DENTON, Texas (AP) — Derek Thompson remembers how dysfunctional things seemed when he first got to North Texas. The quarterback even preferred playing on the road in his early days, far away from the aging campus stadium.
Thompson and leading tackler Zach Orr are among 17 players who can genuinely appreciate how far the Mean Green have come during their college careers.
That group arrived at the end of a string of losing seasons under a coach whose high school success never translated to the college level, moved into a new stadium with a new coach and now will play on New Year's Day in the school's first bowl game since 2004.
"It's a night-and-day difference. When I got here, I didn't really know what a football family really felt like," Thompson said. "There's a lot of guys that left, that quit the program. ... It's unbelievable the change. I know a lot of programs go through stuff like that, but I don't think there's another program in the nation that was as dysfunctional as we were when I got here."
The Mean Green (8-4) wrap up their third season under coach Dan McCarney against similarly improved UNLV (7-5) in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
"He just brought a toughness, discipline and physicality to this program," All-Conference USA linebacker Orr said of McCarney.
McCarney was part of impressive turnarounds with Hayden Fry at Iowa and Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin before his first head coaching job at Iowa State, which went from winless the season before McCarney got there to five bowls in a span of six seasons. He was part of a national championship with Urban Meyer at Florida before North Texas.
The Mean Green were 13-58 the six seasons before McCarney arrived. That included 6-37 in 3 1/2 seasons under Todd Dodge, the first head coach since Gerry Faust at Notre Dame in 1981 to go from high school to NCAA Division I. Dodge was 79-1 with four state championships his final five seasons at Southlake Carroll High School, about 30 miles from the Denton campus.
When McCarney got there, he said a lot of players viewed consequences as punishment instead of "things you have to do just to give yourself a chance to be successful." Nearly half of the players had GPAs under 2.0 — this semester more than 50 had at least a 3.0 GPA, and every player is academically eligible to play in the bowl.
UNT went 5-7 and 4-8 its first two seasons under McCarney, while there was some initial turnover in the roster.
"Some of them eliminated themselves. I eliminated some because there were some guys here either character or academics or talent, they didn't want to be here and live up to the expectations and the standards of the program," McCarney said. "The ones that have stuck with me and have been with me, how gratifying and fulfilling is that now."
North Texas, in its 100th season of football, has won six of its last seven games. The lone loss in that stretch, 21-13 at home to UTSA, cost the Mean Green a chance to be in the C-USA championship game in their first season in the league.
There are 20 seniors listed on North Texas' bowl roster — 13 were already there in 2010, Dodge's last season. Four other players from then still have another season of eligibility under McCarney.
"Coach Mac has his system in place, he's laid the foundation, and everybody's buying in," Orr said.
"To finally be the senior class that decided enough is enough and we weren't going to be turned away this year was pretty special," Thompson said. "This senior class will be remembered for a long time just because of what we were able to do this year."