Anyone who’s played EA’s NCAA Football in Dynasty Mode knows that if you play long enough, you eventually see North Texas start to pop up in the standings, jumping conferences and challenging to be a national power. UNT is on the outskirts of the 4th largest metropolitan area in the nation, and they’re also the largest of the three FBS schools in DFW, something which certainly has the potential to breed Houston Cougar-level success. And yet after 15 years in FBS, none of this has materialized.
It’s been a few years since I graduated from UNT, but even then it was still finding its footing as a D-I/FBS conference. The facilities were poor, the customer service non-existent, the entire operation felt like it was run out of someone’s kitchen. In the ensuing years an entire new football stadium has been built, along with the decent beginnings of a sports complex across I-35, but in 2016 the business side of it, apparently, remains the same (and not for nothing, their basketball arena still sucks. It has always sucked).
Back in July, UNT President Neal Smatresk commissioned a report to detail the state of the athletic department in the wake of former AD Rick Villarreal’s departure. The university paid $20,000 to local businessmen Trip Kuehne and Michael Sicuro to give the full rundown on the state of the department, which has been full D-I since 2001. Smatresk has been UNT President since 2014.
This week the results were made public. The report shows, in no uncertain terms, the entire administrative side of the department to be just as amateurish and unorganized as the first year they joined the Sun Belt, i.e. Villarreal’s first year there.
“Overall, the AD is underperforming at virtually every level resulting from a lack of leadership, inadequate funding, outdated and/or poorly maintained facilities and in many cases nonexistent internal processes,” the report states.
If you are a North Texas fan, this should not come as remotely surprising news. Despite a few bright spots during Villarreal’s tenure (2001-2016), including the new football stadium, a new tennis facility, and a new athletic conference, the university has fallen woefully behind— if it was ever even on the level with— its C-USA compatriots.
Villarreal, it seems, remains oblivious.
“I respect people’s opinions, but I think you have to know the history of this program,” Villarreal told Brett Vito of the Denton Record-Chronicle in the wake of the report’s release. “If anyone looks at the program in 2001 and looks at it today and can’t see the changes we made, they are just being negative. A lot of the progress was substantial, especially in the area of student-athlete welfare, which should be the focus.”
No one’s going to argue that student-athlete welfare isn’t important, but this stinks of Villarreal watching the football team win the Sun Belt every year from 2001-04, then just retreating to his office and playing video games for the next 12 years, assuming everything was still humming along.
This is the guy who replaced the architect of those 01-04 teams, a man who now has his name on a practice facility at the school— this is the guy who replaced Darrell Dickey with a high school football coach. When miraculously the team failed to improve after four years, Villarreal followed that one up with another bargain-basement hire, which took the team to actual high-school-level production. The football program has been walking backwards for TEN YEARS, but Villarreal wants credit because none of the athletes got a boo-boo. We’re not buying it.
It’s true, the Mean Green have still seen some other success during this span, including NCAA tournament appearances in men’s basketball, women’s soccer and women’s tennis. Not to take anything away from the accomplishment of these athletes, who deserve all the recognition in the world, but any reference to this from the university is just marketing— yes, their student athletes are outstanding, but the women’s soccer team had to buy their own uniforms and the men’s basketball team made their tournament appearances under Johnny Jones, who has since left for LSU. Current coach and Villarreal hire Tony Benford is 54-73 in four seasons.
Despite the addition of the student athletic fee back when the school was still in the Sun Belt, UNT ranks dead last in C-USA recruiting budgets, and 13th out of 14 in scholarship expenditures. Meanwhile, the department admin makes 28% over the conference average. This, and many other revelations in the report, are comically reprehensible at best, suspicious at worst.
It’s telling that Villarreal wants credit for moving Mean Green athletics ahead of where they were in 2001, as the school has lagged so ridiculously far behind its peers. While it did move in the right direction in those initial years, particularly in football and basketball, this is still supposedly a major university. If you arrive as a freshman and do great work, you can’t continue to operate at that level as a junior or senior and expect the same results.
Despite 12 FBS teams in Texas, remember that three of them are in the UT system (UT, UTSA, UTEP), with Baylor, Rice, TCU and SMU all being privately funded. Being outside the UT system in Texas is met with a certain level of gentle amusement, but should not be license for actual employees to phone it in.
Even if fans in the state prefer their Longhorn hats to their Mean Green merch, these are supposedly trained professionals working for a major university, who couldn’t even be bothered to ask next door and see how an athletic department should be run. Nor could they apparently be bothered to check the football standings. But hey, their paychecks cleared, so clearly there was no problem.