The North Texas community fell into a bit of a collective panic last November. Their star quarterback, who came from out of nowhere and, in turn, lifted an unknown program from obscurity, had suddenly become the subject of speculation and rumormongering. Would Mason Fine really leave?
In the age of the transfer portal, this was a non-Power 5 program's worst nightmare. Coaches at the lower rungs have long suspected that they'd become a feeding ground for blue bloods of the sport, picking off players they'd spent their time, energy and resources to develop.
Fine, who started three seasons, was said to be close to graduating. He still hadn't used his redshirt, either way. And his offensive coordinator, Graham Harrell, was on his way to a job at USC. So when Fine appeared in the local paper saying he had considered transferring, it kind of made sense.
"Some people got a little stressed out," North Texas coach Seth Littrell said.
Fine understands why: "I messed up."
It was a simple miscommunication, he explained. A reporter asked whether he'd ever considered transferring, and he said he had. But only because the reporter in question brought it to his attention in the first place. He quickly dismissed it and moved along with his day.
"And then North Texas people got worried," Fine said, "and I had to reassure them."
He put out a long statement on Twitter, reaffirming his commitment. Meanwhile, Littrell sat back and laughed.
"I thought it was comical," Littrell said, "because I had no doubt in my mind."
If everyone had taken a breath, they would have picked up on the joke, too. Fine leaving North Texas would have been like John Wayne playing the role of John Wick -- minus that whole riding a horse through the streets of New York thing. Wayne belongs in Westerns the way Fine belongs at an underdog program. He couldn't honestly wear a chip on his shoulder at an Oklahoma or a Texas.
In fact, all this flattery sort of bothers him. He doesn't like being told how no one in college football has thrown for more passing yards than his 9,417. Or how no quarterback who starts Week 1 will have thrown for more touchdowns than his 64. Your congratulations are not welcome here.
"I try to cut that stuff out," he said. "Because my biggest driving force and motivation is the negative stuff."
Comfort is something to be avoided. Complacency is something he fears.
"I say thank you and move on," he said. "I try to remember the points in my life when I was at the lowest or when no one believed in me. Now, things are going well. I have a lot of press, but I try to cut that stuff out and go back to that time where it all started."
Father and son
There's a piece of paper hanging in Fine's bedroom back home in Peggs, Oklahoma, pinned to the wall for going on a decade now. It's nothing fancy. You wouldn't give it a second thought it you quickly scanned the room.
But to Fine, it's everything.
"That was our holy grail," he said.
Without it, he wouldn't be where he is today.
Fine is not like other high-profile quarterbacks in college football, the Trevor Lawrences of the world who had professional QB coaches in middle school. All Fine had was that piece of paper and his dad, Dale. Peggs didn't even have middle school football. Dale had to coax the superintendent to start a program from scratch.
People say Fine has natural ability now, but they should have seen him early on. He gripped the football in the middle of the laces and wound up, delivering it overhand like he was a pitcher. He lunged awkwardly. It would more or less get where it needed to go, but "it was a duck," he said.
Every day, though, Fine would go back for more. And seeing how determined he was to get better, Dale looked around for QB camps for his son. During the summer before Fine entered sixth grade, they went to nearby Wagoner High School's camp. A few weeks later came the pivotal weekend camp at the University of Oklahoma.
Watching former Sooners great Josh Heupel closely, Fine said, is "where I learned everything about how to throw the football."
On the drive home, he scribbled as many notes as he could; Dale typed them up. They were often technical things like the proper base position to finishing with your right hand on your left hip -- "kind of like pulling a gun out of the holster," Fine said. He put the paper on the wall so he could see it first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
"Step and throw smooth, relax, be light on your feet," one line reads.
"Keep eyes level with target, don't look up at your ball," reads another.
Every day, father and son would play catch in the yard, drilling down on those mechanics. Frustration would boil over from time to time, but Dale would urge him to stick with it. It took about three months to throw his first spiral. It was another year or two before he could spin it consistently.
Fine remembers going to camp at an FCS school in the state and how afterward everyone gathered to watch film. Suddenly he flashed on screen. "Who is this?" the coach leading the film study asked. Fine raised his hand. "Your form is perfect," he said. "Who's your quarterback coach?"
Fine said it was his dad.
"People ask, 'Who did your dad play for?'" he said. "And he didn't play football at all.
"And I think that's the coolest thing. Me and my dad learning together and putting in the work. Me doing ladders at night or me doing drills to create who I am today. Because nothing was given to me, it was earned. And maybe some people forget."
'Someone will find you'
There was a problem, though, and it had nothing to do with his training or even how well he threw the football.
At a debatable 5-foot-11, Fine didn't look the part and couldn't get a whiff of attention. Not from colleges. Not even from recruiting writers who looked him up and down and moved along.
It didn't matter that he chose to go to a high school that had won two games in three years, and helped turn it around so thoroughly that they were in the playoffs his sophomore year. He threw for more than 5,000 yards and 70 touchdowns as a junior at Locust Grove and no colleges came to visit. He and his dad sent recruiting letters to more than 100 schools and got nothing in return. They attended camps at Tulsa, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Arkansas State, and didn't get a single offer.
A coach grabbed him after that camp at Arkansas State and raved about his arm and how well he moved around the pocket. Then came the hammer: "But you're never going to play at this level," he said. Adding insult to injury, the coach offered to send a letter of recommendation for any FCS schools Fine liked.
Dale put on a brave face for his son, telling him, "Just keep working hard. Someone will find you and give you a chance." But he knew the odds were against them. Fine's high school coach was blunt, telling them that most recruiters would walk in with a measuring stick and a weight scale, and that would be the end of that.
As a senior, Fine became the first two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Oklahoma, yet only Oklahoma State wanted him as a walk-on. At one point, it insinuated that one of its committed quarterbacks was looking elsewhere and might leave an open scholarship. When he decommitted, Fine thought, "Heck yeah!"
"And then the coach came by and was like, 'You heard? We're going to offer you a preferred walk-on,'" Fine said. "It's still a great opportunity, but it wasn't what I was hoping to hear."
After losing the state title and seeing his dream of playing FBS football slip away, Fine fell into a funk. He and his dad talked about the possibility of going to an FCS school, but he was lukewarm on the idea. Maybe he'd just go to Oklahoma State and roll the dice.
But 250 miles away, things were coming together.
In December, North Texas hired former UNC offensive coordinator Seth Littrell as its head coach. Ironically, Littrell had played with Heupel at Oklahoma. And, wouldn't you know it, he'd heard from a friend about an undersized gunslinger nearby.
Fine throws a 49-yard deep ball for TD
Mason Fine throws a 49-yard pass to a wide-open Michael Lawrence for a North Texas touchdown.
Sensing his opportunity
A lot of things had to happen for Fine to land on North Texas' radar, not least of which is the school losing a bunch of games and hiring Littrell in the first place.
But another thing had to happen: No other quarterbacks had to show interest in joining the Mean Green. Graham Harrell, whom Littrell hired as offensive coordinator, said they called tons of QBs early on. Their response was always the same: "Nah, I'm good."
Littrell had heard of Fine during his time at UNC when an old buddy, Locust Grove coach Matt Hennesy, called and told him, "I've got this kid that's special. He's throwing it all over the place. The system is very similar to what y'all do. Can you give me any ideas on how we can help him out?" While he wasn't right for UNC at the time, he was beginning to look good for North Texas.
Littrell and Harrell watched Fine's highlights and immediately noticed how accurate he was. He wasn't big, but he stepped into throws and put plenty of zip behind it.
They were looking at another prospect who wound up at an SEC school, and they compared the two.
"We turn on the game tape and it's not even close," Harrell said. "Mason's game tape looks the same as his highlight tape."
"The only issue was I knew he was about 5-9.5," Littrell said, "but I sent Graham to go sit down with him."
Fine, sensing his opportunity, found his thickest shoes, a pair of Air Force 1s. He left the stock insoles inside and added high-arching insoles on top. When Harrell showed up at school, he'd added a good 1.5-2 inches.
To his relief, no one bothered to measure him. But what he didn't know at the time was that Harrell wasn't all that worried about height. Fine was a rail, he said.
"In walks this kid who looks like a sixth grader," Harrell said. "Like, 'Oh gosh. Please tell me this isn't him.' It was like, 'Did I screw up?'"
Harrell called Littrell.
"Coach," he said. "He's a great kid. But he's really small."
But, as Harrell noted, they weren't exactly turning away quarterbacks at the time. They were excited to finally have someone excited about them.
Harrell asked Fine when he could visit. He and his parents were in Denton that Saturday. Littrell offered and Fine immediately accepted.
Back in the car, they let it soak in. Years of waiting had led to this. Mom was crying in the passenger seat. Dad couldn't stop grinning.
"There was something about him," Littrell said. "There was an edge about him that you knew he wasn't going to fail."
'Boom, boom, boom, touchdown'
When Fine arrived, he was seventh on the depth chart. Come to think of it, he said, he might have been eighth.
No one was looking for the record-setting passer from Peggs. And if even they were, they couldn't have spotted him.
He was so small, he said, it looked like he had offensive lineman pads on. His helmet covered his eyes to where he had to lift his head up just so he could see underneath the face mask. The sleeves on his practice jersey went past his elbows.
"I looked like a little youth kid out there," he said. "They say, 'Look good, feel good, play good,' but there was none of that."
Coaches told him the plan was to redshirt that first season and put on weight. Alec Morris, a transfer from Alabama, was the obvious choice at quarterback. But Fine wasn't having it.
"I'm going 100 percent and I'm going to attack this thing," he said. "What's there to lose? No one thought I would make it this far."
Late that first day, he finally got in with the third-team offense. It was one of only a handful of reps he'd received, but he was locked in. He had trips left with one receiver, Rico Bussey Jr., to the right. The play was called in, only Fine didn't like it. He shouted, "Omaha!" to change Bussey's route to a 5-yard out. He took the snap and threw it right on time before Bussey came out of his break, scoring a touchdown.
Everyone got excited. He could even see a glint in Littrell's eye.
"He had one of the better summers and fall camps from a freshman that I've ever seen," Littrell said. "He was extremely smart. ... He played beyond his years."
During the final scrimmage, when it looked like everyone was ready to throw in the towel, Littrell shouted, "All right, offense vs. defense, overtime period. This is live. Let's just go get it." Harrell, frustrated with the first-stringer Morris, turned and said, "Mason, you're in."
"It was four plays: boom, boom, boom, touchdown," Harrell recalled.
Morris was still tabbed the Week 1 starter, but after he struggled for the first three quarters against SMU, Littrell found Fine on the sideline.
"Are you ready to play?" he asked.
"I want to play, Coach," Fine said. "Let's go."
The result: an 11-play, 80-yard scoring drive. He hasn't let go of the starting job since.
That freshman season was full of ups and downs as North Texas went 5-8 and Fine threw six touchdowns and five interceptions. But they were building something.
Fine filled out to about 190 pounds, gained a better understanding of the offense and took off as a sophomore, throwing for 4,052 yards and 31 touchdowns. Last year, North Texas won nine games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1977-78.
'Height is overrated'
Just so there's not another chance for miscommunication, let's be clear: At no point did Harrell try to take Fine with him to USC.
But that doesn't mean he hasn't thought about it.
"I don't know if you've seen Coach lately, he's a state championship wrestler and now he looks like a professional weightlifter," Harrell said of Littrell. "He might have literally tried to kill me if I planted that seed.
"If Coach Littrell was leaving, I might have at least dropped that hint that if he wanted to get that degree, there was a place out here with me."
Harrell said telling Fine he was going to USC was the most difficult conversation he's ever had. Having seen him grow and spent so much time with him, it felt like he was abandoning a son. He told Fine, "The hardest part about taking this job is leaving you."
"Coach, you made my dreams come true, so don't feel bad," Fine said.
"In walks this kid who looks like a sixth grader. Like, 'Oh gosh. Please tell me this isn't him.' It was like, 'Did I screw up?'"Former North Texas assistant Graham Harrell
Both fought back their emotions.
"There wasn't a lot said because every time I talked to him I got choked up," Harrell said.
Thanks to Fine, Harrell's perception of the quarterback position has changed. He looks at guys like Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray and points out that, "Height is overrated. ... It's not a stat."
Fine, he said, could play anywhere, "Whether that's at SC or Alabama."
"He'd find a way to get on the field," he added. "And when he does, he's going to light the world on fire."
Fine's next stop was never going to be some other college. It's the NFL, he hopes.
"Obviously playing at the next level is never guaranteed," he said, "but I'm going to give it my best shot."
He's spent all offseason fine-tuning his game, going beyond studying the simple schemes of the defense to learning its concepts so he can better predict its moves in real time. Littrell believes the change to offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder has caused Fine to learn as much football in this past offseason as he had in his whole career.
"I'm excited to watch him play," he said. "I think he's light-years ahead of where he was this last year."
The school has even started a Heisman campaign. The website, 6forheisman.com, features testimonials like that of Southern Miss linebacker Jeremy Sangster, who said, "At some point, you just have to give credit where credit is due. That guy is good."
Fine -- coming off back-to-back C-USA Offensive POY honors and tabbed by coaches in the preseason to make it three years in a row -- brushes off the campaign as a necessary evil.
He agreed to it only after the school convinced him it would be good for his teammates and the program.
His focus remains the same: to prove people wrong. In the past, he'd face rejection and say, "Watch this. I'm going to work 10 times harder to prove you wrong."
That's as true today as it ever was.
"I've always kind of known that it doesn't matter how short you are," he said. "I've always known I'm big enough to play at the next level. I know I'm short, but I know I can be successful. It was that way in middle school when people told me I wasn't going to be successful in high school. It was that way in high school when people told me there was no way I could play at the next level. Well, I'm sitting here now, we're winning games and I'm somewhat successful. So I believe in myself."