Cobbs, who had played his first two seasons in the shadow of Galbreath. Cobbs ran for career-high 131 yards, a mark he would surpass seven times that year as he led the nation in rushing by averaging 157.0 yards per game.
North Texas won its last eight games of the season to make its third-consecutive trip to New Orleans. The Mean Green featured the Sun Belt's Player of the Year (Brandon Kennedy), Offensive Player of the Year (Cobbs), Defensive Player of the Year (Chris Hurd) and Coach of the Year (Dickey). It was the first time in school history and Sun Belt history that a team swept all four of the individual postseason honors.
The bowl game matchup against Memphis featured the Tigers high-powered 15th-ranked total offense against North Texas' 21st-ranked total defense. Despite Cobbs' 110 yards and two touchdowns, Memphis proved to be too much, defeating North Texas 27-17.
In 2004, Cobbs was injured in the second game of the season, which made way for true freshman Jamario Thomas to burst on the scene. Thomas had one of the most remarkable seasons for any North Texas player in school history, leading the nation in rushing with an average of 189.9 yards per game and becoming only the fourth freshman in NCAA history to rush for more than 1,700 yards in a season.
North Texas finished the regular season 7-4, including a 7-0 Sun Belt record -- which marked 25 straight Sun Belt victories dating back to the 2001 season. By winning the conference championship and earning a bowl bid, North Texas was one of only 10 teams in the nation to win four-straight conference titles and one of only 20 teams making their fourth consecutive bowl appearance.
North Texas faced a Southern Miss team with a highly regarded defense in the 2004 New Orleans Bowl, and couldn't keep up, falling 31-10 to the Golden Eagles.
It was an amazing run. Four-straight New Orleans Bowl appearances, a 25-1 Sun Belt Conference record and more than 100 all-conference honorees in a four-year period. The Mean Green was collecting conference championship trophies and bowl rings unlike any era in school history. It was an annual pilgrimage for Mean Green fans, who started making hotel reservations in New Orleans every August before the season had even started. It was THE postseason destination.
Now, 14 years later, North Texas is headed back to the city where Mean Green history was made.
In all, there are 12 people in the North Texas Athletics Hall of Fame who played in or coached in at least one of those four New Orleans Bowls. Three players who played a big part in those games went on to successful NFL careers: Cobbs and linebackers Brad Kassell and Cody Spencer. Those teams set the mold for success in the new era of North Texas football.
This 2017 team has a chance to build on that foundation.