DENTON, Texas -- Hours before the inaugural game at Apogee Stadium on Saturday, North Texas fans lined up at the locked front gate and waited.
"Let us in!" Let us in!" they chanted.
Mean Green fans had waited long enough, and they didn't want to wait anymore.
Since 1952, they've cheered for North Texas in a stadium that was deficient in just about every way -- Fouts Field. For years the athletics department lobbied for a new home.
Saturday was the culmination of all that time and effort. The school finally played its first game in Apogee Stadium -- a 48-23 loss to Houston in front of 28,075 fans, just shy of capacity.
"This is terrific," said Scott Flynn, a Southlake resident and 1980 alumnus of North Texas. "We've always had a track around our field but now we're right on top of the action. I hope we can perform up to our facilities."
When the gates opened, fans walked in and marveled at the size, beauty, and cleanliness of the stadium.
They perused the numerous concession stand options in the corridor that weren't available at Fouts, including ice cream vender Beth Marie's, a local staple from the square in downtown Denton.
"It's unbelievable," said Tom Klammer, a retired North Texas accounting professor. "Fouts was a dump in the 1970s. It's [Apogee] just going to do wonders for the program."
And they came from near and far to christen the building. North Texas alumnus Robert Middaugh flew in from his residence in Washington D.C. to attend the game.
"I don't know that I've felt this excitement in the eight years I've been involved with North Texas," Middaugh said. "I flew all the way across the country for this. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There's no way I wouldn't be here for this."
Middaugh joined the tailgate at noon Saturday. Many of his fellow fans had already been there for almost 24 hours as the first tailgaters began trickling in around 4 p.m. Friday.
Most tailgates set up on the east side of the stadium around a pathway the school dubbed "The Hill" where fraternities, sororities, venders and cover bands set up to entertain the crowd.
The team made its entrance into the stadium along The Hill at 4 p.m. with the band, cheerleaders and dance team leading it in while fans gathered around and cheered them on. Head coach Dan McCarney gave high fives to onlookers all the way into Apogee.
"We came in on the Mean Green Walk and it was electric," quarterback Derek Thompson said of entering the stadium. "The atmosphere was great. We had a lot of fan support. We wanted to take that electricity to the field tonight."
North Texas officials believe it was by far the largest tailgate the school has ever had. It included more venders and entertainment than ever before, so fans also camped out on the west side of the stadium. Some even staked out in the parking lot at Fouts Field across I-35E.
"I was real emotional and I don't get that way at the start of any football game," McCarney said. "When I walked out there and saw that crowd and saw those students and saw the green after seeing an empty stadium for nine months, I was overcome with emotion."
Most importantly for the opener at Apogee, the team gave fans a reason to stay even after they got a look inside.
Backup quarterback Andrew McNulty became the answer to a future trivia question by scoring the first touchdown at Apogee Stadium on an 11-yard run to give North Texas (0-2) a 7-0 lead.
Houston (2-0) took a 17-7 lead thanks to three early North Texas turnovers, but Thompson helped North Texas erase the deficit in the second quarter when he hit Andrew Power in the end zone from 5 yards away.
Houston took a 20-17 lead into halftime, but the crowd gave the Mean Green a rousing ovation as it headed to the locker room after a strong effort that saw the heavy underdogs hanging in the game.
"We came out on fire," Thompson said. "The fans were in it. That was more than what I expected. They did a great job of keeping us in the game. They caused a lot of problems for Houston's offense. I couldn't stand next to a teammate and hear what he was saying."
But the Cougar offense was too much for North Texas in the second half. Houston quarterback Case Keenum threw touchdown passes on Houston's first four drives of the half and the Mean Green never recovered.
"They executed and we didn't," McCarney said of the second half.