North Texas will soon be hiring a third permanent head football coach since 2006 and a number of vocal university stakeholders don’t want athletic director Rick Villarreal making the hire, citing his history of choices to lead the school’s major sports programs since taking over the athletic department in 2001.
“Under the leadership of athletic director Rick Villarreal, we have become birds of pray,” reads a postcard sent to school President Neal Smatresk. The card shows an imposing eagle representing the school’s mascot overlooking the words.
Another alum said he was part of a group that has purchased an airplane banner that will circle Apogee Stadium preceding Saturday’s 6 p.m. home game with UT San Antonio.
Its message: Fire Villarreal.
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Their list of grievances are headed by a record in football and men’s basketball — the “money” sports — and women’s basketball that is 133 games under .500 under Villarreal-hired coaches.
In football, following the controversial firing of Darrell Dickey in 2006, the program is 28-74 under Todd Dodge and Dan McCarney, who was fired five games into this season.
The Mean Green enters Saturday’s game 0-7 overall and 0-4 in Conference USA. UTSA is 1-6, 1-2.
16 Number of statistical categories that UNT ranks 100 or lower out of 25 tracked by the NCAA.
The program’s lone bright spot in the past nine years was a 9-4 campaign in 2013 that included a victory in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year’s Day of 2014. Today, that seems eons ago.
Buyouts of four coaches hired by Villarreal but are no longer with the university — plus Dickey — total close to $3.4 million, which includes an estimated $1.8 million to be paid to McCarney as part of his separation with the university.
Women’s basketball coach Mike Petersen was fired in March after a 5-24 season. Petersen’s buyout was more than $410,000. That figure was even bigger considering the university paid $250,000 to buy out Petersen’s contract at Wake Forest in order to hire him.
“Each of these coaching hires didn’t end up the way we wanted it to, but I will tell you, again, if you go back to Jan. 1, 2014, everybody in the boat thought [McCarney] was the best guy since sliced bread,” said Villarreal, director of football operations under Pat Sullivan at TCU and assistant athletic director from 1995-97. “It didn’t work out that way.
“This never gets personal for me. I’m truly invested in this university and I truly care about it. I didn’t spend 15 1/2 years here drawing a paycheck. I care deeply about this place.”
16,519 Average football attendance this season, ranking 123 out of 128 FBS teams.
Villarreal appears to have retained the support of Smatresk, who took the reins of the university in February 2014, despite declining the athletic director’s request for a public vote of confidence, according to officials at the school who requested anonymity.
Nonetheless, Smatresk has directed Villarreal to make this hire without a committee. This will be, for the most part, a two-man job conducted by the athletic director and a self-described “hands-on” president who knows the terrain of mid-major conferences. He held the same job at UNLV.
The job of luring a top-quality coach to Denton is made all the easier by the stage offered at Apogee Stadium, the $79 million, 30,850-seat stadium that opened in 2011.
The stadium heads a list of achievements under Villarreal.
Among the others are the construction of the Ernie Kuehne Basketball Practice Facility and improvements to the interior of the basketball arena, made possible primarily through the generous giving by Kuehne.
Under Villarreal, North Texas also gained entrance into Conference USA during a volatile period of reorganization of the NCAA’s Division I programs. The athletic department’s graduation rate is good.
“We have an athletics program that has come a long way in a fairly short period of time in terms of facilities, in terms of donors, in terms of entrance into Conference USA,” Smatresk said. “Those are all pluses.
“Of course, as president I have concerns that the program perform at a high level.”
The night he fired McCarney following an embarrassing loss to FCS Portland State on Oct. 10, Villarreal bristled at being asked about his history of hires, saying Dodge probably would have been successful if he had brought in coordinators with college experience.
The new coach will likely be Texas-centric, one who knows the fabric of Texas high school football and all its principles.
“I’m not going to spend a lot of time worrying about people who want to blame everything in the world on me or what we’ve done,” Villarreal said. “I look past that. I don’t take too much credit for the things we do that are great. I don’t take too much blame for the things that don’t go great.
“One-and-a-half years ago, when we were playing in a New Year’s bowl game no one was calling the athletic director saying ‘great job.’ You understand for most of the time what you’re going to get is the downside. That’s just part of the business.”
UTSA at North Texas
6 p.m. Saturday