GREATEST MOMENTS | When Joe Greene and the North Texas green became ‘Mean’


North-Texas-greatest-1Two nicknames were famously established when Joe Greene played for the North Texas State University Eagles from 1966-68.

Greene became “Mean” Joe and the Eagles became the “Mean Green.”

That much is certain about the sports moment judged the greatest in school history.

But which came first? And how?

The origins are the stuff of legend.

It starts with the school colors — green and white — and a punishing defensive line anchored by Joe Greene.

In 1966, UNT finished second in the nation in rushing defense. Such dominance demanded a nickname.

Inspiration struck the wife of UNT sports information director Fred Graham after a spectacular tackle by Greene.  According to one story, she blurted out, “That’s the way, Mean Greene!”

“It was merely a spontaneous cheer for an impressive play, but moments later the light bulb went off,” Sidney Sue Graham recalled in 2004. “I’d been thinking we needed a nickname. All the other really strong defensive units in the country had one.”

The NFL’s Los Angeles Rams had the Fearsome Foursome and the Minnesota Vikings featured the Purple People Eaters — inspired by for the team’s primary color and a popular song of the time.

So why not Mean Green for the North Texas defense?

That was the idea as Bill Mercer, UNT football’s play-by-play man for more than 30 years, confirmed in 2013.

“It should be referred to as Eagle football,” he added, “but I lost that fight a long time ago.”

At first, Graham’s husband the SID did not approve either. “Fred said it was too corny,” she said.

But he referred to the “Mean Green Defensive Unit” in a 1967 press release and the name caught on with sports writers. By Greene’s senior season in 1968, even the band picked up on it, becoming the “Mean Green Marching Machine.”

And when the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Greene in 1969, fans mistakenly assumed “Mean Green” was his nickname, hence “Mean” Joe Greene.

Or so the story goes.

But maybe “Mean Green” started as a cheer. That’s the claim according to Willie Davis, a UNT basketball hall of famer who credits a teammate for starting “Mean Green” at a football game they attended in the 1966.

“Ira Daniels wasn’t satisfied with the cheers,” Davis recalled in 2004, “so he got up and started saying to the rest of us, the students sitting in this section, ‘Mean Green, you look so good to me,’ and we’d say, ‘Mean Green.'”

The crowd joined in, then the cheerleaders.

“After that we did it every game,” Davis said. “A lot of people later on started associating it with Joe because his last name was Greene, but it actually started with that simple chant … And that’s the truth.”

This is also the truth: In Greene’s 29 games, North Texas went 23-5-1 and held opponents to 2,507 yards gained on 1,276 rushes — less than 2 yards per carry.

Greene and the green were mean indeed. And today, all of UNT’s teams are known as the Mean Green.


• North Texas Hall of Fame

On the cover and above:  Joe Greene, who played three seasons for North Texas at defensive tackle, led a defense the held opponents to less than 2 yards per carry during his career. (Photo courtesy of University of North Texas Archives)

Monday: Northern Michigan and North Texas
Tuesday: Northwestern State and Oakland
Wednesday: Ohio and Old Dominion
Thursday: Penn and Presbyterian
Friday: Princeton and Providence

Mike Bambach

Mike Bambach is senior web producer for ASN.