EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the finale of a two-part series on how the North Texas athletics department survived and thrived during the COVID-19 pandemic in the 2020-21 school year. Today’s story focuses on how UNT fans and officials helped the school’s teams navigate the challenges they faced, setting the program up for a promising future. See the first part of the series here.

North Texas athletic director Wren Baker didn’t pull any punches in the summer of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic tightened its grip on the country.

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament had been canceled along with spring sports, leaving UNT looking at a loss of up to $2.5 million in revenue from a $39 million budget.

Baker spoke about where UNT stood in a prerecorded interview posted to the school’s athletics department website and quickly got to the bottom line — UNT needed financial help.

Wren Baker mug

Wren Baker

“Thank you for the support you have given us,” Baker said. “If you can’t do it at the same level this year, I understand. For the people who can, we need you now more than ever.”

Preston Hodge was among the fans who answered the call.

The UNT graduate didn’t feel comfortable attending football games in the midst of a pandemic following the birth of his daughter, Caroline, but purchased two season tickets anyway. That small gesture is just one example of how the UNT community pulled together in the 2020-21 school year, setting the program up for a promising future.

“The more student and alumni engagement we can get, the better,” Hodge said. “At UNT, every dollar helps a lot more than at a place like Alabama. With us, every season ticket goes a long way.”

Those contributions and the work UNT’s administration did behind the scenes made a series of milestones possible in a challenging year.

UNT won the Conference USA men’s basketball tournament on its way to beating Purdue in the NCAA tournament. The school’s softball team won the regular season C-USA title while its women’s golf team won the conference tournament.

UNT finished in the black in the 2020 fiscal year and is on track to do the same when the 2021 year concludes at the end of August.

Baker feels good about where UNT stands as its programs look to build on last season’s successes when the fall sports season begins in a few weeks. And he’s not alone. The school’s coaches and athletes also have an optimistic outlook.

“We’re going to emerge from the pandemic in a better position than many of our peers and competitors,” Baker said this summer, a year after his original plea to UNT’s fans. “We’ll be able to pick up where we left off and hopefully continue to pass some folks on the highway.”

UNT fans

Top: North Texas students cheer on the Mean Green during a win over Houston Baptist last season at Apogee Stadium. UNT athletic director Wren Baker said keeping students engaged will be critical this fall as the school looks to build home attendance following the COVID-19 pandemic. Right: North Texas graduate Preston Hodge purchased two season tickets for the Mean Green’s football season last summer despite the uncertainty surrounding college athletics due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He didn’t attend a single game because he was uncomfortable doing so after the birth of his daughter, Caroline. Hodge passed on a chance to ask for a refund because he wanted to help UNT’s athletics department in a challenging time. Courtesy photo

Fans, supporters played key role

Lending his support to UNT wasn’t as easy as it sounds for Hodge or a lot of other fans.

Several were hit hard financially by the pandemic or had other issues that made purchasing tickets and donating to the program a difficult decision.

Hodge and his wife, Patricia, discussed purchasing tickets in the months leading up to last season. They weren’t sure if there would be a season but took advantage of UNT’s Father’s Day special to purchase two tickets.

“If nothing else, I wanted to put a little bit of support behind the football program and athletics in general,” Hodge said.

UNT’s home opener in football against Northwestern State on Sept. 4 will be the first Mean Green game Hodge has been to since the end of the 2019 season.

Hodge could have asked for a refund of the $140 he spent through UNT’s ticket assurance program. The school offered fans a chance to apply funds from unused tickets to future purchases or ask for the money back.

Hodge chose to donate his funds because of his love for the program that stretches back years.

He was first drawn in by UNT’s men’s basketball team, which went to the NCAA tournament in 2010.

Hodge is as confident in UNT’s athletics program now as he ever has been, including its football team that is coming off back-to-back losing seasons.

“Even if you are slightly disappointed with the last season or two, at least we’re at the point where there are expectations that we feel pressure to live up to,” Hodge said.

Ian Douglas is a lot like Hodge in the fact he couldn’t attend games last season but bought tickets anyway. Douglas’ wife, Sharla, has respiratory issues that made avoiding COVID-19 critical for her. Other members of their family were also dealing with health issues.

Douglas asked UNT to roll over the $370 he paid for tickets to this season but let the school keep the $300 donation to the Mean Green Scholarship Fund he paid for the right to purchase them.

“A lot of people weren’t in position to donate, but we were,” Douglas said. “I told them to keep my scholarship donation and take care of the athletes. We need to do that so that we can keep going after the best players and tell them about how we took care our of student-athletes during COVID. That will be a selling point over the next several years.”

Douglas has been going to games with his fraternity brothers since the mid-1990s. His daughter, Loughlin, is a UNT student.

Douglas and Hodge are far from the only fans who went the extra mile for UNT.

Longtime donor Jerome “Bruzzy” Westheimer donated $25,000 in August to help cover scholarships and expenses for athletes.

“Scholarships for student-athletes need to be paid moving forward,” Westheimer said at the time. “I am proud to have the resources to continue to help those students who came after I graduated [from] North Texas.”

Baker credits UNT athletics Chief Financial Officer Matt Witty for handling resources the school’s fans provided efficiently during a challenging time. He admits it may take a year or two but he expects UNT to return to where it was financially before the pandemic.

Baker emphasized that UNT will continue to be smart with its money and look at implementing some of the effective budget cutting moves it made during the pandemic, including reducing recruiting expenditures.

The hope now is that fans will purchase tickets and attend games again this school year. UNT announced this summer that it will open its venues at full capacity. Apogee Stadium will return to its regular capacity of 30,850. The school made just 8,000 seats available last season to allow for social distancing during the height of the pandemic.

The response from fans has been promising.

“Up until a month ago, I really didn’t know,” Baker said early this summer of how football ticket sales would go. “I was really concerned that behavior would permanently change. What most of my colleagues are seeing and what we’re seeing here very early in our cycle is there’s pent-up demand.

“My biggest concern is we’ve always done very, very well here in terms of student attendance. We have to make sure that our students are engaged.”

Seth Littrell for series

North Texas coach Seth Littrell watches his players during the Mean Green's spring game earlier this year. Littrell has led UNT to four bowl games in five seasons and has high hopes for the 2021 campaign due to the experience some of his young players gained last season. Several of those players were forced into action due to COVID-19 infections and contact tracing issues that took players out of the lineup.

Capitalizing key for UNT

The challenge for UNT’s programs heading into the school year is to capitalize on the time, effort and money administrators and fans put into setting them up to succeed.

UNT will certainly be in a better position due to the availability of COVID-19 vaccines. Baker said the school is providing athletes with information about the benefits of vaccinations without requiring them.

Even if not all of UNT’s athletes are vaccinated, the school is sure to have fewer COVID-19 issues than last year.

The pressure to come through will fall largely on UNT’s football team and coach Seth Littrell. UNT navigated a tough season that saw three games canceled and two more postponed to play in a bowl game for the fourth time in five years.

While playing in the postseason was a milestone for the program, the 2020 campaign ended on a down note. UNT qualified for bowl season despite being under .500 at 4-5 but was blown out by Appalachian State 56-28 in the Myrtle Beach Bowl.

“A lot of guys got reps that maybe they wouldn’t have gotten,” Littrell said of the way last season transpired with players being in and out of the lineup due to COVID-19 infections and contact tracing. “The younger guys will be further along because of it. We will benefit on the mental side of things because of what we faced and will be a better football team.”

UNT quarterback Austin Aune is the Mean Green’s oldest player at 27 and will be motivated to help lead those younger players. The former Argyle standout spent six years playing baseball in the New York Yankees’ minor league system before beginning a belated college football career.

Aune started three games last season while splitting time with Jason Bean, who has since left the program and transferred to Kansas.

Aune missed the Myrtle Beach Bowl with a mild case of COVID-19 and enters the season looking to make up for lost time.

“Missing the bowl game has motivated me through the offseason,” Aune said. “Splitting time last year put a chip on my shoulder.”

Plenty of UNT coaches and athletes feel that way after they navigated a tough 2020-21 school year. What they accomplished along the way gives them hope for the future.

That is certainly the case with UNT’s softball program, which endured one of the toughest years among the school’s teams.

A series of COVID-19 infections forced UNT to shut the program down for two weeks in October. The team also had three instances where it had double-digit players in quarantine.

Coming back from its COVID-19 issues in the fall to capture a C-USA title was particularly rewarding for coach Rodney DeLong and his players.

DeLong credited Baker and his staff for handling the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic in a smart and strategic way, paving the way for his team’s championship run. He’s also thankful for the help boosters like Westheimer, as well as fans like Hodge and Douglas, provided.

“It was awesome to see the support that we’ve gotten from different people who stuck with us through these weird times,” DeLong said. “We’re very appreciative of that.”

Their combined efforts have set UNT up for a promising future, one that will begin in just a few weeks when the Mean Green open the 2021-22 school year.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

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