For three decades under the direction of Dave Williams, the University of Houston was the country’s premier men’s golf program. The legendary coach guided the Cougars to 16 NCAA titles from 1956 to 1985, including five in a row from 1956 to ’60.
But before Houston grabbed the college golf spotlight, another program from the Lone Star State reigned supreme: North Texas.
Under coach Fred Cobb, North Texas captured four consecutive NCAA titles (1949-52) and placed second in ’54. Among those who donned the green and white for the Eagles were future PGA Tour winners Don January and Billy Maxwell.
Cobb died in 1955, and Herb Ferrill took over the program. During Ferrill’s 30 years in Denton, North Texas twice finished second at the NCAA Championship (1955 and ’56), placed third two times and won 13 Missouri Valley Conference titles.
The school’s athletic teams became known as the Mean Green in the late 1960s. Recent golf seasons, however, have been lean, not mean. From the 2004-05 season through 2008-09, North Texas failed to finish in the top 100 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.
January, who went on to a successful professional career (10 PGA Tour victories, including the 1967 PGA Championship, and 22 victories on the Champions Tour), remains close to the North Texas program. He is part of an annual event that bears his name and raises money for the men’s and women’s golf teams.
“I have always been proud of North Texas. I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for it,” said January, 81, who met his wife while attending the school. His oldest son graduated from there, and his grandson plays football for the Mean Green. “I try to help when I can and will go up there from time to time and talk to both teams.”
Although Maxwell, who won seven PGA Tour titles, hasn’t stayed as close to the program as his former teammate, the 1951 U.S. Amateur champion remembers his days at the school fondly.
“We had some great teams and some great players, and it was a real treat to be a part of it,” said Maxwell, now 81 and living in Florida. “Coach Cobb was really the whole thing. He kept things going and would even get Byron Nelson to come up there and talk to us and practice.
“It seems like (North Texas) sort of forgot about golf there for a while,” Maxwell said. “I’m hoping that maybe they’ll get it going again.”
Under third-year head coach Brad Stracke, that’s exactly what the Mean Green are doing.
Last season, the second under Stracke, the Mean Green finally cracked the top 100, at No. 79. And this spring, with no seniors, North Texas has risen as high as No. 25.
“For the most part, recruits have no idea (of the program’s successful history) until they come on campus and see all the trophies,” said Stracke, who came to Denton after serving as an assistant coach under Buddy Alexander for three years at Florida. “They’re shocked. I mean, this was the place to be for college golf in the 1950s.
“I tell them this is where we’ve been, and this is where we want to get again. That’s the goal,” said Stracke, who was head coach at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa from 1996 to 2005. He led Indian Hills to a National Junior College Athletic Association Championship in 2000, part of a run of six consecutive top-3 finishes at nationals.
North Texas hasn’t competed in the NCAA postseason since 2003, the last year the Mean Green won the Sun Belt Conference Championship.
“We have set some hefty goals for ourselves this season,” Stracke said. “We want to be a top-30 team, win conference, get to regionals and make it to the NCAA finals.”
The Mean Green had a solid fall, opening with a victory at the 19-team Waterchase Invitational, where they posted a 20-under 844, the best 54-hole score for the program since 1998; finishing second by one shot to San Diego State at the William H. Tucker Invitational; and placing third at the Lone Star Invitational. They opened the spring Feb. 14-15 with a third-place showing at the Oak Hills Invitational.
“We’ve been able to recruit some pretty solid players and have two good transfers in (junior) Josh Jones from LSU and (sophomore) Ty Spinella from Arkansas,” Stracke said.
Two of those recruits are from Mexico: sophomores Carlos Ortiz and Rodolfo Cazaubon, both of whom competed as individuals at the 2010 NCAA West Regional as freshmen and represented Mexico at last year’s World Amateur Team Championship.
Ortiz tied for first at the Tucker, won the Lone Star and tied for 15th at Waterchase and Oak Hills. Cazaubon, last season’s Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year, has four top 20s.
Jones has four top 15s, including a sixth at the Tucker, and Spinella tied for sixth at Oak Hills. And sophomore Curtis Donahoe tied for first at the Waterchase.
“I expected us to play well in the fall, and we did,” Stracke said. “It may have come as a shock to a lot of people, but not to my guys. I think this spring could be very special, and it’s going to be interesting to see how we perform.”
Said January: “They are on the right road. Brad has done a great job the past few years, and I think if they continue doing what they’re doing, they can get the program back into national prominence.”