Athletics looks to maintain positive image

Athletics looks to maintain positive image

Athletics looks to maintain positive image
October 20
23:59 2014

Scott Sidway / Staff Writer

When North Texas athletic director Rick Villarreal worked for Louisiana State University, he would annually take his football players to a school for mentally disabled teens. The students would play catch with the LSU athletes and recognize them by name and number.

Upon leaving the school, Villarreal would ask his athletes about the purpose of the visit. The responses usually included something about brightening the day of the students, but Villarreal said that was not the purpose.

He pointed out signs on the classroom walls, like “Stop vs. Go” and “Enter vs. Exit,” and explained to his athletes that these students faced a daily struggle of being able to recognize the differences between them.

“Them knowing the difference between those signs could be the difference between life or death,” Villarreal said. “But if you noticed when we went out to the playground, they knew who you were. They knew your number, and they knew how many catches you had. Do you realize the impact you have?”

Villarreal has carried this message from LSU to North Texas and has created an athletic culture that prioritizes high character values and responsible decisions off the field or court.

“Our goal here, and my mission as an athletic director, has always been not to develop great athletes, but to develop great people,” Villarreal said.

The perceived image of an athletics program can be molded by a number of matters. For example, Florida State University is fighting a public relations battle due to quarterback Jameis Winston’s pending sexual assault charges. University of Georgia running back Todd Gurley has been in the limelight because of illegal compensation for autographing memorabilia.

Regardless of the incident, Villarreal said the decisions made by a single athlete could easily put a blemish on the entire university.

“A lot of times when an article comes out, it doesn’t necessarily say a particular name. It says ‘North Texas soccer player,’ or ‘North Texas football player,’ or ‘North Texas tennis player,’” Villarreal said. “All of a sudden, as a North Texas athlete, everybody has become guilty by association, whether it’s true or not.”

Villarreal’s mantra trickles down to each individual sport at North Texas. With football, senior offensive lineman Mason Y’Barbo said the program upholds a specific set of concrete values.

“There’s no room for any of that kind of stuff off the field,” Y’Barbo said. “We have our rules, we have our team values, and one of those core values that we have is to respect women and treat women with respect.  No drugs, no weapons. So those things are set in stone.”

Head football coach Dan McCarney said he and his staff are constantly emphasizing representing the university in a positive manner.

“We make sure that our guys are always motivated to do it the right way,” McCarney said. “They’re not perfect, but our record stands on real strong ground with what we’ve done here academically.”

The academic ground that McCarney mentioned refers to the NCAA’s academic progress rate. This is a multi-year measurement of academic progress that takes into account academic eligibility, progress toward graduation and retention rates.

Since McCarney took over as head coach of the Mean Green in 2010, the football team’s APR has increased each year.

“He’s very involved in making sure we’re all going to class and stuff like that,” junior defensive back Kenny Buyers said. “So we make sure we’re taking care of off-the-field issues before we even worry about on-the-field. Because if you’re not getting it done off the field, you’re not going to have a chance to play for us.”

Outside of the athletic director’s office is a sign saying, “Academics is a responsibility. Athletics is a privilege.” Villarreal said he expects his athletes to approach the classroom as passionately as they approach playing their sport.

“Sometimes we don’t take that same approach to academics,” Villarreal said. “Here in the department, it’s, ‘Hey you’re going to take care of academics, or guess what? You don’t get to play.’”

If a negative incident occurs, Villarreal said North Texas will act swiftly.

“Whenever there’s an incident, I make sure that everybody in the loop is involved, including the president of the university,” Villarreal said. “If we have situations, we’re not going to hide them. We’re not going to cover them up.”

While Villarreal said no program is perfect, he still believes that North Texas has succeeded in creating an upstanding athletic environment during his 13-year tenure.

“Do we have kids that aren’t going to do the right thing? Yeah. It’s the world. It’s real life,” Villarreal said. “But overall, I think that the kind of kids that we bring in here buy into what the philosophy is and understand that life comes first.”

Featured Illustration by Jake Bowerman – Senior Staff Illustrator

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