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From left, Jonni, Jonathan and Jeff Cooper and Reanee Rhodes-Koch and Max Koch pose for a photo with their 1976 Dodge Mean Green van before the North Texas football season opener game against Abilene Christian on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, at Apogee Stadium in Denton.

A flurry of tailgaters kicked off the 2019 football season at Apogee Stadium on Saturday, where the University of North Texas battled against Abilene Christian University in their home opener. While the Eagles coasted to a 51-31 victory behind senior quarterback Mason Fine’s four touchdown performance, it was what cruised into the parking lot earlier that afternoon that set the tone.

Rolling into the tailgating lot on Saturday afternoon, Mansfield residents Max Koch and his wife, Reanee Rhodes-Koch, parked their custom-designed 1976 “Mean Green” Dodge Van alongside other would-be tailgaters. For Max and Reanee, who haven’t missed a home game since 2012, tailgating is like a family reunion, where friends, acquaintances and newcomers can be passionate about UNT football.

“We like to entertain people and like when people come out and participate in UNT football,” Reanee said. “My son will probably be going here in the fall, so we’ll have that extension.”

Max, 51, a UNT alumni and fencing contractor in Mansfield, said he spent about a year remodeling his ‘76 “Mean Green” van. When he initially purchased the vehicle from Craigslist, Max said, it had been a ratty blue with cheap tires and in dire need of a makeover.

Max repainted and redesigned the interior of his van, which now features noticeable “Mean Green” lettering along the sides of his vehicle, with the UNT eagle soaring behind it and talons on the rear doors of his vehicle, which were contributed through family with experience in auto graphics design.

Although Max and Reanee reside in Mansfield, it is not unusual for them to see UNT fans or students having their picture taken with the van, Reanee said, acknowledging that it’s often a conversation starter.

“We’ve had people who are going to UNT ask if they can take their senior photos with [the van],” Reanee said. “Then, we’ve just had people show up in our yard one time, the dogs are barking, and I look outside and there’s a girl in cap and gown with a UNT shirt on taking pictures.”

UNT Vice President and Director of Athletics, Wren Baker, who stopped by Max and Reanee’s tailgate venue on Saturday, gave an astonished “wow” as he complimented their spirited “Mean Green” van.

In recent years, the UNT football program has seen improvements since their 1-11 season in 2015, amassing a total of 24 wins and 17 loses in the past three seasons to include Saturday’s win against Abilene Christian University. Baker said the success of UNT sports programs is a give and take metric that relies on both fans and fundraising, and that tailgating is a good indication of a team’s improvement.

Ahead of Saturday’s football game, about 85 percent of parking spots were reserved for would-be tailgaters, according to Eric Capper, Senior Associate Athletic Director for UNT. The number of reserved spots ahead of Saturday’s game was on pace for last year’s game against Southern Methodist University, according to Capper, which was the best-selling tailgating game of the 2018 season.

In addition, Capper said, visiting fans from Abilene Christian had requested a setup for 600 to 700 people — much larger than what most visiting groups had requested in the past.

Before entering into the stadium for the start of Saturday’s game, Max and Reanee, dawning an opening day tradition, prepared a meal of mixed salads, sausage, sauerkraut and a pastime favorite — filet mignon.

Although it’s not the cheapest route, Reanee said about filet mignon, she acknowledged with a laugh that it typically “goes downhill after that.” But, for today, Max said, it’s a delicious way to begin the season.

The UNT football team will play their next game against SMU Saturday, Sept. 7, at 6 p.m. The next UNT home game will be played against the University of Texas at San Antonio at Apogee Stadium on Sept. 21 at 6:30 p.m.

RYAN HIGGS can be reached via Twitter at @HiggsUNT.

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