'It can be a monster': Why North Texas could be the next UCF

DENTON, Texas – UCF has won 25 consecutive games, will appear in back-to-back New Year’s Six Bowls and has won three outright league titles with three different coaches in the last six years. Along the way, UCF has emerged as the model for teams outside of college football’s Power Five that want to grow into a juggernaut. The key ingredients have been exploiting a big television market, a rich local recruiting talent pool and a massive student body.

So who could follow that model and emerge as the next generation’s mid-major darling? The answer may be North Texas, which has transformed from a school everyone passed on Interstate 35, north of Dallas, to a place that’s forcing the college football world to stop and pay attention.

In October 2015, North Texas fired coach Dan McCarney in the moments after a 66-7 home loss to Portland State. Just three seasons later, with coach Seth Littrell and athletic director Wren Baker emerging as two of the industry’s young stars, North Texas (9-3) is appearing in its third consecutive bowl game. The Mean Green takes on Utah State (10-2) in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday.

Seth Littrell has North Texas on the right track. (Getty)
Seth Littrell has North Texas on the right track. (Getty)

On a campus brimming with growth and optimism, the recent results are viewed as just a tease. “I think it can be a monster,” said UNT coach Seth Littrell. “I think it’s one of those places that once you get it rolling, I think it’s going to continue if the support and resources continue to stay where it’s at.”

The reasons for the surge are familiar for programs trending up around college athletics – aligned leadership at the presidential level, savvy hires and aggressive marketing that’s included free In-N-Out burgers, $3 beers and even hosting a postgame wrestling event.

But stone-cold winning trumps all gimmicks. North Texas saw that earlier this season when they pounded Arkansas, 44-17, in Fayetteville. The thumping went viral thanks to UNT return man Keegan Brewer faking a fair catch, standing still for a second and then dashing for a 90-yard touchdown return. It became one of the season’s defining highlights and drew waves of attention to campus.

Take a closer look, and the bones look similar to those at UCF. North Texas is located in Denton, about 40 miles north of Dallas. That means UNT compares favorably to UCF in television market (No. 5 to No. 19, respectively), fertility of recruiting area and student body (38,000 to 66,000). As 40-year-old athletic director Wren Baker spoke in his office recently, the din of cranes building a $16 million practice facility could be heard outside. “I really don’t feel like North Texas has a ceiling,” Baker said. “When you look at the size and scale and scope of the university … I don’t think there’s any question that this program can be an elite Group of Five institution.”

North Texas has plenty of famous graduates, from “Mean” Joe Greene to Don Henley to Norah Jones. But the face of this latest revival is clearly quarterback Mason Fine, a 5-foot-11 junior who came to North Texas because it was his only scholarship offer. Littrell offered him soon after getting the job three years ago off a tip from Fine’s high school coach in Oklahoma, who Littrell had known for years. “Not only was he accurate, but you could really tell that the players around him how much better they were because he’s so competitive,” Littrell said recently in his office.

Fine, a true junior, is already the all-time leading passer in school history (9,358 yards) and will likely end next year as one of the Top 25 in college football history. (He’s said on Twitter he plans to stay at UNT after rumblings emerged about a graduate transfer.) Fine likely won’t catch his offensive coordinator, former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell, who is No. 4 on the all-time list. But Fine’s already had a dynamic impact on North Texas. “The future of this program has been forever changed,” Baker said. “And of the cast of characters who’ve had that influence, none of them are any greater than his. … It’s hard to imagine that the turnaround happened like it has, as quickly as it has, without him.”

Littrell, 40, has proven a savvy hire, as the bizarre nature of this “blue bin” coach-hiring cycle – with a focus on recycling – has helped North Texas hold on to him for the near future. (He’d been a candidate at Kansas State, but ended up withdrawing as the process dragged on.)

Littrell is 23-16, having gone 5-8, 9-5 and now 9-3 in his three seasons at UNT. He still hasn’t won a league title, losing to FAU’s Lane Kiffin in the championship game last season and losing three league games – Louisiana Tech, UAB and Old Dominion – by one score this season. With Fine back next season and a roster filling in with strong local talent, the program’s trajectory appears likely to continue. A victory against a strong Utah State team (10-2) on Saturday would begin the drumbeat for a breakout season in 2019. “When you have a really good young coach, and I think the AD, Wren Baker, is a rising star,” said SMU coach Sonny Dykes, “I think that they understand … how much potential that place has.”

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