Wren Baker was convinced long before he fired Tony Benford on Sunday night that the North Texas men’s basketball program would be an attractive destination for coaches across the country.
The way his phone has been buzzing since the news broke that he is in the market for new coach has only reinforced that notion for UNT’s new athletic director.
“I absolutely think this program is attractive enough to lure a current Division I head coach,” Baker said Monday, the first day he has taken questions on where UNT stands with its search for a new coach that is just getting started.
Baker rattled off a host of reasons he is convinced he can aim high while making his first head coaching hire in a major sport at the school.
Baker believes Denton is a great place to live. He also believes Texas is rich in basketball talent and UNT’s next head coach will have the support of the university from the board of regents all the way down through the school’s athletic department.
The challenge for Baker will be finding a coach who can capitalize on those assets.
Although Baker believes UNT is attractive enough to land a current Division I head coach, he said he won’t make that level of experience a prerequisite.
What will be important to Baker is finding a coach who fits his philosophy of developing a total program and helping players grow in a variety of ways. He believes that holistic philosophy is what ultimately makes a program successful.
“I am going to want someone who is committed to our mission of building champions and preparing leaders through the pursuit of perfection in academics, athletics and life,” Baker said. “They have to be dedicated to academic success and developing athletes as a total person and help them grow as men. I have to leave the conversation comfortable that they will have an atmosphere of compliance and demonstrate a tactical knowledge of the game and the ability to motivate and mesh kids into a team. I do not place one metric in front of the others.”
Finding a coach with a definitive plan for recruiting Texas and capitalizing on the talent in the state will also be important.
Baker said he has a few coaches in mind already but won’t limit himself to that group. UNT has hired Eastman & Beaudine, a firm that will assist with the search.
Baker and a small group of UNT officials will be involved with the search, including Jared Mosley, Baker’s associate vice president of athletics. Both have extensive experience in college basketball.
Baker worked as a basketball operations assistant at Oklahoma State and later was the head coach at Rogers State in Claremore, Oklahoma, before going into administration full time. He also had oversight of the men’s basketball programs at Memphis and Missouri earlier in his career.
Mosley was a star player at Abilene Christian and is in the school’s Hall of Fame.
Baker hopes to find a coach who can rebuild what once was a proud program. UNT ripped off six straight winning seasons and played in two NCAA tournaments under Johnny Jones before he left for LSU after the 2011-12 season.
UNT handed the program to Benford after Jones’ departure and saw it plummet while finishing .500 or worse in five straight seasons.
The Mean Green finished 8-22 overall and last in Conference USA at 2-16 this season. UNT was one of only two teams to miss this week’s C-USA tournament.
Benford spoke highly of the program late in the season before being fired.
“This is a great place,” Benford said. “There are great people and great leadership here. Ultimately, you have to win games. That is part of the business, and I understand that.”
Baker said there were some positives about Benford’s tenure despite those struggles. He credited UNT’s former coach for the program’s solid standing academically and in terms of player behavior.
The work Benford did off the floor is one reason Baker doesn’t view the challenge UNT’s next coach will face as an extended rebuilding project. He believes UNT has what it needs to be successful and has plans in place to add to the program’s assets.
UNT will renovate the locker room for its men’s basketball program this summer. The school’s athletic department also has plans to spend $400,000 on improving its nutrition program. UNT will hire a nutritionist and have a training table, where athletes’ diets will be monitored, for the first time.
Baker is hoping those assets are enough to lure a coach who has been in charge of a Division I program to Denton.
UNT has high expectations for its next coach.
“I believe we will compete for championships here,” Baker said. “This is a great opportunity. I look forward to going through this journey — all searches are a journey — and finding a coach to lead our program.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.