Football: Game takes Villarreal back to alma mater

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Sometime tonight, Rick Villarreal will take a few minutes to wander the Southern Mississippi campus again.

North Texas’ athletic director will stop by the place he proposed to his wife, remember the birth of his daughter and the years he spent coaching and working in administration at a school that helped vault him forward in life, both personally and professionally.

Villarreal wants to experience all the emotions a trip back to his alma mater will offer — and get them out of the way before UNT takes on the Golden Eagles on Saturday night at M.M. Roberts Stadium.

The Mean Green’s game against Southern Miss will be its first in Hattiesburg, Miss., since 1979 and its first against the Golden Eagles since the 2004 New Orleans Bowl.

“There will be a lot of emotions because I had so many experiences on that campus,” Villarreal said. “The opportunities I received at Southern Miss are the reason I got the job at North Texas. There were so many people who believed in me and worked with me. I’m thankful to them, but at the end of the day it’s about two football teams, and the team I want to see win is going to be in green and white.”

UNT has been winning of late and rolls into its game against the Golden Eagles after beating Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, giving the Mean Green (4-3, 2-1 Conference USA) consecutive wins for the first time since 2004. There is a feeling right now at UNT that the program is starting to take off under Dan McCarney, which puts the Mean Green at the opposite end of the spectrum for Southern Miss.

The Golden Eagles (0-6, 0-2) went winless last season and have dropped 18 straight games.

The UNT athletic department’s contingent of Southern Miss graduates — which also includes Paul Batchelder and Jamie Adams — hates to see the Eagles struggle. That is especially true of Villarreal, who sees his connection to Southern Miss as an example of the way he wants North Texas athletes to feel about UNT by the time they leave.

Villarreal often says that deep down, he still has a love for Southern Miss. His father graduated from the school, and his parents still live in Hattiesburg.

“Every Sunday morning I open the paper and look to see how Southern Miss did,” Villarreal said. “It’s been hard to see what they have gone through the last year and a half.”

UNT has taken off in the same timeframe. The Mean Green’s current two-game winning streak is its longest since a seven-game run heading into the 2004 New Orleans Bowl when UNT fell to Southern Miss, which was then coached by Jeff Bower, one of Villarreal’s friends and mentors.

UNT has since hit a series of milestones under Villarreal.

Apogee Stadium, the university’s $79 million football venue, opened in 2011. Johnny Jones led the men’s basketball team to NCAA tournaments in 2007 and 2010 before departing for LSU. And perhaps biggest of all, UNT joined Conference USA last summer, putting the Mean Green in the same league as the Golden Eagles.

Villarreal and a host of other former Southern Miss officials played roles as the program has evolved over the last decade.

Batchelder, a senior associate athletic director who is in his 11th year at UNT, spent 14 years at Southern Miss. Adams joined the UNT athletic department just before the Mean Green’s New Orleans Bowl game against Southern Miss, where he earned his master’s degree.

And those are just a few of the Southern Miss graduates who have worked for UNT over the years. Brian Bethea helped oversee construction of Apogee Stadium before moving on to work at AT&T Stadium, while Mandy McKinley served in a fundraising capacity at UNT before joining the staff at San Diego State.

Neither Adams nor Batchelder will make the trip to Hattiesburg today, but they’ll be following along as UNT faces Southern Miss in a game that will have a slightly different feel because of their connections to the school.

“It changes a lot over the years, but there is a stalwart contingent there that I keep up with and talk to occasionally,” Batchelder said. “I have heard from a few people the last couple of weeks. Some have asked if I’m coming back.”

Adams was only at Southern Miss for a short time and does not have ties to the school as deep as Batchelder and especially Villarreal.

“I haven’t kept up with them as much as I used to,” Adams said. “It will be emotional for Rick to be on the opposite sideline because he was there for a while.”

UNT linebacker Zach Orr knew that was the case just moments after the Mean Green finished off its win over Louisiana Tech last week.

“I heard a couple of people after the game on the field say that this one is personal,” Orr said. “It’s important to them.”

It’s easy to see why.

Villarreal went to school at Southern Miss in two stints beginning in 1975 and eventually started his career in coaching and administration there. The role Southern Miss played in his life and the environment at the school is one reason he still feels a deep connection to his alma mater.

He’s tried to create a similar environment at UNT.

“I tell every freshman at orientation that if you cut me open, I bleed black and gold,” Villarreal said. “That is because my university created this special connection, which is what we are trying to do at North Texas. Everyone went to the concerts and the football games. My lifelong friends, the people I still talk to and go on golf trips with, are people I met at Southern Miss and became a part of my life.

“That is my hope here. That when students leave here they will say the same thing: If you cut me open, I bleed green and white.”

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


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