North Texas Daily

A Q&A with athletic director Wren Baker

A Q&A with athletic director Wren Baker

A Q&A with athletic director Wren Baker
December 06
16:57 2019

With the fall semester coming to an end, I set down with Wren Baker, UNT’s Vice President and athletic director. Baker joined the Mean Green staff in the summer of 2016 and has made efforts to turn North Texas athletics into a program that is competitive throughout Conference USA. When Baker arrived, he implemented a five-year plan to accomplish this. Sitting down with him, I wanted to cover his plan’s progress as well as other athletic topics.

So you’re about 3.5 years through [your five-year plan]. I looked online and I looked through what you’ve accomplished. Do you feel like the five-year plan is on a good pace right now?

We are. There’s some areas where we hit targets ahead of schedule and some where we’re slightly behind and that’s okay. When you put a plan like that in place, it’s meant to be malleable so that as things change or maybe different priorities elevate, you have the ability to shift resources, both human and money. I think by-and-large we’ve made a lot of progress in those areas. If you zoom out and look at the department as a whole, I think all of the metrics are trending in a favorable way. Our momentum is strong and [it’s] not just about wins and losses, although those have definitely improved. Financial contributions, number of donors, academic success, overall health and well-being, all of that stuff is trending in a favorable way I think that’s due a lot to the plan and we’ve involved a lot of people in the formulation of that plan.

I think the most noticeable part of that plan has been the infrastructure for athletics facilities. What were your thought in increasing the qualities of facilities and what was your goal there?

When I took the job, a lot of the conversation was around, ‘We have good facilities,” and having been at some other institutions, I felt like the stadium was in really good shape. Outside of that, everything needed some help. I think for us, a lot of progress has been made in facilities because before they acquired the old Liberty campus, they didn’t have anything. They just played in city parks and that kind of stuff. People aren’t standing still, waiting on you to catch up and so when I came in, I did an assessment. We took some donors around and looked at facilities and opened their eyes to what the competitors are doing. I think the vision here was to be one of the best Group of 5 programs in the country and that hadn’t been where we had been historically.

But facilities are important, and some people might say, ‘Well, is our kid that superficial, that the look of a facility is what changes things?’ Every coach out there is making the same promises. No one’s cornered the market on recruiting pitches. They’re all going to say the same thing so if you’re a prospective student-athlete in high school making a decision, facilities is really one of the few tangible ways that you can judge whether those words are just words or rather that really is commitment. And so I think that’s why the facilities master plan was important. The soccer, track and field project was really important. The renovations that we made [with] this indoor practice facility was important because it shows that commitment and you know I said at the time when we unveiled the indoor practice facility. I think one of the reasons why it’s so important, is fans, never use it. It’s for student athletes. It’s for their safety for their growth for them for them to use every day.

So is this athletic department building getting redone next?

We’re currently going through a design process and [trying] to figure out what the money will be and then we’re going to start trying to raise money to renovate and enlarge this building. When you look at our training room, our strength and conditioning room and our academic center — which actually isn’t currently in this building — all of those are about half of the size that we need and about half the size of other schools and so we get a lot of conversation from time to time, ‘When are you going to have baseball, when will you get men’s soccer?’ But the reality is from an infrastructure standpoint, we have athletes now that work out from daylight to dark in the weight room just because we have to.

You mentioned baseball. Is there anything in the works, trying to make that happen?

I do think we’ll have baseball some day. A lot of our donors have interest and a lot of our fans have been interested. Texas is a talent-rich state when it comes to baseball. But to me, we’ve got to get a couple more things done. This athletic center being one of the primary one. We really don’t have the facility infrastructure and bandwidth to add a sport like baseball, which is a very expensive sport. We wouldn’t want to add baseball without bringing them a chance to compete for championships, so really funding them at a level they can compete and proving them a facility, I don’t want to do that with a new sport when we still have some things that we need to get done for current sports. It’s not the right thing to do.

Part of Title IX is the ratio in your athletic department in terms of student-athletes need to mirror campus’ ratio. We would definitely have to add an equal or greater number of female athletes on campus.

The last thing I heard [was that] equestrian would be up there for the next female sport.

This area is big horse country. But we have not got to a point to where we’ve really flushed out what the different sport opportunities and what they would cost. Sand volleyball seems like it would make a lot of sense because we are already playing volleyball. There’s a huge growth in bowling out there and teams like Stephen F. Austin, Louisiana Tech are competing for championships because it’s such a new sport and there’s only so much people are going to spend on it.

A big topic right now after the last football game is Mason Fine. Is having a star for your quarterback in the biggest sport on campus helped your goal of bringing the athletics department on an upward trend?

There’s no question, he represents who we are and what we aspire to be: a gritty university and an athletic department that gives students access to achieve their goals.

If you look at Mason fine, he was a player that didn’t have a whole lot of schools recruiting him. A lot of our students don’t come from a real wealthy background where they can just go to college anywhere they want. I think what’s unique about UNT is it gives a broad access point to a lot of students, and he represents that in a lot of ways, I think people see him as kind of representative of us, and the fact that that’s who he is, and that he leads by example. He’s courageous. He lays it all out on the field. He’s humble and appreciative. On Saturday, he’s the last one in the locker room, not because he’s out, visiting with girls or something like sometimes, you know that’s the way it is with some some some players. [But] because he’s taking pictures with kids and shaking hands with students, you know, telling them, thank you and he’s doing that in what was probably one of the most emotional times of his life, his last game and it was a game that our kids played extraordinarily hard and lost a heartbreaker.

People really bought into who he is and his story and his leadership, and it’s been really impactful on our program.

What are some steps that the athletic department has taken to engage the student population more?

We spend a lot of time with those freshman, when they coming in all the different orientations. All the First Flight stuff. Throughout the summer when they’re doing orientations, we have people there. We do the big picture here and have ou players and coaches out there for that, trying to get people indoctrinated from their freshman experience. We’ve greatly increased the amount of giveaways. We went with the new Experience platform which, for the first year, there were some wrinkles and a few students didn’t like it. Before, you had to go pick up a physical ticket, and I think we did it at the library mall throughout the week.

We’ve done a lot of deals on guest tickets, including a couple of games where we got donors to buy guest tickets. We know we have some non-traditional students and then we have a lot of students from the Metroplex who maybe could bring mom or dad or something. We have coaches who are trying to do their part. To see [Grant] McCasland driving around with the golf cart and the basketball goal on the back just trying to engage students. The thing that I love most about UNT is what a unique and diverse population we have, but that does present challenges when you’re trying to rally people around. Because we have one of the largest colleges of music in the country, along with that is a whole lot of concerts and activities and so there’s a lot of competition.

I think we’ve made progress. We had, at the Houston game, 11,000 students. There are a lot of Power Five programs that won’t ever touch 11,000. We really believe that long-term, students coming and having a great experience is the best way for us to build this fan base.

Switching gears a little bit focusing on basketball and golf, both of those programs have gone to Jamaica, Hawaii, the Bahamas, within the past calendar year. What is the goal of getting these more non-traditional tournaments?

It’s important to provide kids opportunities and experiences that allow them to grow as people. The world is a very diverse place with a lot of different people and cultures and traditions. A lot of [our men’s basketball team] weren’t here last year [when] basketball did the Italy tour, [and it was] their first trip internationally. There’s military police armed with machine guns just checking to make sure there’s nothing illicit or illegal going on. For them to get a chance to see what’s going on around the world and open their eyes and understand, it is really important. It’s important for recruiting, when your competitors are taking those kind of trips and getting those kind of opportunities.

Men’s basketball has got a pretty competitive pre-conference schedule this year with Virginia Commonwealth and Utah State. What was the goal setting these games up?

Last year, our non-conference schedule wasn’t a real challenge. There’s a little bit of a downside to something like that. This year they went into it wanting to have a more challenging schedule. Maybe they should have built in a few more easier games but like right now, it’s like the third-most difficult schedule in the country.

Do you have any comments on the firing of Bodie Reeder and Troy Reffett?

The coaches are good people and I understand the fans frustration. I get to see how hard everybody in this program works every day. There’s a lot that goes into a lot of the sacrifices that coaches make but at the end of the day, there also are expectations and accountability. I think [Seth] Littrell sat down and evaluated things and arrived at the conclusion that we just didn’t perform at the level that we should. He’s a loyal man, he loves his coaches. But he understands that his responsibility is to do what’s best for the program and I think he made some personnel decisions that he think will allows us to take a step forward, and that’s part of life.

That’s all I got for you.

Featured Image: Wren Baker is UNT’s Vice President and Director of Athletics. Courtesy North Texas Athletics 

About Author

Zachary Cottam

Zachary Cottam

Zachary Cottam is the Sports Editor for the North Texas Daily.

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