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An unlikely path: Baker's rise to UNT athletic director originated from chance encounter with professor

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

EDITOR'S NOTE: University of North Texas athletic director Wren Baker will complete his first year at the school on Aug. 22. Over the next two days, the Denton Record-Chronicle will look at the state of UNT's program as that anniversary approaches. Today's story details Baker's unlikely rise to become UNT's athletic director.

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Wren Baker doesn't recall the name of the professor he credits for changing the course of his life. He can barely remember his face.

The advice that teacher gave a fellow student as Baker listened in more than 20 years ago is another matter entirely. That conversation changed Baker's life and set him on course for a career in athletics that has led him to the University of North Texas.

On Aug. 22, Baker will complete a busy first year as UNT's athletic director that has seen him revamp the school's staff, make plans to build two multimillion-dollar facilities and hire a new men's basketball coach.

Those are challenges Baker, 38, never anticipated facing before sitting down with a professor he'd never met at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. Baker was a member of the school's honors program and teamed up with the professor to interview a candidate for the program.

"She talked about her passion for education but said she would probably major in finance because her parents told her teachers don't make any money," Baker recalled. "That faculty member laid into that girl and talked about doing what you are passionate about and not chasing money. I don't know what effect it had on her, but what he said had a profound impact on me."

Baker gave up playing sports long before he graduated from high school in Valliant, Oklahoma, a town of 750 people in the southeastern corner of the state. He came to Southeastern, 80 miles to the west, to major in computer science.

Baker smiled while lounging in his office at the Mean Green Athletic Center on a June afternoon as he thought back on how his plans changed after hearing that professor's message.

He switched his major to education, quit his job in the computer lab and joined Southeastern's men's basketball team as a student assistant coach — his first job in college athletics — all within a matter of days after that interview.

Baker has risen through the ranks in college athletics since and talks about his career in reverent tones.

The way Baker sees it, the only way he ended up where he is today is through a lot of hard work and maybe some divine intervention.

Athletic directors often are former college athletes or have connections that helped foster their rise in the profession.

Baker is the exception. He didn't have either.

Baker, a first-generation college graduate, relied on his inner drive instead after finding a passion for working in college athletics. That passion helped Baker earn his chance at running the program at UNT, a school with a large student population of 37,000 and aspirations just as big in athletics.

"It's been a rewarding first year, but I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say it has been mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting," Baker said.

Baker fired men's head basketball coach Tony Benford and replaced him with proven winner Grant McCasland. He also put plans in place to build a multipurpose indoor facility with a football field and a new track/soccer venue, all in his first few months on the job.

Along the way, Baker has developed a reputation at UNT as a strategic thinker and thoughtful leader.

"Wren has absolutely helped us and is doing great things," UNT head football coach Seth Littrell said. "He is going to give you everything you need to be successful. That's all you can ask for. You haven't seen even close to what is going to happen."

The impact Baker has made during his short time at UNT is no surprise to those who have worked with him during his unlikely rise through the business of college athletics, including Mack Rhoades. The Baylor University athletic director worked with Baker at the University of Missouri.

"Taking an unconventional path helped Wren," Rhoades said. "He's done a variety of things that have helped him be well-rounded. North Texas is really blessed to have him. He understands how to create a championship culture."

Humble beginnings

Baker started off as far away from the bright lights of college athletics as one could imagine while growing up in Valliant, a speck on the map known for its annual watermelon festival.

Several members of Baker's family and friends still work at International Paper, the city's main employer.

Baker spent a lot of time fishing and shooting whatever was around growing up, from targets to the varmints running around in the hills outside of town.

Times often were tough for Baker, whose parents divorced when he was young. He entered the workforce at 14 after running up a substantial long-distance bill by calling his girlfriend in a nearby town.

"My mom came home and told me I had a job at a bingo hall on Friday and Saturday nights," Baker said. "I was devastated and thought she was ruining my social life, but ever since then I have had a job. Once I realized the financial freedom of not having to ask for $5 for gas, I have been hooked."

The work ethic Baker's family instilled in him extended to school work. Neither his father nor his grandfather finished high school.

Baker's mother and grandmother were determined he would graduate from not only high school, but also college. He might not have had the opportunity to attend college had it not been for the full academic scholarship he received from Southeastern.

Baker tried to come home after a week, but his mother sent him back. She wanted a better life for her son.

He certainly has that now.

Baker makes $382,000 per year and cruises around Denton in his university-provided Lexus SUV. He's married to his college sweetheart, Heather, and has two daughters. Addisyn, 6, and Reagan, 2, often can be seen at UNT games and other events.

Baker posted a photo in June of Addisyn at a UNT soccer camp wearing a pink "Win like a girl" T-shirt on his Twitter account. Baker had the matching backpack flung over his shoulder.

Those fun times are what have made the tough periods during his climb through the ranks in college athletics worth it for Baker.

University of North Texas President Neal Smatresk, left, introduces director of athletics Wren Baker, middle, to Pro Football Hall of Fame player and University of North Texas alum "Mean" Joe Greene on Aug. 1, 2016, at UNT's Apogee Stadium.
University of North Texas President Neal Smatresk, left, introduces director of athletics Wren Baker, middle, to Pro Football Hall of Fame player and University of North Texas alum "Mean" Joe Greene on Aug. 1, 2016, at UNT's Apogee Stadium.

Eddie Sutton and a handful of popcorn

Baker had no guarantee his career in college athletics would last past his time as a student assistant at Southeastern.

He received a few job offers in the public school realm after graduating in 2001 but wanted to pursue his master's and continue working in college athletics. So Baker sent letters — lots and lots of letters — to basketball coaches across the country, including Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State University.

To his surprise, Sutton invited him to Stillwater, Oklahoma.

"I will never forget when I went to his office," Baker said. "He came out and introduced himself and had a handful of popcorn. He said if I had a few minutes — he wanted to wait for a few of his staff members to come back. It turned out to be a job interview for a job as a graduate assistant."

Baker landed that entry-level position and lived in the dorms.

He quickly made an impression on Sutton's staff, including assistant coach James Dickey.

"Wren had an unbelievable personality and people skills," Dickey said. "He was close to the players' age. He could relate, but was also professional. He really cared about them."

Sutton offered Baker a full-time job about the same time the superintendent in Valliant called to offer him a job as the district's high school principal and athletic director.

Heather, then his girlfriend, was about to graduate from Southeastern when Baker was considering both opportunities.

"I was really worried about moving her to Stillwater, which was 3 1/2 hours away from home," Baker said. "For country kids, that felt like an eternity."

Valliant's administration offered the job six times, each time with a little more money thrown in. The sixth time, Baker agreed to leave his job at Oklahoma State and come home — while sitting on the beach in Montego Bay, Jamaica, during his honeymoon.

Wren Baker speaks at a press conference after being introduced as the University of North Texas' new athletic director on Aug. 1, 2016, at Apogee Stadium.
Wren Baker speaks at a press conference after being introduced as the University of North Texas' new athletic director on Aug. 1, 2016, at Apogee Stadium.

Finding his calling

Baker knew within a matter of months he had made a mistake when he agreed to become the youngest principal in Oklahoma at the age of 26.

He loved the students and teachers in Valliant, but his heart was in college athletics. Baker made the best of it and learned some tough lessons during his time at the school.

"At the age of 26, I was evaluating my seventh-grade math teacher, who I had feared for the majority of my life," Baker said. "When you go through experiences like that, it forces you to grow up."

Baker might still be performing those reviews if it hadn't been for another unexpected opportunity.

Joe Wiley, the president of Rogers State University in Claremore, Oklahoma, called. The school was looking to start an athletic program from scratch and offered Baker a chance to be the school's first athletic director and men's basketball coach.

And just like that, Baker was back in college athletics after a year at Valliant.

Baker spent five years at Rogers State from 2006 to 2011. He was where he wanted to be, but he wasn't happy early in his tenure, so he called Dickey for advice.

Dickey had Baker take him through a day and how he dealt with everything, from how he interacted with people to how he coached.

"He said it sounded like I was doing things the way coach Sutton did," Baker said. "I knew what coach Sutton did on the fifth day of practice and the 25th. He asked me if I had ever stopped to contemplate that I am not coach Sutton. That's a fairly simple thing to say, but it is exactly what I needed to hear."

Rogers State offered Baker a chance to give up his athletic director or coaching duties after his second year at the school. Baker spent one season recruiting and building the school's basketball program. He went 20-11 in his lone season as Rogers State's coach in 2007-08 before choosing to go into administration full time.

"That is when I became comfortable in my own skin as a leader," Baker said. "I realized that administration just fit me better."

Baker has been on the fast track in college athletics since. He went from Rogers State to Division II Northwest Missouri State University, then made stops at the University of Memphis and University of Missouri before winding up at UNT.

University of North Texas athletic director Wren Baker, right, introduces Grant McCasland as the school's new head basketball head coach on March 21 at the UNT Union.DRC
University of North Texas athletic director Wren Baker, right, introduces Grant McCasland as the school's new head basketball head coach on March 21 at the UNT Union.
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A rise to the top

Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen was looking for an athletic administrator with a specific set of credentials to serve as his second in command in 2013.

He wanted someone with a basketball background and roots in the South to complement his West Coast history and expertise in football.

He settled on Baker and gave him his first opportunity to work as an administrator at the Division I level.

"Wren was a tremendous leader and role model," Bowen said. "I have hired people from smaller schools my whole career. There is great talent in our business. You have to go and find it."

Baker gave Bowen some simple advice about working in the South.

"I told him it's easy," Baker said. "You can say whatever you want and as long as you end your sentence with 'God bless' and then drink a glass of sweet tea, you will be fine."

Those who know Baker best say that piece of advice, delivered with a chuckle, illustrates his personality.

"If you work with Wren, you are going to have some fun," Rhoades said. "He has a great sense of humor. College athletics can be a hard business. He makes sure to take time to have fun and creates a positive work environment."

Baker has succeeded in each of his stops. Rogers State's athletic program grew from a startup to a department with 10 teams that won 68 percent of their games during his tenure.

Baker helped secure the largest gifts in the history of Northwest Missouri State athletics and then did the same at Memphis. Both schools' teams also improved during his tenure.

UNT hopes Baker will have a similar impact on its program. When he arrived last year, UNT had posted only one winning season its three key revenue sports — football, men's basketball and women's basketball — in the previous four years.

The early signs of what Baker can accomplish at UNT are promising. The UNT football team made the ninth bowl appearance in the program's 101 seasons last fall, when the Mean Green lost to Army in overtime in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

That game marked another milestone in Baker's journey that started in Valliant.

UNT's coaches and fans are eager to see where he will lead them after coming so far himself.

"Wren has brought in some quality people and is taking things in the right direction," UNT booster Ernie Kuehne said. "The staff has bought into Wren's leadership."

Baker never imagined he would be in charge of a turnaround effort at a school like UNT when he was growing up in Valliant.

"It has to be God's will that I am here," Baker said. "When I was in high school, I didn't even know what an assistant or associate athletic director was. I grew up in the middle of nowhere."

One chance piece of advice Baker will never forget put him on a course that changed his life.

Now, UNT is hoping Baker can change its future as well.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

Wren Baker speaks to the crowd with his daughters Reagan and Addisyn at a press conference at Apogee Stadium after being introduced as the University of North Texas' new athletic director on Aug. 1, 2016.
Wren Baker speaks to the crowd with his daughters Reagan and Addisyn at a press conference at Apogee Stadium after being introduced as the University of North Texas' new athletic director on Aug. 1, 2016.

Getting to know Wren Baker

Age: 38

Title: vice president for intercollegiate athletics 

Family: wife, Heather; daughters Addisyn, 6, and Reagan, 2

Education: Bachelor of Arts in education, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, 2001; master's in education leadership, Oklahoma State University, 2003

Career stops: basketball operations assistant, Oklahoma State, 2001-05; principal/athletic director, Valliant (Oklahoma), 2005-06; athletic director/men's basketball coach, Rogers State University, 2006-07; athletic director, Rogers State, 2008-11; athletic director, Northwest Missouri State University, 2011-13; deputy athletic director, University of Memphis, 2013-15; deputy athletic director, University of Missouri, 2015-16; athletic director, University of North Texas, 2016-present

Getting started: Baker's first job in college athletics was as a student assistant coach with the Southeastern Oklahoma State men's basketball team. He later was an operations assistant in the men's basketball program at Oklahoma State.

Small-town work: Baker's first job was at a bingo hall at the age of 14. He later worked in a movie theater in Idabel, Oklahoma, during his time in high school and the summers while he was in college.

Did you know?: Baker has a reputation in college athletics for being meticulous and is considered a go-to source for information on potential head coaches. Baker keeps a spreadsheet with potential coaching candidates, their teams' yearly record, conference record, playoff record and scores on the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate report in addition to their Rating Percentage Index (RPI) scores, which measure a team's overall strength based on its record and strength of schedule. Baker updates a spreadsheet with the information regularly.

"That way if we lose somebody or need to make a change, we will be ready," he said.

Baker receives calls from other athletic directors to see where potential coaches stand on his list.

Advice from his wife: Baker has received advice from colleagues and mentors over the years. He counts once piece of advice he received from his wife, Heather, to be among the best:

"I used to approach every situation and relationship like I was coaching," Baker said. "My wife used to say, 'You're not my coach!'"

Baker said he has taken that lesson to heart and become more collaborative over time. He lets his employees do their jobs and make decisions instead of trying to coach them through every task.