College Confidential

North Texas AD Rick Villarreal steps down after nearly 16-year run

Rick Villareal’s tenure included the opening of Apogee Stadium in 2011.
Rick Villareal’s tenure included the opening of Apogee Stadium in 2011. Special to the Star-Telegram

After a 1-11 football season that included a group of North Texas fans paying to fly a “Fire Rick Villarreal” banner over Apogee Stadium, the school’s longtime athletic director resigned Monday.

After nearly 16 years in charge, Villarreal’s record is mixed with moderate success on the field, including five bowl games under his tenure, and significant growth off it, including the opening of the Mean Green’s $78 million football stadium, plus many other facility improvements, and the visibility-enhancing move from the Sun Belt Conference to Conference USA.

“UNT President Neal Smatresk and I recently have been in discussions about the future of the university’s athletic program and a transition of athletic leadership, and we have come to this mutual agreement,” Villarreal said in a statement released by the school. “With the support of dedicated staff members, I have accomplished almost everything that I imagined possible here. I am satisfied that the work we have undertaken together has placed our coaches and student-athletes in a better position to succeed, both on and off the field.”

Villarreal fired coach Dan McCarney five games into the 2015 season. McCarney had just one winning season in the previous four seasons. While five of North Texas’ eight bowl appearances have come under Villarreal, the Mean Green have played in only one bowl, winning the 2013 Heart of Dallas Bowl, since 2004.

Things got so bad this season that North Texas fans tore a page out of the playbook of die-hard fans of major college football programs, but with a twist. Flying a banner over the stadium has become common practice, with the fans calling to fire the head coach. This group of Mean Green fans called instead for the ousting of the athletic director.

North Texas’ three major sports — football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball — have all slumped in recent years. Fooball has experienced one winning season in the last 11 years under three coaches. McCarney’s 2013 team went 9-4 and beat Nevada-Las Vegas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

However, that momentum didn’t carry over with UNT going 5-19 the last two seasons.

“Rick has taken pride in helping to put our coaches and teams in the position to succeed, and he is one of the most effective community advocates in the history of our university,” Smatresk said. “But his biggest contribution of all is to the bright futures of our student-athletes. And for that, especially, Rick will always have a place in the heart of this university. We all appreciate and respect what he has accomplished.”

Women’s basketball has endured 10 consecutive losing seasons. After Johnny Jones guided the men’s basketball team to two NCAA tournament appearances, which afforded him an opportunity to take over the program at LSU, current UNT coach Tony Benford is still seeking his first winning season heading into his fifth year.