DENTON (CBSDFW.COM) – It took more than two years, but UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal finally got to see the sheet pulled off the bronze eagle that gazes north upon the university's new football field.
The players bounced and sprinted out from behind it, gliding their hands across its head, rushing onto the field just before 6 p.m. Saturday with a backdrop of roaring fans behind them.
This was it; all the planning and construction behind Apogee Stadium over the past two years – the university had to get OKs from a majority of the student body, along with the Board of Regents and an approval handed from Gov. Rick Perry himself to raise an athletics fee to help pay for it – had come to this.
And the crowd ate it up.
"It feels like a college stadium," said Kyle Gallagher, 21, a junior at UNT. "Not like a high school game."
True, there weren't many kind words for Fouts Field among tailgaters, alumni and walkup fans. That stadium, built in 1952, now lies dormant across Interstate 35. It'll likely be razed for parking, officials say.
The $78 million Apogee Stadium is the future, and what the athletic department hopes will serve as the program's cornerstone. It's designed to melt into the Mean Green Athletic Village: Its beige color scheme complements Victory Hall and the nearby Athletic Center.
"This is the best thing to hit Denton and the University of North Texas," said Pilot Point resident Scott Alagood, who grew up in Denton. "It's the nicest college stadium in the Metroplex."
The football program has been rebranded; the players have new uniforms, and the in-house advertisement told fans to prepare for the Dan McCarney Era. McCarney was named head coach in November after the team fired Todd Dodge, who led the team to a dismal 6-37 record over three seasons.
Fans began encircling the stadium as early as 8 a.m. A few members of the Theta Chi fraternity spent the night on couches outside Apogee.
The free student tickets sold out last week, and a stadium employee who asked not to be identified said the steep stands behind the north end zone – it takes 138 steps to get to the top of it, by the way – was all that's left.
"We've been out here since noon," Gallagher said, a cooler and a smattering of friends behind him. "It's nice having a new stadium, and it's still good to come out and support the team."
Area businesses set up tents in a lot to the west of the stadium, often handing out free hot dogs, water and beer.
"It's complementary for students and it's a lot of fun," said Meleia Waschka, a district manager at Wells Fargo who was helping grill hot dogs under a tent. "Plus, we get to come out and see people in the community."
Tailgaters flanked the north, south and east areas around the stadium.
The sea of green cascaded over small hills and sprawled out under shaded areas. While waiting to get in to the game at 4:30 p.m., University of Houston and North Texas fans playfully shouted their team's names back and forth.
Fans said it felt more like the pregame collegiate experience synonymous with teams in larger conferences, like the Big 12.
"This compares to the experience before an A&M game," Alagood said. "It's not as many people, but the excitement, the people buzzing around; it's not like it was."
Football at UNT has long-standing struggles with attendance issues. When previous coach Todd Dodge was hired, in 2007, the team had only drawn more than 20,000 during a conference matchup three times ever.
There's close to 31,000 seats at Apogee – roughly 500 more than Fouts – with 21 luxury boxes and 760 club seats.
Concessions come from Denton staples like Metzler's Barbecue, Beth Marie's Ice Cream and Kolache Haven, along with more national brands like Sonic. It's also on pace to be the first LEED-certified football facility in the nation.
"It's got every state-of-the-art amenity that you would find at any stadium in the country including the places like Cowboys Stadium and other places that people might be familiar with in the North Texas area," said Eric Capper, athletics spokesman.
About 28,075 attended Saturday's inaugural game. The stadium looked nearly full during the competitive first half, which concluded with UNT trailing by only three points.
Plenty of fans remained even after the third quarter, which saw the Cougars take a commanding 41-17 lead.
But many fans put the program's future success on the back of the stadium. With the facelift, UNT should be able to get better talent, and become competitive again, they say.
"If this doesn't build the program into a solid team," Alagood said, "I don't know what will."
The University of North Texas Mean Green lost Saturday to the University of Houston Cougars 48-23.
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