Leading the Mean Green to New Heights
Leading the Mean Green to New Heights
UNT’s Vice President and Athletic Director, Wren Baker, talks about his sports background, the incredible recent turn around of UNT’s athletics programs, parenting, and even Jerry Maguire.
With 16 sports accounted for and about 300 athletes, Wren and his team work hard to build an environment for growth and success. The cogs in the UNT athletics machine include academics, fundraising, attendance, facilities, media agreements — all of which work together to gain momentum and raise the bar higher.
Go Mean Green!
Enjoy episode #65 with Wren and find other episodes of Hustle & Pro.
- [00:30] Quick hits with Wren Baker
- [04:15] The Wrestling Belt
- [08:10] Youngest Principal in OK
- [11:38] UNT’s success
- [17:10] UNT Athletics Family
- [21:54] Wren’s Sports Parenting Style
Resources within this episode:
- Wren Baker: Bio
- UNT: Website
- UNT Athletics: Website | Sports | Facebook | Twitter
- Kelly Walker: Instagram @kelly_walkertexas | Twitter: @kelly_walker_TX
This episode is sponsored by:
Interactive Football – The Evolution of Non-Tackle Football
- Interactive Football: Website | Facebook @InteractiveFootball | Instagram @interactivefootball/
- Interactive Sports Group: Website
- Kevin Thompson, Founder of Interactive Sports Group: Email | LinkedIn
Connect with Lifestyle Frisco:
This episode of Hustle and Pro is brought to you by Interactive Sports Group. Interactive football empowers athletes to play football in a fun and safe manner, utilizing their patented wearable technology equipment. Find out more at interactive-football.com.Interactive football, the evolution of non-tackle football.
Welcome to Hustle and Pro season two talking sports in Frisco from youth to pro. Now here’s your host, Kelly Walker.
On today’s episode of Hustle and Pro we welcome University of North Texas’s Vice President and director of athletics, Wren Baker. Hello and welcome Wren.
Well, thank you for having me. It’s good to uh, good to join you. It’s a beautiful day and uh, hopefully, uh, things are all, uh, continue to look up and improve in the middle of this pandemic. So it’s fun to be with you today.
Yeah, I’m excited to talk to you. So first I have a few quick hits to sort of just quickly get to know you and your sports background a little bit better. Who would you say is your favorite athlete of all time?
Oh, that was a fast one. Okay. Then this might answer the next question. What’s your favorite sports sport to watch?
That’s a great question. I have a background in college basketball and coach for a few years and um, and so I enjoy, there’s aspects of the game of basketball that I enjoy to watch the most, but, but at the same time, I always say there that, uh, there’s happiness and ignorance and so I probably do a little more, uh, coaching inside my head for basketball. So I’m going to say football, uh, would be my favorite to watch. Uh, and uh, and then, you know, but, but basketball is the one that I probably, uh, analyze and break down the most.
Yeah, he probably watched that with a little more intensity or different focus. What about your favorite sport to play yourself?
Definitely basketball. Um, and, uh, I played everything growing up. I grew up in small town of about 900 people. And so there were lots of opportunities to get involved in anything you wanted to get involved in. And, um, but you know, I, I think, uh, in, I probably was better at both baseball and football. Uh, but basketball was always kind of where my, my heart was. And so to this day, um, I still like to hoop a little bit and I’m probably as good of a screener and Fowler as there is anywhere.
Wow. Okay. So where’d you, where’d you grow up? What small town or what area are you from?
[inaudible] Oklahoma. It’s in the far Southeast corner of the state and a lot of people in the DFW area will have been to Broken Bow Lake or at least heard. And so I grew up about 20, 20, 25 minutes from there, same County.
Okay, gotcha. So that was small enough where like you said, you could play anything even through high school, probably you were able to.
Yeah, yeah, definitely. I mean, you could, you know, be involved in the music, vocal music. You want to be in a play what they needed, they needed bodies for everything. So, uh, you know, you got to be a part of a lot of, a lot of things. That’s one of the advantages of growing up in a small town. Um, so, uh, yeah, we were, we, we’re all very active. There wasn’t much else to do besides school activities. So, um, a lot of my friends and I, we did stuff together every single day that,
Yeah, I love that. Okay. Last quick hit. What’s your favorite sports movie?
Jerry Maguire. I’ve probably seen Jerry Maguire 30 or 40 times.
Oh my gosh. We watched it over this last weekend and I was supposed to leave the house to go, I don’t know, grocery or something and I couldn’t leave because I had like, I kept going back in there to watch a few more minutes. It’s just so good and I didn’t realize how much I was saying out loud trying to quote along with it. It’s so great.
Yeah, I love that movie. I think it, you know, I don’t remember exactly when it come out and I think I was in high school. Um, and uh, but uh, it, uh, it’s a great movie.
Yes it is. I know it was the Rod Tidwell’s scene and everything. Anyway, we could go on. Okay. So via the power of Zoom meetings. I have to ask you about this next thing because I saw it in the background where I think you were in your home office. So what’s up with the wrestling belt I saw behind you?
Yeah, so, um, I love pro wrestling as a kid and it’s been really cool being here at North Texas because, um, uh, Stone Cold Steve Austin, uh, went to school here, played on the football team. Um, the Von Erik family, two of those brothers, uh, went to school here and played sports here. And so, um, we actually have a connection, um, uh, with, uh, pro wrestling. But just growing up in a small town in Oklahoma, um, we only got to two television stations and not, those weren’t always consistent. And so really, um, you, you get like a handful of, of sports, but it wasn’t like it is today where there’s college and pro sports on TV all the time. So the most consistent, um, sport like, uh, um, you know, a show was pro-wrestling my brother and I, and my brother’s two years younger than me. We, we fell in love with it every Saturday morning. We would watch it, pull our, our mattresses, uh, out and, uh, and, uh, wrestle each other and mimic the moves. And so I’ve always had, I’ve always been a fan than I, I worked at the University of Memphis as the deputy athletic director and, um, one had a chance to meet, uh, Jerry the King Lawler, uh, one day and offered in asking for you to ever come talk to the football team. Uh, cause Justin [inaudible], who’s now at Virginia Tech was the football coach there. He’s also in Oklahoma. And he and I were good friends and he’s, he likes pro wrestling. And so, uh, so Jerry came out and, uh, he gave, uh, he gave me, uh, that belt. And so, uh, it’s a prize possession, uh, and, uh, when I have all of our athletes over over the course of the year, um, and uh, to, to our house, to eat dinner. And it’s usually the first thing they go to, uh, when they’re, when they’re looking around is they think pictures with it. And it’s always a good talking point.
Yeah, it caught my eye for sure. Had to ask. It makes sense. I didn’t, I didn’t, I remember now some of those connections when you mentioned them.
I just, you know, I, and I also think, um, you know, pro wrestling, um, there’s a reason why it’s come consistently, you know, held up, uh, passionate, loyal, captive audience. Um, you know, they build storylines, they do different things. And so, um, I think the other just aspect in, in the into, um, um, how I view it is, is I kind of try to steal a lot of their ideas just in marketing and promotion. I think they do a great job. And, uh, when I was in Memphis, the Grizzlies were kind of the hot franchise at the time. They were selling out every night and really, uh, rock is crowds. And so I met with their director of marketing, um, and asking Mike, what are you guys, you know, what, what’s kind of, how do you come up with all these ideas? And, um, he, uh, he said, we kinda, we, he said, you won’t believe this, but we say, what would the WWE do to promote this? And so, um, you know, I also think that, you know, they’ve obviously maintained and kept a pretty captive audience for a long time to do that with, uh, some pretty creative promotions and storylines and, um, not all of it’s applicable to college athletics, but we definitely have incorporated some of that.
Yeah. I mean, they’re, and they’re still doing it even they’re one of these sports that’s managed to figure out how to still put on, put a product out there when others right now aren’t able to. Um, they’re getting creative, I guess they just, like you said, they keep reinventing themselves and putting storylines out there that they’re filling up arenas constantly.
Yeah. Okay. So you were the youngest principal in Oklahoma at the time anyway. I don’t know if that still holds at 26 years old. So I’m guessing, would you describe yourself as as ambitious and a goal setting person?
Certainly at that age, I was, um, you know, I think where that experience comes, um, not the loss of ambition, but also the understanding that, um, you know, you can grow where you’re planted and, uh, and so, you know, but at that age I definitely was wanting to, um, you know, move and get as many opportunities as I could. And really what happened there was, um, again, I go back to you grow up in a small town, you know, everybody. Um, and, uh, the, uh, my, uh, high school student council advisor after I left and was in college and, and I’m working on a masters and all that stuff, I’d always maintained a relationship with her, but she ended up becoming the principal and then the superintendent. And when she became superintendent, it opened up, uh, her job, which was a principal’s job. And she also had a vacant athletic director position. Um, and so she wanted, she, she called me and offered me a job and it was the first time, uh, in my life that I hadn’t had to beat my head chasing the job. She just called and offered it to me. And it actually wasn’t until probably the fifth or six call, um, where I started getting comfortable with the idea of going back home and, uh, you know, and, but it was, it was a great learning experience. Um, I really enjoyed the kids. Um, you know, at the time I’m 26 and, uh, probably half of the teachers that reported to me, uh, were my teachers when I was in school. Um, so, you know, you talk about doing those evaluations and that kind of stuff, and I had never really spent much time as a classroom teacher. Uh, so, um, it was a very much a learning and growth opportunity and, and, uh, I look back and, and now and realize probably more than that then, um, how many lessons I learned during that time.
Wow. Yeah, that would be, uh, something to delicately tiptoe through that, those waters, I’m sure of managing the team that you were a student of. That’s, that’s interesting.
It was, it was, uh, it was very, very enlightening and fun. And, and the reality is, is when I made that decision, um, I left Oklahoma State where I was a member of the basketball staff there for, uh, in Sutton’s, a legendary coach and, um, you know, I, but, but I was getting married and I just felt like I needed to have a more stable lives and make a little more money. And so I made that decision kind of with the thought that I was leaving college athletics. And, um, a year later I got a call and an opportunity to be the AD and head basketball coach at a startup in the IB program at Roger state. They’re division two now, but at the time they were going to be in AI. And so, um, you know, if not for, uh, being very fortunate to get that opportunity, I might still be a principal somewhere. So, so, you know, it’s a life, uh, presents you with opportunities and um, and so I had a one to go back home and it was a great job. I’m a great learning experience, but then ultimately college athletics found me again. And so I ended up transitioning back to college athletics.
Well, let’s fast forward to to UNT. So last year, the 2018, 19 year, um, was hugely successful for the University of North Texas. And you got there I think in 2016 and sort of credited with turning it around, which is a huge accomplishment in itself. But this isn’t just turning around like, you know, the football team for example, or something. We’re talking academics and fundraising and attendance, new facilities, media agreements and other things. But I’m curious now that you’re looking back at, you know, this turnaround you’ve already managed to do in a pretty quick timeframe. What are you most proud of so far at UNT?
Well, I think the first thing that I would just say is, uh, you know, a lot of times, um, you know, when you’re a head coach or an AD or the leader of any organization, um, you probably get too much blame when things aren’t successful and too much, uh, credit when they are. And so, um, we’ve been on a heck of a run. Um, but there were, there were so much done in, in the months and years before I got here by my predecessors and other people in this department at this university that, um, built a solid foundation so that, uh, when, when I came in here, we really could look at, uh, elevating the program and, and, you know, why do we need to do to take this to the next level? So I always try and make sure that I take a little bit of, of an opportunity to give credit while we’ve set a lot of records, um, in the last four years, I always want to try and give a credit to the people before me that did a lot to set the table for that.
But knowing that, knowing that it didn’t just happen because you, you showed up, it happened overnight, then, um, you know, maybe what’s, I guess what also are you most proud of, but what, I don’t know. What was the most difficult piece to put into play?
I think I’m the most proud of the comprehensive success of our programs. I mean, um, you know, I, I, all of our teams have, have really, um, been elevated in terms of competitive success and academic success, uh, over the last, um, you know, over the last few years. And, uh, I think it was, uh, 18, 19 that you’re referring to for the first time in our history. Every single team that we failed had a winning season. And so I think it’s just not that, Hey, it’s one sport or, or you know, it’s just your revenue sports that, that we’ve put a lot of attention and resources and planning and strategies around improving the overall quality of the athletic department. Meaning the experience that our student athletes get in the job that we do and helping build them in a champions and prepare them as leaders, not just in athletics but, uh, academically and then, and then for the rest of their lives. And so I’m really proud of our coaches and our staff and our student athletes that, um, that, you know, we have elevated the program comprehensively and not, not just one or two sports, uh, that, you know, for one or two years.
Yeah. Cause some schools are, you know, the football school or the baseball school. So you mentioned comprehensive. I mean, so I said new facilities and media and, and attendance. None of those happen can happen independently. Really. You’re not going to get a good media deal going without people showing up to your games and then without winning and then without new facilities and recruiting and all these different pieces. Right. So it’s all, I am guessing it all has to work together.
Yeah. Um, I’ve been doing budget playing the last few days, uh, and it’s the first time in my time here that we’re having to put together scenarios where some revenue streams might be down, do this pandemic. But as you mentioned, once you kind of have momentum, it’s just amazing how much, um, momentum creates momentum and how powerful it is. And, but at the same time, how fragile it can be. Um, but we, you know, what we saw was we had some success and, um, that kind of helped build some revenue. And, and, uh, then we had a little more success and that gave us a chance to revisit some of our contracts and revisit some of our relationships. And, you know, all of a sudden you look up and, um, you know, pretty much all of your revenue streams have grown. So we went from, you know, a, a budget that was, um, maybe 30 to 33 million to, um, you know, 38, 39 million, uh, over three or four years. And, um, you know, that takes a lot of effort and a lot of work from a lot of people and, and probably, uh, a little bit of luck as well. But we definitely have seen revenues grow across the board and that’s allowed us to continue to double down on those investments in our student athletes. I mean, you know, you look at, I always bring up one example, but our nutrition budget went from 50 grands of 400 grand. Well, that goes directly into, uh, meals and snacks and supplements and that kind of stuff. Our student athletes and, and obviously, um, that’s, that’s been something that’s been a party of the success for our programs.
Yeah. I mean, every little bit makes a difference. It all can move the needle in some way and ends up, yeah. Contributing to the overall overall goal. So those kids you mentioned, so how many sports and how many roughly athletes do you have?
So we have, um, right around 300 athletes in 16 different sports now. Um, when, uh, when I bring that up, um, track and field for instance, uh, that we have a missing a women’s team and they play a, a, a, they, they, they have a fall season and a spring season. And so that counts for four. Uh, and then, um, we have men and women’s cross country, which a lot of times they double up and they run distance events at track and field as well. So, um, so you know, that segment of athletes in some ways, uh, they count for six sports. But, uh, we have 16, which is the requirement to be in football’s highest division, uh, FBS. Um, and about 300 athletes, athletes.
That’s a lot. When you say you eventually get them all over for family dinner, a dinner at your house.
Yeah, my kids love it. My wife’s, uh, loves the interaction with the, with the players, but, uh, definitely it puts a lot of strain on her when we start kicking those off in the fall. But I try and cater the meals and, um, you know, and, and, uh, we have a house that’s kinda built for it, for entertaining. It’s a lot of the spaces in the central [inaudible], in the central area, kitchen, dining room, living room. It’s all open. And, uh, then that opens onto the patio. So we’re able to entertain 35, 40 pretty easily. Uh, we can get up to 50. So we knocked those out. Uh, uh, most of them in the fall. And then what we do is in the spring we host a big donor event, and that’s when we bring football and we bring in big tents to do that. So, so, uh, but you know, I think when you’re the head of a department like this and, and, uh, you’re reliant on the success of others to, to, uh, to kind of help your priorities and initiatives be advanced and, and your goals be reached, um, you know, you want to share back with them. And, um, you know, I don’t, uh, I’m, the one thing I miss most about coaching is not the games or anything like that. I just miss the day to day personal interactions with the players. Um, and so it just is a chance for, um, for us to do that as a family and also for my kids, uh, who are young, um, to for them to say like, Hey, when dad’s not at our event or our program, or he’s not here to put us to bed is because, um, uh, you know, he’s, he’s gotta be there for these, for all of these young people. And so that kinda helps them, I think, you know, understand too the, the magnitude of the job. And, um, and they think those kids, they think our student athletes are there to play with them. I mean, they immediately grabbed them by the hand and start leading them off to trampoline or swing set. Yeah. So it’s, it’s a fun experience for my family.
That is cool. So speaking of bringing people into your home, I’m curious where you as curious as me, if you watch the NFL draft to see inside, um, little player homes. Sure. But mostly, um, NFL, either coaches homes or wherever they were, uh, doing their picks from.
Yeah. Some of them, uh, obviously have interior decorators and some of them obviously don’t. So it was, it was pretty, uh, uh, pretty curious just to see all of the different uh, surroundings and settings. And I think.
Any favorites, there’s been a lot of top coach, [inaudible] guy, a lot of talk and yeah.
Yeah. Obviously, uh, you know what, um, I love the look of his home and Arizona is such a great place, whether or not, um, we usually go to Phoenix every year and then we went to Sedona a couple of summers ago and absolute blast there. So I’m a big fan of Arizona. Uh, but I will say this, um, uh, my wife, we’ve recently bought some new furniture and she, she kind of wanted to go with that modern, uh, look that was, um, in Cliff’s home there. And I’m all about comfort. And so we have a lot of discussions around that cause the chairs that she thinks look good I think are, are very inadequate in terms of my comfort. So I love the look of his place, but I’m not sure that he looked as comfortable as I would like.
Yeah, there is, there’s a commitment level there. You got to commit to that look and just embrace it all the way.
That’s right. And he obviously, uh, doesn’t have a, you know, the two dogs and two the messy kids like I do because his stuff was all white. Look new, so.
Right. Yes. There’s a chapter in life when you can do that. So talking about those kiddos. So you have two daughters. And I’m curious as people who work in, um, you know, a higher level sports and athletics, I’m curious how you parent, if your kids are athletes. So are they playing sports, your kids?
They do. Um, you know, they’re eight and five, so it hasn’t gotten to the real competitive, uh, uh, place yet. Um, and um, my five year old is kind of a competitor, so she tends, she’s tended to get in there and mix it up a little more than my eight year old who really just loves the social aspect of it. And, you know, she’s not trying to get in there and fight for the soccer ball or anything. Um, I’m very laid back as a, as a parent. Um, I don’t, I think just my experience of having, uh, spent time in the public schools and then having been in college athletics, um, I think sometimes as a parent, the worst thing we can do is not just let our kids grow and mature and learn through experiences on their own. Um, we try and interject ourselves in, in every situation and, um, direct them and coach them and, and solve the problem for them. I know, uh, there’s a psychologist that I read a lot and he says, you know, we do too much preparing the past for the child, not the child for the path. And so I really just kind of back off and stay away from it. And I tell him all the time, you know, if you don’t want to play, um, you don’t have to play now. If you start a season, you have to finish it. If you don’t want to play soccer this year, you know, don’t play. If you don’t want to play basketball this year, don’t play. Um, now I, I let them know if you don’t play a season or a year, everybody else that does is gaining an advantage on you.
It might be harder to get back. Okay.
That’s right. So I try to educate them on that. Um, and we’ve had a couple of times where, you know, they, um, they had to miss something that they wanted to do because they had a game. And that’s the only thing that I’m very strict about with them is you have a team that’s dependent on you and you will be at practice and you will at games. And it doesn’t matter if there’s a birthday party that conflicts you’re going to know you have a responsibility to the team and a coach. But other than that, uh, I know never say anything. I never said one word or the coach. I’ve never yelled at my kid, Hey, go get the ball. You need to do this. But you know, I don’t, uh, I feel like there’s probably a time and place for that maybe later in life. Uh, but right now, um, they have a coach and that coach knows more about coaching that team than I do. He’s seen him practicing play more. And so I don’t get, I don’t get involved in it too much.
That’s refreshing. And even if you do know more than that coach, like if you’re, if you’re eight year olds on a basketball team and you do know more than what that coach is dealing with, they’re the ones who stepped up and volunteered their time to get in there and do it right. So I always try to remember that like I’m not the one out there putting the, coordinating these practices and all the ins and outs. So I’m going to let them do what, you know, do their thing and not try to interject too much.
No question. And you know, and my wife for the most part is the same, although, uh, you know, I think mothers generally get a little more protective sometimes. Um, but I, you know, one example I always give and, um, if my, if my wife hears it, she always gets on me, Friedman bringing it up. But, um, when I, when our eight year old was going to start kindergarten at Argyle, which Argyle is a very highly rated public school district in the state of Texas. They, uh, they assigned them a room temporarily, but they reshuffle the deck after a week cause they don’t want all the dominant personalities in one room and, and that kind of stuff. And my wife, uh, my, my eight year old at the time was real introverted and shy and, you know, we’d moved a couple of times she had to change schools and we were kind of worried about what that had done to her from a social development aspect. And so my wife, um, uh, said, Hey, I’m going to go up to the school and tell them, I really would think they should, you know, they shouldn’t change Addison’s room after a week because I just don’t know how she would adjust to that. And I said, Heather, based on what your zero years of teaching experience, you know, I mean, you know, these people do this for a living and they’re doing it for a reason and I’m just a trusting person, like trust the professionals. And so Heather didn’t like my initial response to that. But after we talked it through and I went through my logic, she kind of agreed that, um, you know, we should just, uh, hold off on interjecting ourselves in that.
It is hard to let it go. But like you said, you don’t want to pave the path so much for her that it’s too easy for her to adjust. Like you, you know, maybe her adjusting it herself is a good life lesson to learn how to adapt to different personalities or change in a classroom or whatever. It’s hard though as a parent to know, to know when to, you know, keep pushing and when not to.
Yeah. You know, you had an hour of the age where we started to lose a loved ones. I, I still have both of my parents, but I’ve, all of my, uh, grandparents except one. Um, and uh, you know, it’s like when you, when you lose those people, uh, it’s such a kind of a feeling of, I mean, not really being scared cause they’ve always been there for you. And you know, if you, uh, if you, you know, my grandmother who passed a couple of years ago, like if I was going through a bad time in life for it or you know, at work, I would go home. Uh, they, she had 80 acres and I’d fish and I’d get on the tractor and you know, like, because nothing there ever changed. It was this safety and security. Um, but the reality is, um, because she didn’t always solve all my problems for me, my parents had already solved my problem for you, you’re equipped to deal with it. So I think sometimes there’s, it’s really hard as a parent to balance the desire to want to be there for your kids with, um, the natural, uh, just battling through adversity that we need as we grow into the pain.
Like, you know, letting them feel a little bit of that discomfort or pain to figure something out themselves. Yeah. Well, I’ll be, I’ll be curious, uh, as they get older and because you’re like the prime person that would know how to steer them into, you know, that college path to be, you know, there’s, I, I have teenagers, so I have people all around me who they’re pretty sure they know how their kid’s going to play or get college scholarships and this has been happening for years. So like at age 10, you start seeing people around here that are, that are pushing their kid on a certain path to college. And it always kind of makes me laugh because who knows what if it’s going to work or not. But man, you have a perspective where you really could know how to, how to get your kids in the path that you want. So I hope that as they get older, you know, I’m anxious to see how you’re able to balance that as a parent.
Yeah, it, it, and it will be interesting is as I get older and things would come more competitive if I still am able to have the same approach, but I would like to think, um, that when, uh, they need my advice and counsel to pursue their dreams, that, that I’m able to help them, but I don’t ever want them to pursue my dreams for them. I mean, you know, um, I got a chance to live, live a life and do the things I wanted to do. And I actually went to college on an academic scholarship, not an athletic scholarship. And so I’ve got a perspective even in that regard. Um, but, um, you know, I, um, I just want them to, to, you know, I want whatever they choose in life. I want them to aspire to be great and I want them to work hard at it and I want them to learn that you gotta be able to take constructive criticism and battle through adversity. Um, but if that’s new music or dance or theater or athletics, I mean, honestly, it doesn’t make me, um, a whole lot of a difference. I get to see a lot of games. Um, I understand the power of athletics in terms of just helping people, um, learn all of those things I just talked about. But, but athletics isn’t the only avenue to learn those things. And so, um, I really just want my two girls to do what makes them happy, but to have the drive to be great at whatever it is that they choose to do.
Well said. That’s great. Well, Wren, thank you so much for joining us. Go go Mean Green gotta say that too. And um, thank you to everyone listening and we will see you on the next episode of Hustle and Pro.