UNT Athletic Director Rick Villarreal Ends Troubled Reign

University of North Texas' athletic director, Rick Villarreal, will leave the school June 20, ending 16 years on the job. Villarreal's time in Denton, which is coming to a mutually agreed end, according to the director and the school, was marked by improved facilities, poor hiring, hemorrhaging cash and disastrous performances on the field. 

"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. "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."

If Villarreal accomplished everything he'd imagined at UNT, his imagination needs work.

Before getting to the bad, here's the good stuff Villarreal accomplished on campus. He oversaw the building of UNT's $78 million Apogee Stadium, which opened in 2011. Other athletic facilities around UNT were built or improved, too, including the women's soccer complex, the softball stadium and the school's basketball training facility. Under Villarreal, the UNT football team won in bowl games in 2002 and 2013 and the UNT men's basketball team made the NCAA Tournament twice, in 2007 and 2010.

That's pretty much it. Despite a swelling budget that raked in $10.7 million in student fees and $9.3 million from the school alone in 2015, UNT's athletic department racked up huge losses yearly, including a $20 million shortfall in 2015, according to numbers compiled by the <i>Texas Tribune</i>. Todd Dodge, the first football coach hired by Villarreal, was one of the worst hires in the history of Division 1 college sports. Dodge, who had never coached college football before, never won more than two games in a season. Dan McCarney, Villarreal's next hire, did marginally better, leading UNT to a 10-win season in 2013, but installed an ugly brand of football that did nothing to attract attention or fans to the program. McCarney was fired midway through UNT's 1-11 2015 season after losing 66-7 to Portland State, a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) school.

Villarreal's failure to build a successful football program despite the considerable resources of the fifth largest Texas university, coupled with the men's basketball team not winning an NCAA Tournament game during his tenure at the school, ensured his department's beleaguered financial status. Schools that make money from football and men's basketball — the traditional revenue sports — can pay at least most of their own way. Texas Tech, which has similar enrollment and funding profile to UNT, saw its athletic department lose less than $1 million in 2015, thanks in large part to the $20 million profit turned by the football program.

Smatresk said Monday that he will name an interim athletic director before conducting a nationwide search for Villarreal's replacement. He did not signal any intention to back off from UNT"s aggressive charge into expensive athletic mediocrity. 

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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young