A new era at the University of North Texas began Friday, when Wren Baker officially was named the school’s new athletic director.
UNT’s Board of Regents voted 5-0 to approve Baker during a specially called teleconference.
Baker had served as the University of Missouri’s interim athletic director since Mack Rhoades left the school to take over as Baylor University’s athletic director earlier this month. Baker previously was Missouri’s deputy athletic director for external relations.
Baker, whose official title at UNT will be vice president and director of athletics, will be introduced during a press conference at 10 a.m. Monday at Apogee Stadium. He officially will begin his tenure at UNT on Aug. 22.
Baker grew up in Valliant, in southeastern Oklahoma, and graduated from Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant.
“It’s a homecoming of sorts for the Baker family,” Baker said on the teleconference following the vote. “We have heard nothing but great things about the community and love what we have seen so far. I can’t wait to get to work. We think the ceiling is very high and great days are ahead.”
Baker takes over for Rick Villarreal, who announced in late May he would step down after more than 15 years leading UNT’s athletic department. Villarreal’s tenure officially ended June 20.
Baker emerged as the leading candidate to replace Villarreal over the past few days.
University of Central Arkansas athletic director Brad Teague was the other candidate who was strongly considered.
UNT Board of Regents Chairman Brint Ryan spoke in glowing terms about the school’s leading candidate for the job in the days leading to the vote, without identifying Baker.
“This is the best candidate we had and the best person we could possibly get,” Ryan said. “He is the same caliber of athletic director as Seth Littrell is as a football coach. His passion is palpable.”
Friday’s vote confirmed Ryan was speaking of Baker.
UNT hired Littrell, the former offensive coordinator at the University of North Carolina, as its new football coach in December. The addition of Baker and Littrell marks a youth movement in the UNT athletic department.
Baker and Littrell are 37.
Baker has a track record of turning around programs at multiple stops. UNT officials praised his connections in the world of college athletics over the last few weeks.
Baker was the deputy director of athletics/external affairs at the University of Memphis from February 2013 to May 2015 before joining the staff at Missouri. He also served as the athletic director at Northwest Missouri State University and Rogers State University in Claremore, Oklahoma.
Northwest Missouri State featured one of the top Division II athletic programs in the country during Baker’s tenure. He was the first AD at Rogers State.
“Wren Baker’s passion for college sports is unmatched, and he is a proven effective leader with critical experience in hiring coaches, efficiently administering an athletics department, increasing support across the board and taking care of student-athletes,” UNT President Neal Smatresk said in a prepared statement. “I believe he will move athletics at UNT to the next level of success, and I am excited for the future.”
Before getting into college administration, Baker was a principal and the athletic director for Valliant Public Schools. He was the youngest principal in Oklahoma when he was named to the position at 26.
Baker’s time in college athletics dates to his time as a basketball operations assistant at Oklahoma State University from 2001-05 under legendary coach Eddie Sutton. The Cowboys went to the Final Four in 2004.
Baker now will turn his attention to turning around UNT’s athletic program, which has struggled in recent years.
UNT has posted only one winning season in the past 11 in football, the highest-profile program at the school. The UNT men’s basketball program has not finished with a winning record in four straight seasons, while its women’s basketball program has suffered 10 straight losing campaigns.
UNT finished 245th out of 289 Division I schools in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup standings, which measure athletic programs’ production in all sports on a national level, in the 2015-16 school year.
“I look forward to working with all of our fans and constituents to build an athletics program that will be recognized nationally for competitive excellence and academic achievement,” Baker said in UNT’s statement announcing his arrival. “UNT and the Denton community provide everything we need to be successful, and I can’t wait to get started.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.