Saturday, September 10, 2011

A New Day for Mean Green Football

Last fall, I was among those in the alumni marching band who bid farewell to the University of North Texas' Fouts Field after 58 seasons. Across I-35E, we could see the skeleton of what has since been christened Apogee Stadium rising in the distance, and we knew that things would never be the same for Mean Green football once this season began. And today, a not-quite-sellout crowd got to experience it in person.

The fact that the new stadium is across the freeway from the main campus certainly makes it a different game day experience from the outset. Parking on the stadium side is reserved for Mean Green Club members and season ticket holders, or one can park at Fouts Field (which is still there and sits forlornly in the distance, visible from many parts of the stadium) for ten dollars. Or you can do what I did, which is to park in another part of campus just east of Fouts for free; needless to say, the free lots were quite packed even by the time I got there, which was three hours before kickoff. It's quite a long walk from there, but everything is set up well for pedestrian flow, with a lane of the North Texas Blvd. bridge dedicated to walkers.

The tailgating experience is different as well, as several options are now available: The hill east of the stadium (which was built on the site of the university's former golf course) is open to those who wish to set up shop without the actual vehicles present, and a dirt lot across the street from the west side of the stadium is used for those who wish to drive in and park (though a pre-bought pass is required for that lot). Looking at the towering structure from across the street caused many of us to just stand there and bask in the different-ness of things for a while.

As for the stadium itself? I found it to be wonderful. Granted, my experience was atypical, as I managed to score an upgraded ticket to a club member whose wife was out of town. I had enjoyed being a guest in the Hospitality Deck at Fouts on many occasions in the past, and that was one of the things that several of us said we'd miss about the old setup, but the new club experience really provides the best of both worlds. (I'll write another Note after a game where I have a more Joe Average Fan experience, but this was really a great way to enjoy Opening Day.)

The club is entered through a special entrance and reached via elevator. The pregame buffet was tasty and plentiful, and the club room offered a spectacular view from all directions. During the game, club members can sit in their assigned seats (which are just below the press box level), stand on a center deck. or sit at tables or stand on one of two covered patio areas located in the area of each end zone.

During the game, one of the first things I noticed was that it was so much easier to hear everything in this stadium, as it's a lot more of an enclosed box than Fouts (indeed, the knock on Fouts has always been that the field and the seats are separated by a running track, which keeps even the front-row fans way too far away from the action). The PA announcer was heard more clearly, the Green Brigade marching band sounded great (and louder than before) both during the halftime show and in the stands, and the increased intimacy made this fan feel a lot more engaged with the game.

Although the Mean Green did score the first points in the stadium on a first-quarter touchdown, Houston would prevail in the end. Coach Dan McCarney has made some very positive changes in the team in his short time in Denton (one of the things that impressed a lot of people in our seating area was the fact that the team never quit, even when falling behind by over 30 points in the fourth quarter, thanks to nearly 500 passing yards from the Houston offense), but there is still work to be done. But that being said, the team has a spectacular new facility in which to play, a greatly enhanced game day experience for the fans, and they're finally free of the shackles of the white elephant across the freeway, which had to be a negative in terms of recruiting (what blue-chip player would want to come to Denton when his high school facility was undoubtedly nicer than Fouts?). I'm willing to bet that most of the fans came away from today's game with a similar sense of optimism, and their numbers should certainly grow throughout the season.

Several of us alums commented tonight that we couldn't believe that this was the same place where we had gone to school. UNT has undergone many positive changes in the past several years, and this beautiful new stadium is a great addition to not only the physical plant of the campus, but its fall weekend culture as well. I'll be back in two weeks for the next home game.

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