Three years ago, Troy was a floundering and momentarily rudderless football program, its longtime head coach retiring after a 3-9 season, Troy’s fourth consecutive year with a .500 record or worse.
Two years ago, North Texas was coming off one of the most abysmal seasons in program history, going 1-11 while getting outscored by 26 points per game.
Saturday, those two programs will meet in the New Orleans Bowl, each trying to put a cherry on top of their rapid reversals — Troy is seeking its first 11-win season as a Division I program, North Texas its first 10-win season in 70 years.
“Our Troy edge is back,” said Troy senior quarterback Brandon Silvers.
“The program literally went from the ground all the way up,” said North Texas linebacker E.J. Ejiya.
The two success stories started with putting the right coaches in place, men who consider themselves to be fairly close friends — Neal Brown at Troy and Seth Littrell at North Texas. The first order of business for both was to change the culture at once-proud places that had lost their luster.
Brown felt the pieces were there for Troy to quickly re-establish itself as one of the Sun Belt Conference’s premier teams.
Former Troy coach Larry Blakeney, who retired after 24 years following the 2014 season, left some talented players in the cupboard for Brown, including Silvers and senior running back Jordan Chunn, who is on the verge of breaking the Sun Belt Conference rushing-touchdown record.
The players were there, but the mindset needed to be adjusted.
“The main thing is the culture has changed completely from what it was when coach Brown first got here,” said Troy linebacker Hunter Reese. “The way we work and handle ourselves on and off the field, it’s all changed.
“We came a lot closer as a team, also. That’s been a big factor in the turnaround.”
With the backing of the Troy administration, Brown started making cosmetic changes to the program immediately. He secured new office space for his coaching staff, which also doubled as an area to conduct team meetings.
Players started to receive better equipment. The team revamped its training table, serving better meals to the team. A new $25 million facility is also in the works for the North end zone of Veterans Memorial Stadium, housing a new weight room and locker room.
“That culture has really spread,” Brown said. “We’ve got a program that I think is on firm footing for years in the future as well.”
The defining moment, when Troy really knew its program was back, might have come in a loss. The Trojans gave No. 3 Clemson — the eventual national champion — all it could handle in Week 2 last season, eventually falling 30-24.
That loss proved to the players what was possible. They went on to win nine of their final 11 games last season, including a 28-23 win against Ohio in the Dollar General Bowl to secure the Trojans' first 10-win season as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“When we went up to Clemson last year, we played them really tight and had a chance to win,” Reese said. “When we went up there and did that, we were like, ‘OK, we might’ve been 4-8 the year before, but we have the players, and we know we have good coaches.’ ”
To change the culture at North Texas, Littrell had to get his players to embrace his core values: Selflessness, toughness and discipline.
“As much as anything, it’s about that and relationships and making sure everybody’s the same page,” Littrell said. “The guys know when I say something, this is what we’re going to do.
“In a sense, it helps everybody get on the same page, and everybody is pulling the rope in the same direction — you can do a lot of great things together.”
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That required some difficult conversations.
Those who were not willing to buy into the message are no longer with the program.
“You’ve got to find the right guys to be leaders, great teammates,” said quarterback Mason Fine. “The people that don’t buy in, you’ve got to get them out of your program. When they first came in here, they had a lot of guys quit the program and leave. That’s the thing: They kept the right guys here.”
Like his friend at Troy, Littrell received support from school administration to allow his vision room to breathe.
In November, the North Texas Board of Regents approved plans to build a nearly $19 million indoor practice facility. Smaller things, like improved team meals and new uniforms, helped recruit better athletes.
“I think Wren Baker, our new (athletic director), has done an unbelievable job of making sure our players have all the resources necessary to be successful,” Littrell said.
The commitment has paid dividends quickly. North Texas went 5-8 in Littrell’s first season, then followed it up with a 9-4 campaign this year.
Neither Brown nor Littrell has reached his 40th birthday yet, and both have orchestrated a dramatic and rapid reversal of fortunes for their respective football programs.