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An incredible future: Baker vows good times ahead for UNT as his first year comes to close

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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. The Denton Record-Chronicle's two-day series on Baker and UNT's athletic program concludes today with a look what Baker has learned over the last year and where he sees the school's teams heading under his leadership.

Wren Baker says he isn't a snake oil salesman.

The University of North Texas' athletic director understands the skepticism some of the school's alumni harbor when it comes to its hopes to move up in the world of college athletics.

Hayden Fry talked about turning UNT into a program that would fit in the Southwest Conference with Texas and Arkansas during his tenure as athletic director and head football coach in the 1970s. Others who followed in those roles made similar vows. Some enjoyed intermittent success, while others departed town leaving only empty promises behind.

Baker vowed this time would be different when he took over leadership of the program. His confidence hasn't waned after getting a closer look at what he inherited over his first year on the job that will conclude Aug. 22.

"What I've learned is that the weight of not being able to have sustained success weighs on the psyche of a lot of our people," Baker said. "I also look at where we are and what I perceive to be our advantages and opportunities. I think the future of this place and where we are going — and I'm not selling snake oil — is incredible."

Baker believes UNT is about to take a critical step toward capitalizing on that potential in the next few weeks when the school will unveil its strategic plan for athletics.

That outline for the future will detail long-term goals in addition to short-term plans for $50 million in facility improvements, including a new track/soccer stadium and a multi-purpose indoor venue that will include a football field.

Baker says unveiling those plans will be the high point of a whirlwind first year at UNT. He took over as UNT's athletic director just 12 days before the Mean Green opened the football season against SMU last fall.

That late start left Baker little time to learn about the challenges UNT faces, let alone find a way to help fulfill the promise UNT President Neal Smatresk made while introducing him at a packed press conference.

"We are serious about getting to the top in college athletics," Smatresk said. "You are going to see big things to come at North Texas."

The goal has seemed just out of reach at times and particularly distant recently.

UNT has posted only one winning season in the three key sports of football, men's basketball and women's basketball in the last five years, including Baker's first on the job. Even a breakout bowl season for the UNT football program ended with a loss to Army in the Heart of Dallas Bowl and a 5-8 record.

School officials and boosters believe better times are ahead after getting to know Baker.

"He has youth, knowledge and experience," longtime UNT booster C. Dan Smith said shortly after Baker arrived. "We have a long way to go, but have made a lot of strides. Give him a little time and we are going to be where we want to be."

The University of North Texas opened Apogee Stadium in 2011. UNT athletic director Wren Baker says the $78 million venue is one of the finest in the country at an institution competing on a level similar to that of UNT.DRC
The University of North Texas opened Apogee Stadium in 2011. UNT athletic director Wren Baker says the $78 million venue is one of the finest in the country at an institution competing on a level similar to that of UNT.
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What Baker inherited

Baker is quick to point to the progress UNT made during nearly 16 years under his predecessor, Rick Villarreal, and the foundation it has provided him early in his tenure

UNT built more than a dozen facilities under Villarreal, including Apogee Stadium. Baker calls Apogee one of the nicest football stadiums in the country when compared to venues at schools competing at UNT's level in college athletics.

UNT played in five of the nine bowl games in program history and made two of its three appearances in the NCAA men's basketball tournament during Villarreal's tenure.

The momentum those accomplishments provided seems like a distant memory now.

A pair of consultants hired by UNT following Villarreal's departure issued a scathing report on the state of the program shortly after he stepped down in May 2016.

"Overall, the AD is underperforming at virtually every level resulting from a lack of leadership, inadequate funding, outdated and/or poorly maintained facilities and in many cases nonexistent internal processes," the report said.

UNT's football program was coming off a 1-11 season that included 66-7 loss to Portland State University when Baker arrived. The UNT men's basketball team had posted four straight seasons at .500 or worse and had seen home attendance fall more than 50 percent from the 2011-12 season (4,006 fans per game) to the 2015-16 season (1,979 fans per game).

"When you fall behind competitively, it's not like the people who finish in front of you in the conference or region are waiting for you to catch up," Baker said. "The competition is fierce. The pressure that I feel and our coaches feel is to catch our competitors and pass them up."

The University of North Texas unveiled improvements to the Ernie Kuehne Basketball Practice Facility this summer. Those renovations are one of several moves athletic director Wren Baker has made during his first season at the school.DRC
The University of North Texas unveiled improvements to the Ernie Kuehne Basketball Practice Facility this summer. Those renovations are one of several moves athletic director Wren Baker has made during his first season at the school.
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Building on the foundation

Baker believes the future of UNT's athletic program will depend on the school's ability to quickly build on the foundation Villarreal put in place and address its key problem areas.

That is especially true when it comes to facilities.

"When I came here, people would say we have great facilities," Baker said. "I have been in other leagues and worked at other levels. I pretty quickly said we have a great football stadium. Outside of that, our facilities are average at best."

UNT lacks an indoor football facility at a time when several high schools in the region have them. The school has one 7,000-square-foot weight room in its athletic center that is used by all of its athletes.

Several of its competitors in Conference USA have better setups.

The University of Texas at El Paso has an 11,420-square-foot strength and conditioning center. Rice University's weight room in its $33 million end zone facility that opened in 2016 is approximately 11,000 square feet.

UNT's track and field program is in a particularly difficult position. The team still practices at Fouts Field, a venue that opened in 1952 and is set to be demolished as soon as the program moves to a new stadium.

UNT has not resurfaced the track in nearly a decade, putting its athletes at risk for injuries as they train on a surface with little cushion. The deterioration of the venue leaves its track program little to work with. In some cases, Dallas area high schools have better facilities, making it difficult for UNT's coaches to recruit.

Baker and UNT's coaches believe what the school has planned will change the trajectory of the program.

UNT expects to open a new track and soccer facility in the summer of 2018 at an estimated cost of $12 million. The indoor facility will run between $16 million and $18 million.

UNT is also planning to expand the Mean Green Athletic Center to add weight room facilities and other upgrades at a cost of $15 million to $20 million.

The school's coaches describe those improvements as game changers.

"There is no doubt it could help our program," UNT head football coach Seth Littrell said of adding an indoor practice facility. "It would help our student-athletes as far as safety and welfare in the fall when it is hot outside. Going inside would take strain off them."

UNT will also soon shift all of its apparel contracts to Nike. Baker said some of the individual teams within the department have their own apparel agreements. Moving all of its programs to Nike is expected to result in a better contract for the athletic department as a whole.

UNT officials and boosters are confident Baker can address that issue and several others.

"Wren and his staff have developed a long-range plan," booster Don Lovelace said. "I have seen where they want to go over the next 20 years. We will have to raise a lot of money, but the plan is in place. It's logical. If we all embrace it moving forward, we will be competitive."

University of North Texas men's basketball coach Grant McCasland coaches his team this summer at the Ernie Kuehne Basketball Practice Facility. UNT athletic director Wren Baker hired McCasland early in his tenure at the school.DRC
University of North Texas men's basketball coach Grant McCasland coaches his team this summer at the Ernie Kuehne Basketball Practice Facility. UNT athletic director Wren Baker hired McCasland early in his tenure at the school.
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Making progress quickly

The UNT athletic department today is already much different from the one Baker inherited a year ago.

Baker added three senior-level administrators shortly after he arrived, including former Abilene Christian University athletic director Jared Mosley as his second in command. Baker also fired men's basketball coach Tony Benford after his team went .500 or under in five straight seasons and replaced him with former Arkansas State University coach Grant McCasland.

UNT paid $500,000 to ASU to buy McCasland out of his contract, a move that showed the school's commitment to the program.

The UNT football team's appearance in the Heart of Dallas Bowl was one of the high points of Baker's first year.

Other milestones have not received nearly the same attention, including some key personnel moves.

Jeff Smith took over as UNT's director for sports medicine this summer after five years as the head athletic trainer at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches. Mike Villa is now running UNT's equipment department after spending seven years at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Baker plans to add a sports nutritionist and a staffer who will serve as a conduit with UNT's former players, a group that has felt underappreciated through the years.

Baker is particularly excited about the changes he has made to improve athlete welfare.

"One thing we can't compromise on and have to do as well as anyone in the country — and that includes the Power Five [conferences] — is make sure our athletes are eating properly and have strength and conditioning coaches as good as those at other schools so we will get the same gains as everyone else," Baker said. "We also have to have the same medical care. We are not getting the same players as Texas, which makes it even more important to make sure we develop them."

UNT has already made headway in its plans to give its programs more to work with during Baker's tenure.

UNT has renovated the Ernie Kuehne Basketball Practice Facility and the women's basketball locker room at the UNT Coliseum.

Baker also moved quickly to provide the UNT women's soccer team that is among the school's most successful programs a third assistant coach. The Mean Green went on to win their third straight Conference USA regular-season title in Baker's first season on campus.

"Wren has been great to work for and communicate with," UNT head soccer coach John Hedlund said. "He has an open door policy and really listens."

UNT expects to fund some of the improvements Baker has made through a deal with Learfield that he counts as another key accomplishment. The school handed control of its multimedia rights to the company after handling those issues in-house previously.

Learfield now manages UNT's radio and television programming, corporate sponsorships and signage.

Baker estimates the move will result in $500,000 in additional revenue per year.

That revenue, in addition to gifts from boosters, has helped UNT fund some of the changes Baker has made. Baker said the university has provided funding for other one-time expenses.

There are signs UNT's fans and boosters are responding to Baker's message. He estimated that season ticket sales in football are up 20 percent from this time a year ago. He's holding out hope membership in the Mean Green Club, which is up slightly compared to this time last year, will increase significantly by the time UNT kicks off its football season with a home game against Lamar on Sept. 2.

The Mean Green Club is UNT's fundraising group that raises money for athletic scholarships.

UNT's coaches and boosters credit Baker for the headway the program has made.

"For me as a head coach, Wren has brought a sense of stability and process," UNT track coach Carl Sheffield said. "It's not that Rick was not like that, but with Wren there seems to be a clear plan as far as the objectives for the program. That has been really helpful for our head coaches."

Former University of North Texas men's basketball coach Tony Benford wipes his face while walking the sidelines during a game last season at the UNT Coliseum. UNT athletic director Wren Baker fired Benford at the end of his fifth season with the Mean Green. UNT did not finish above .500 in any of Benford's five seasons at the school.DRC
Former University of North Texas men's basketball coach Tony Benford wipes his face while walking the sidelines during a game last season at the UNT Coliseum. UNT athletic director Wren Baker fired Benford at the end of his fifth season with the Mean Green. UNT did not finish above .500 in any of Benford's five seasons at the school.
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Setbacks and work to do

While UNT has made progress in Baker's first year, he is the first to admit that not everything has gone right early in his tenure.

Baker hoped the UNT's men's basketball program would turn the corner in its fifth season under Benford. Those hopes went unrealized in a disastrous 8-22 season that saw the Mean Green fail to qualify for the C-USA tournament. A former player and team manager were then charged with crimes for their roles in a prostitution ring in May, and a third player was charged with drug possession.

UNT also had to push back its timeline for opening its new track and soccer venue after electing to put the project up for bids a second time. The school's original construction contract fell through. The delay pushed UNT's timeline for opening the stadium back six months. The facility won't be finished until well after UNT's coaches told their athletes and recruits it would be ready for them.

Those issues pale in comparison to the school's key problem. Outside of a few successful programs like soccer and tennis, UNT hasn't won nearly enough.

UNT finished in a tie for 252nd nationally in the Learfield all-sports standings that measure Division I programs' success on a national level for the 2016-17 school year.

"You have to win," Baker said. "People think that you are simplifying things by saying that. Show me a program that is selling out its stadium without winning. People will have more pride if we win. We have so many alums in the metro area, but you don't see many North Texas car stickers or flags. Why is that? It's because our athletic programs haven't represented the quality of education our students are receiving."

Smatresk said he hoped that Baker would change that when he introduced him as UNT's new athletic director a year ago.

Baker believes UNT is well on its way to fulfilling that goal.

"I am confident in where we are going," Baker said. "I know the wins will come."

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

Wren Baker speaks at a press conference after being introduced as the new director of athletics at the University of North Texas on Aug. 1, 2016, at Apogee Stadium in Denton.DRC file photo
Wren Baker speaks at a press conference after being introduced as the new director of athletics at the University of North Texas on Aug. 1, 2016, at Apogee Stadium in Denton.
DRC file photo

Baker on the issues

University of North Texas athletic director Wren Baker has addressed a series of issues during his first year at the school and has several more to tackle. He sat down with the Denton Record-Chronicle to discuss them this summer:

Paying $500,000 to buy out Grant McCasland

UNT paid $500,000 to buy former Arkansas State University men's basketball coach Grant McCasland out of his contract so he could take over its men's basketball program that has suffered through five straight losing seasons.

"This is a complicated job. There is a wealth of talent in the area, but everyone recruits here. You are also not selling a successful brand after not having a winning season in five years. We decided that if we could, we would hire a sitting head coach. I communicated up front that it would likely cost us more money because sitting head coaches have a buyout. In the grand scheme of things, $500,000 is a lot of money, but not being competitive in basketball is costing us more."

Delaying construction of a track/soccer venue

UNT delayed breaking ground on its new track/soccer venue six months after its construction contract fell through. UNT put the project up for bids a second time.

"I hated for those student-athletes, but at the end of the day it is my responsibility to get the best facility we can get for the money we are investing. We have a responsibility to the campus, our donors and the state to do that. Ultimately that is the right decision, but I hate that the kids will be delayed in getting into that facility."

Potentially adding a baseball program

UNT discontinued its baseball program in 1988. The school has talked about reviving the program since 2004, but has never followed through.

"I'm absolutely committed to us adding baseball, but it is important for us to shore up areas where we are falling short of providing a championship-level experience and tools for our coaches and student-athletes. It's important for us to address those areas before we go out and start expanding in other areas. I know not everyone agrees with that decision. I get that, but I just think that is the right thing to do."

The importance of facilities

UNT has invested heavily in facilities over the last 10 years, including building Apogee Stadium, which opened in 2011, for $78 million. The school has renovated the Ernie Kuehne Basketball Practice Facility and women's basketball locker room at the UNT Coliseum since Baker's arrival. A new track and soccer venue and indoor facility that will include a football field are also in the plans. Several programs in Conference USA have also invested heavily in facilities recently. Louisiana Tech University and Rice University both opened end-zone buildings in their football stadiums in 2015 and 2016, respectively. The University of Texas unveiled football lockers with video television screens in the place of nameplates at a cost of $8,700 per locker this spring.

"No coach has cornered the market on saying, 'You are going to be a part of our family' or 'We are going to help you get your degree.' They are all selling pretty much the same thing. What do kids base their decisions on other than what coaches are telling them? It's tangible evidence that people are invested in their growth. What's your tangible evidence? It comes down to the locker rooms, the academic center, the athletic training room and the strength and conditioning center. It's not because kids are superficial. I get some people get a little nauseous when they see Texas unveil an $8,700 locker. I am not saying that is where we need to go, but I am saying is that we have a weight room that is 7,000 square feet that services all our athletes. We have competitors in our league with football weight rooms that are 15,000 square feet. That is tough to overcome."