Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón
S

occer player Tori Phillips experienced the glory of winning at the college level after a hard-fought season in 2015, her sophomore year.

Senior soccer player Tori Phillips has helped her team win the Conference USA regular season championship three years in a row. (Photo by Michael Clements)
Senior soccer player Tori Phillips has helped her team win the Conference USA regular season championship three years in a row. (Photo by Michael Clements)

That's when she and the team captured the Conference USA tournament championship and its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

"It was like, 'Wow, is this really happening?'" she says.

In the three years Phillips has played at UNT, the soccer team has won the regular season conference title each year. Now as a senior, she wants to win the conference tournament again, not only to return to the NCAA tournament, but this time to advance.

"It's like a habit," Phillips says. "We expect nothing less than to win. We want more."

And that's just the type of attitude UNT's athletics program wants student-athletes to bring onto the field and into the classroom. This month, the department unveiled a five-year strategic plan aimed at creating a winning atmosphere, and placing an emphasis on the support of student-athletes.

New leadership is making the plan a reality. Last fall, football coach Seth Littrell led the Mean Green to the second-best turnaround in the country in his first season. Basketball coach Grant McCasland comes to UNT with 18 years of experience for his debut season this fall. Overseeing the department is Wren Baker, the new vice president and director of athletics, who previously worked as interim and deputy director of athletics at the University of Missouri.

"Our plan is a holistic approach to help develop student-athletes as people, students and competitors," Baker says. "By investing in their growth and other key strategic areas across the program -- upgrades in facilities, fiscal accountability and enhanced fan experiences -- we are focused on creating champions and leaders."

Baker says his mission is to lead the athletics program to as high a performance level as UNT's academic successes.

"When you look at the quality of our academics as a Tier One research university, we're as good as -- if not better than -- our peers," he says. "It's also important for athletics, in the way that we prepare women and men for life, that we reflect that same quality."

Game plan for success

Phillips knows that winning feeling as center back for the soccer team, which is going for its fourth consecutive Conference USA championship in 2017. And coach John Hedlund notched the 300th victory of his career last fall in his 23 seasons, all with the Mean Green.

These wins add to Phillips' confidence. Each week, the team puts in six hours of practice, plus weight training, and plays two games.

"We have every tool to succeed," says Phillips, an integrative studies major. "The nutritionist is always willing to help get our diets on track. And we have tutors for any class that we need along with an academic center that's open whenever we need it. Our coaches push us to have a great team GPA. That's why we've prospered as we have."

Andy Flusche ('17), a fifth-year defensive back on the football team. (Photo by Michael Clements)
Andy Flusche ('17), a fifth-year defensive back on the football team. (Photo by Michael Clements)

Andy Flusche ('17), a fifth-year defensive lineman, also experienced victory when the Mean Green won the 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl. The team returned to the bowl in 2016, losing a hard-fought game to Army. This season, Flusche expects to do better.

"It's our one and only mission -- to win a bowl game," he says. "That's the first step we need to take as a successful program. And that's not our ceiling. Our sights are set on a conference championship."

The new strategic plan provides ways to help the teams accomplish these goals.

Its 20-year facility plan will serve as a road map for creating more state-of-the-art facilities and enhanced game-day experiences for Mean Green fans. Among the planned spaces is a $16 million indoor practice facility, expected to break ground in 2018 south of Apogee Stadium. It will feature a full football practice field along with 10 additional yards for skill work. Track and field athletes will have their own sprint lanes. Netting and lighting will help make it a multi-purpose space for other teams.

Recent upgrades to UNT athletic facilities include renovated women's basketball and football locker rooms, newly painted tennis courts and new scoreboard, more strength and conditioning support in the weight rooms and the renovated "E" practice facility.

Also planned is a new soccer field, including premier track facilities south of the Waranch Tennis Complex, which will impact one-third of UNT's total student-athletes. Future projects based on fundraising goals and achievements could include a natatorium for swimming and diving teams, as well as an arena for basketball and volleyball.

Some facility improvements already have been made over the last year. An outside company is maintaining all of the natural grass surfaces for soccer, softball and football practice. In addition to upgraded hospitality and concourse space and coaches offices at the UNT Coliseum, upgrades have been made to the football and women's basketball locker rooms, including new lockers, paint, carpet, lighting and new technology, such as mounted TVs. Students also can relax in new lounge areas and eat healthy snacks and get hydrated at nutrition stations.

The women's basketball locker room features special touches that coach Jalie Mitchell ('02) uses to help motivate the team, such as the mantra "PRIDE (passion, resilience, investment, discipline, excellence)" and the alma mater painted on the wall.

"If you say Mean Green, I need you to believe it," she says. "I expect people to know our alma mater and say it with great pride. Bleed it!"

And in addition to newly painted tennis courts, a new scoreboard has been installed at the tennis facility. Tennis coach Sujay Lama says it has been a great asset for the team. Since the spectators can see the score, the tension is heightened, allowing them to get into the game. And prospective students are impressed too.

"When they see facilities like ours, it really adds a lot to what we're doing," Lama says. "We're able to recruit from the best students."

Culture of excellence

Another emphasis of the strategic plan is supporting the student-athletes' performance on and off the field. The athletics department hired a nutritionist and sports performance specialist. And a new learning specialist will guide students in their academics. One of the department's proudest achievements is its top 10 percent placement in the Academic Progress Rate for football and tennis.

"From day one when I came here, I really wanted to contribute to that culture of excellence, in academics and tennis," Lama says. He notes a majority of student-athletes will not turn professional, and what will carry them through life is their education.

"When you build a culture of excellence, the kids take pride in that. They say, 'I can't let my teammates down.'"

The new plan also includes initiatives that will put a spotlight on student-athletes, current and former, and their achievements. The lobby in the Athletics Center is being reconfigured to highlight UNT's legacy of excellence in athletics, including stories of Hall of Fame athletes in kiosks and memorabilia showcasing great moments in UNT history.

This past spring, the inaugural Scrappy Awards banquet took place to recognize outstanding team and individual academic and athletic performances. Also, the North Texas Letterwinners Association was launched to engage and grow relationships with former student-athletes. The association features a new website, to encourage alumni to reconnect with their alma mater.

And the first ever Champions Weekend, honoring past stars, took place Sept. 22-23. Athletes from the 1967 and 1987 teams attended the home football game against the University of Alabama-Birmingham that Saturday, and the members of the 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl team were presented with their bowl rings.

Some of the initiatives of the strategic plan take place behind the scenes. To bring more attention to the Mean Green brand, the athletics department hired a director of creative content and signed a multiyear agreement with the Plano-based company Learfield to enhance sponsorship opportunities.

The plan also includes initiatives that establish budgetary processes, develop a revenue plan and maintain a compliance program that will meet the expectations set by the NCAA and Conference USA.

"We're doing everything we're being asked to do," Mitchell says. "We're making sure we comply every year and represent our university in the best light possible. That's what pride is about -- you represent your team family, but you also represent your university."

9 Mean Green student-athletes advanced to NCAA postseason play last season, including three golfers competing in the NCAA Regionals and six track and field athletes advancing to the NCAA West Preliminaries.

Mean Green Success

The Mean Green have won 124 conference championships, including 34 since 2000.

UNT offers 16 sports as an NCAA Division I school -- the highest and largest division among colleges and universities.

UNT placed 186 student-athletes on Conference USA's 2016-17 Commissioner's Honor Roll for having a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher. Forty-five of those student-athletes earned a GPA of 3.75 or better and received the Commissioner's Academic Medal.

Mean Green pride

As much as the plan focuses on student-athletes, it also accounts for the fans. A new Creative Advisory Committee -- made up of alumni including Vimeo head of creative Graham Douglas ('05) and Texas Rangers marketing vice president Becky Kimbro ('09) -- will meet quarterly to offer ideas to help reinforce the Mean Green brand and successes.

Douglas, along with documentary filmmaker Ashton Campbell ('03), who has produced several sports programming projects including UNT athletics' Beyond the Green series, approached Baker with the idea for the committee. Douglas frequently attended football games as a student and, now that he lives in New York City, witnessed the Mean Green victory over Army last year at West Point, N.Y.

"I'm really excited about the direction of UNT athletics," says Douglas, adding that he tries to make it to a game when he comes to town.

"There's just something special about spending a day at Apogee," he says. "I take any excuse to go to Denton for a few days. If you can loop a football game into that, it's a perfect weekend."

The facilities road map also outlines incorporating the land along Bonnie Brae and Interstate 35 into an enhanced space to create an "awesome tailgate parking experience," Baker says.

The new direction pleases alumni such as local businessman Jim McNatt ('66), and his wife, Linda, who continue to support important Mean Green athletic initiatives.

Fans at Apogee Stadium near sunset
UNT's Apogee Stadium holds 31,000 fans and has eco-friendly features like wind turbines, unlike any collegiate stadium in the nation. Opened in 2011, it was the first newly constructed college football stadium to earn LEED Platinum certification. (Photo by Gary Payne)

McNatt didn't attend football games as a student, but he now sits in the HUB Club of Apogee Stadium for every home game with a group of about 20 friends. He is eager, but patient, to see the changes the coaches will make to the program.

"Let them have time to do what they're capable of doing," McNatt says. "I think we'll see some fun."

Don Lovelace, who attended North Texas in the 1960s and is owner of Denton-based Lily of the Desert, the largest certified organic grower and processor of aloe vera, agrees.

A supporter of athletics and namesake of the softball field, Lovelace Stadium, Lovelace says he's impressed by the new hires, such as Littrell and McCasland, as well as the priorities in the strategic plan.

"I think we're in a new chapter with UNT athletics," he says.

The student-athletes encourage students, alumni and other fans to come to the games and take part in the Mean Green pride.

"Our offense is explosive," Flusche says. "Our defense has playmaking ability. We're going to have exciting games this year."

Phillips vows she and her soccer teammates will make alumni proud. She remembers the number of fans who showed up when the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority pledged to raise $1 for every fan in attendance at an October soccer game promoting breast cancer awareness.

"We want to bring honor to UNT and to the people who supported us," she says. "Come to a game because it's fun to celebrate what makes us a Mean Green family and watch your school win. Because of the drive we have, we're not going to lay down to any team."

Mean Green For Life

Are you a former UNT letterwinner? If so, register with the North Texas Letterwinners Association. In addition to special benefits as an active member, you'll have opportunities to support the athletics programs, help mentor student-athletes, and inspire and instill a sense of history, tradition and pride for future Mean Green generations.

Learn more about the athletics department's new strategic plan -- focused on growing and developing resources for the support of student-athletes and enhancing the fan experience -- and find out how you can help to inspire Mean Green pride and support. To support student-athlete success by making a donation today.

Get your tickets!

Individual game and season tickets are on sale now and fans can purchase them through the ticket office. New special ticket promotions are available to UNT graduates from 2013 to 2017 in the Young Alumni Section, and 2017 graduates are eligible for two free tickets. Visit or call the ticket office at 940-565-2527 or 800-868-2366.

2017 Mean Green remaining football schedule

2017 Mean Green remaining soccer schedule