North Texas has sent 107 players to the National Football League, six of whom earned All-Pro honors and one of whom was recognized by the NFL as the greatest ever at his position.
The first NFL player from North Texas was halfback Ted Wright, signed by the Washington Redskins three years before the first NFL draft. The first player to be drafted was center Jim Cooper by the Pittsburgh Steelers, which has selected more Mean Green players - including two of the most prominent athletes in North Texas history, Joe Greene and Abner Haynes (who rejected the NFL in favor of the AFL) - than any other club.
In addition to the North Texas players who went on to the NFL, Mean Green coaches have a long history of developing pro players in previous stops in their careers, such as defensive back Troy Vincent, wide receivers Jericho Cotchery and Santana Moss, and quarterback Philip Rivers.
Ray Renfro was the first former North Texas football player to earn All-Pro honors in the National Football League.
A 6-1, 190-pound receiver and halfback from Whitesboro, Texas, Renfro was a first-team All-America running back at North Texas in 1951, and was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the fourth round of the 1952 draft.
Renfro split time at halfback and flanker early in his pro career but was used primarily as a receiver. After catching one pass for eight yards his rookie year, Renfro was second in the league in yards from scrimmage in his second season and was named to the 1953 Pro Bowl. He was named to the Pro Bowl again in 1957 and 1960.
He was named All Pro in 1955 when he led the NFL in yards per reception with 20.8 yards a catch and was third in the league in touchdowns. Renfro earned the honor again in 1959.
Renfro played in the NFL for 12 years, all with the Browns.
North Texas was the first college in Texas to integrate its football program when Abner Haynes and Leon King joined the team in 1956. Despite the racial hurdles to overcome, Haynes led the Mean Green in rushing for three years, and in 1959 he led North Texas to the Sun Bowl and earned All-America honors.
Haynes was selected twice to play pro ball, drafted by the Steelers of the NFL but signed by the Dallas Texans of the American Football League. In his rookie year, Haynes led the fledgling AFL in yards rushing and was the league’s first Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year.
From 1960 to 1962, Haynes led the league in rushing touchdowns, was top three in yards rushing, and was first-team All-AFL. In the 1962 AFL Championship game, Haynes scored two touchdowns as the Texans beat the Houston Oilers, 20-17.
The Texans moved to Kansas City in 1963, and Haynes retired in 1967. In 1988, the Chiefs retired his number.
Considered the best defensive tackle of all time, Joe Greene is the greatest athlete in North Texas history.
Originally from Temple, Texas, Greene was a 6-4, 275-pound wrecking crew. After an All-America senior season in 1968, Greene was drafted in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The selection paid off quickly. Greene was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1969 and was named to the first of 10-consecutive All-Pro teams and Pro Bowls.
With Greene anchoring its defensive line, Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain defense led the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles.
In 1982, Greene retired after 13 seasons. In 1983, he was inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame, and in 1987 he entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 2010, the NFL named its all-time Top 100 players, and Greene was rated the 13th best player in NFL history and the top-ranked defensive tackle, edging out fellow legends Bob Lilly and Merlin Olsen.
North Texas has had four or more players drafted in one year seven times, but no period can match the Mean Green's four-year stretch from 1968 to 1971.
In four years, the Mean Green had 18 players drafted, including a first-round selection in three-straight years: Joe Greene in 1969, Cedric Hardman in 1970, and Leonard Dunlap in 1971. Among the draftees of that era are some of the legends of North Texas football.
The 1970 class included defensive end Hardman, who played 12 years, was a two-time Pro Bowl selection, and remains the 49ers all-time sack leader; wide receiver Ron Shanklin, a second-round pick of the Steelers and a Pro Bowl selection in 1973; and quarterback Steve Ramsey, who holds the North Texas record for most career touchdown passes.
The 1971 class included defensive backs Dunlap, Wilmur Level, center Willie Parker, who played eight years with the Buffalo Bills, and free-agent signee Perry Pruett.
J.T. Smith is proof that if you're NFL-caliber, the NFL will find you.
Smith was a wide receiver and kick and punt returner at North Texas from 1974 to 1977, setting school records for punt returns. He went undrafted in 1978 but his return abilities caught the eye of scouts, and he was signed as a free agent. He parlayed that opportunity into a 13-year career.
His breakout season came in 1979 with the Kansas City Chiefs, when he led the league in punt-return yards and touchdowns. He followed up in 1980 by averaging an NFL-best 14.5-yards per punt return and was named to the Pro Bowl and was first-team All Pro.
Smith's role as a wide receiver also grew, and he eventually developed into a starting wide receiver with the St. Louis Cardinals, where Smith led the NFL in receiving with 91 catches for 1,117 yards in 1987. In 1988, he earned his second Pro Bowl selection. Smith finished his career with 10,287 all-purpose yards.
North Texas has had its share of excellent special-teams players, from Iseed Khoury's school-record 62-yard field goal in 1977 and Keith Chapman's two-year streak of perfection on point-after-touchdown kicks to J.T. Smith's 100 career punt returns and Abner Haynes remarkable 28.6-yard career punt-return average. But in the late 1990s, North Texas developed two punters who went on to the NFL.
Toby Gowin and John Baker, who share most of the Mean Green punting records, did the punting for North Texas from 1993 to 1999, and each earned NFL careers.
Gowin was signed as a free agent by the Cowboys in 1996, and spent half of his eight-year career in Dallas. He finished his career with a 41.2-yard average. He also played for the New Orleans Saints and New York Jets.
Baker also signed as a free agent out of college and spent two seasons with the St. Louis Rams, playing in the 2002 Super Bowl.
Brian Waters played tight end for three years and defensive end for one at North Texas, but his NFL future lay along a different path.
After his senior season, Waters signed a free-agent contract with Dallas, which tried Waters as a tight end. He didn't make the team and was out of football for the 1999 season, but in 2000 he got another chance when Kansas City brought him in to be an offensive lineman, a move that paid off handsomely for Waters and the Chiefs.
What Kansas City got was one of the best offensive linemen in the game. Waters quickly evolved into a Pro Bowl guard. He made his first Pro Bowl in 2004, and has returned five more times. He was named All-Pro in 2004 and 2005, and was the winner of the prestigious Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award in 2009.
Waters played for the New England Patriots in 2011, reaching his first Super Bowl.
In the late 1990s, North Texas began assembling the pieces of a defense that would dominate the Sun Belt Conference. That defense spawned four conference championships and sent five players to the NFL: linebacker Brad Kassell, defensive back Don McGee, defensive tackle Brandon Kennedy, linebacker Cody Spencer, and defensive end Adrian Awasom.
Though not with the Mean Green when the league titles began to roll in, Kassell was a leader to the burgeoning unit. He signed a free-agent contract in 2001 with the Tennessee Titans, where he played for four seasons before finishing his career with the New York Jets.
What Kassell had helped build captured the first of four titles in 2001, led by Spencer, Kennedy and Awasom. In 2004, Spencer was drafted in the sixth round by Oakland and Kennedy was signed as a free agent by Denver. A year later, Awasom signed on with the New York Giants, where he played for three years.
Dan McCarney has coached more than 20 players drafted into the NFL, including some of the NFL's top defenders.
As an assistant coach at Wisconsin, McCarney coached defensive back Troy Vincent to a first-team All-American selection in 1991 and a first-round draft pick in 1992. Vincent became one of the top defensive backs in the league with the Miami Dolphins and Philadelphia Eagles, earning five Pro Bowl appearances and the NFL's Man of the Year honor in 2002.
Thirteen of McCarney's players at Iowa State were drafted by the NFL, including quarterbacks Seneca Wallace and Sage Rosenfels, both fourth-round selections, and running back Troy Davis, a third-round pick.
But McCarney's latest additions to the NFL are two of his biggest - defensive ends from Florida. Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham, both All-SEC performers, were drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft by Cincinnati and New England, respectively.
Patrick Cobbs is a classic case of work ethic trumping expectations.
Cobbs was not highly recruited coming out of Shawnee, Oklahoma. But upon his arrival at North Texas, he provided an excellent No. 2 back to Kevin Galbreath, a combination that amassed over 3,500 yards rushing and helped North Texas to a victory in the 2002 New Orleans Bowl.
In his junior season, Cobbs became the first North Texas player to lead the NCAA in rushing with 152.7 yards per game, a total of 1,680 yards. His 19 rushing touchdowns that year were tops in the Sun Belt Conference. After a season-ending injury the next year, Cobbs came back for his final season to again lead the Sun Belt in rushing and finish as the Mean Green's all-time leading rusher.
Despite his record-setting college career, Cobbs went undrafted by the NFL. But after signing as a free agent, Cobbs worked his way to a solid career with the Miami Dolphins as running back, receiver, and special teams player.
The Mean Green sent three players to the NFL in 2012.
Lance Dunbar finished his college career as the Mean Green's all-time leading rusher, becoming the sixth player in NCAA history with 4,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in his career. Dunbar signed as a free agent with the Dallas Cowboys, as did teammate Jamize Olawale, a JUCO transfer to NT who caught the Cowboys' attention at North Texas's pro day at Apogee Stadium prior to the NFL draft. Olawale ended up with Oakland and earned a starting job with the Raiders, while Dunbar is seeing significant playing time at running back. Dunbar and Olawale were the 21st and 22nd running backs in North Texas history to reach the NFL.
Linebacker Craig Robertson, No. 3 all-time in tackles at North Texas, is starting for the Cleveland Browns. In 2013, he was second on the Browns in tackles with 93, had two interceptions, and got his first NFL sack - at the expense of Cowboys' QB Tony Romo.
The Mean Green's pipeline to the NFL continued in 2014, when linebacker Zach Orr earned a roster spot with the Baltimore Ravens and became the fifth undrafted North Texas player to reach the NFL in less than a decade.
"He earned it," Ravens coach Jim Harbaugh explained how Orr made the team and bumped a veteran off the squad.
Orr, a three-time all-conference selection, recorded 365 career tackles at North Texas, tied for third on NT's all-time list with another undrafted Mean Green linebacker who played in the NFL, Brad Kassell.
In Orr's senior season, he had 123 tackles, fifth best in school history, including 13.5 tackles for loss in leading North Texas to a victory in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year's Day at the Cotton Bowl.
"He's a really smart football player," Harbaugh said. "He's one of those guys who can understand and react on the run and do the right things. Not only that, he's physically pretty darn good."