When Hayden Fry arrived at North Texas State he had a clear vision - the Mean Green would compete with Texas, A&M, Baylor, TCU, and SMU in the Southwest Conference. He wanted to break into the "Big Boys Club" and to do it Fry's plan was simple "We're going to be patient and work our tails off to become so good they can't keep us out."
Fry knew exactly the neighborhood he wanted to move into; he'd won a SWC championship in 1966 with SMU, breaking up a six-year run of Arkansas or Texas winning the title. The '66 SWC title was the first since 1949. The dismount from SMU had been ugly for the Mustang coach. Fry was fired by SMU a day before the Mustangs were to close the 1972 season and in spite of a 7-4 record. The firing was the last in a back and forth between the University and Fry, who claimed that big moneyed boosters were having too much influence over the program.
Looking for a place to land, in December of 1972, Fry traveled thirty minutes north to North Texas State, intent on two things: getting his new program into the Southwest Conference and beating every SWC member he could along the way.
From the Missouri Valley to Independence
The Mean Green had been members of the Missouri Valley since 1957. The league, which had undergone numerous transformations, was holding the program back, at least according to Fry. The Mean Green achieved a moderate level of success under Odus Mitchell in the 50's and 60's. Mitchell was responsible for integrating collegiate football in the state of Texas. He led NTSU to three MVC titles. In his first season at North Texas, Fry's team won the Missouri Valley, and he was named coach of the year.
Houston made the jump from the Missouri Valley to the SWC and did so after a fourteen-year detour into the ranks of the Independents. The Cougars jumped from Independent status into their new league and promptly won three of the next four SWC titles. Was there a reason NTSU couldn't make a similar leap? Not according to Fry. North Texas was the fifth largest state school in Texas and growing.
Phase one was leaving the MVC behind. Fry, who also served as North Texas' Athletic Director orchestrated the move, officially, in November of 1974. Leaving the Missouri Valley would enable North Texas to be more competitive in all sports and allow the football team more freedom in scheduling, including more matchups with SWC and Big 8 members. If he beat enough of those squads, he could leverage that into an invite or at least consideration.
In their first season as an Independent, Fry's newly freed Mean Green made waves. They traveled to Knoxville and beat mighty Tennessee. They also welcomed soon-to-be SWC member Houston with a 28-0 drumming. NTSU finished 1975 with a 7-4 record.
The Mean Green also started playing games at the three-year-old Texas Stadium in Irving, the home of Tom Landry and the Cowboys. If the Cowboys were America's Team, North Texas wanted to rule the Metroplex. That meant going head to head with Fry's old employer and league.
First beat'em then join'em
By 1976 North Texas had been an Independent long enough to schedule two games against SWC opponents - Texas and SMU.
The Mean Green faced the Longhorns on September 18th in Austin in front of 60,000 at Memorial Stadium. They also faced a 6-1, 230 pound Earl Campbell. Campbell had been dinged up since the spring, but if he was, he didn't show any signs against NTSU. Campbell ran for 208 yards against the Mean Green. Still, Fry's young charges hung around. They led the 19th ranked Horns 7-3 at the half. Campbell and Johnny Jones took over in the second half giving Texas a 17-7 lead.
But NTSU wouldn't go away. An interception turned into a touchdown drive, and the Mean Green pulled to within three. They couldn't overcome those three points as Campbell played keep away with the ball the rest of the game to escape with a 17-14 win. North Texas served notice that Fry's rebuilding job was working. His team was good enough to go on the road against SWC royalty and hand out quite a scare.
A week later Fry got a crack at his old employer, SMU, at Texas Stadium. The Mustangs won 38-31 in a shootout. Fry would have to wait for revenge on the Mustangs. A week later the Mean Green fell at the hands of Oklahoma State before reeling off five of six victories to end the season 6-5.
By 1977 the Fry's team was becoming the Goliath slayer he'd envisioned and promised. The Mean Green knocked off SMU at Texas Stadium, 24-13. The Mean Green lost just two games in 1977, to the SEC's Mississippi State and Independent Florida State.
By the 1977 season, the Mean Green's SWC aspirations went public.
Why not us?
In January of 1977 at D-FW Airport, North Texas unveiled its plan to join the SWC to the media. Fry was cautiously optimistic, "the league is going to take a good hard look at us." Fry acknowledged that NTSU had a few warts, attendance was a struggle, so were facilities. The Mean Green's on campus stadium was too small, and the previous to additions to the league, Texas Tech, and Houston, had waited a much longer time to gain admittance and both had the backing of state legislators.
The Mean Green needed a sponsoring institution to present their application to the rest of the league. In January of 1977, they had no one willing to vouch for them. Still, NTSU's Athletic Counsel approved a proposal to seek admittance into the league. Plans were put in place to expand Fouts Field. The Mean Green just needed time to shore things up and find a sponsor.
Fry was making changes to the program to prepare them for the big time. He tweaked school colors and started using the moniker "Mean Green" rather than "Eagles" for the school's nickname. He even attempted to get North Texas State to change its name to Texas State to give the school, in his opinion, a more prestigious name. Most importantly, he sold administrators on the idea that to get to the promised land of the SWC they would need to spend and spend big.
The product on the field was excellent, '76 and '77 the Mean Green won fifteen games to seven losses. Fry's team was coming off a 9-2 season and stacked for 1978.
The Mean Green opened with a 49-0 shellacking of UTEP and didn't look back. After a loss to Mississippi State in Irving, NTSU reeled off four straight wins and headed into Texas week with a plan. Hayden Fry had become obsessed with beating Fred Akers' 12th ranked Longhorns, so obsessed that since New Years Day 1978, Fry spent 30 minutes a day on the Longhorn game plan. 12,000 fans made the trip from Denton to Austin in what was the equivalent of NTSU's bowl game.
The Longhorns got all they could handle from North Texas again but prevailed 26-16. As disappointing as the loss was, it was tempered a few weeks later with the news that NTSU had not one, but two sponsors to present their cause at the December conference meeting.
North Texas finished 1978 with another 9-2 record, giving the Mean Green an 18-4 record in two seasons. Only the mighty Longhorns could best NTSU's two-year win total. Still, after two seasons of nine wins, the Mean Green were unable to secure a bowl bid. Fry was particularly frustrated as teams with lesser records from bigger leagues continued to move past the Mean Green. After his squad was passed over again, Fry said "If I didn't feel an obligation to these players I would leave in a New York minute." As it turned out even that obligation was fleeting.
And then it was gone
Rumors of sponsors to get the Mean Green on the December SWC agenda never developed into fact. North Texas president C.C. "Jitter" Nolen was told by the university's "friends" in the SWC that the membership wouldn't address North Texas' application due to other, more pressing agenda items, apparently including issues with Arkansas and Lou Holtz.
Whether league sources were ever serious about adding the Mean Green to the agenda or the league is anyone's guess. The Mean Green had plans to expand Fouts Field from 20,000 to 40,000. However, Fry's plan was to play most of their conference games in Irving. That plan didn't jive with SMU's intended to move from the Cotton Bowl to Texas Stadium. SMU and TCU saw the Mean Green as a threat. SMU had seen first-hand what North Texas could do on the field. TCU was living in league purgatory, having been a bottom dweller since the mid 60's. North Texas wouldn't help them escape.
Even as North Texas continued to win, the Mean Green weren't able to draw sufficient fans to give the conference confidence that their fan base was onboard. Fry's blustery nature didn't help individual members embrace the Green.
By early December it was apparent that the Mean Green were going to have to wait for an indefinite period to get an audience with the league if at all. On December 7, 1978, the league made it clear that there was no space for NTSU to appear on the agenda. On December 10, 1978, Iowa announced Hayden Fry as the new coach at Iowa. Fry spent 20 years in Iowa City and won 61% of his games.
NTSU hired three coaches in the next four seasons, and by 1983, rather than moving into the SWC, the Mean Green moved down a division and into the Southland. They left Division I-A with a mountain of debt leftover from Fry's power play. The University also found itself non-compliant with Title IX legislation.
In 1995 the Mean Green moved back into I-A in the Big West Conference under coach Matt Simon. It would take North Texas until the Darrell Dickey era in the early 2000's to get close to replicating Fry's success.
Give Fry credit for dreaming big, even if his reach exceeded his grasp. His obsession with the SWC had made North Texas State one of the most successful program in Texas during the middle to late 70's. But getting the Southwest Conference to invite them into the Big Boy room proved too tall a task.