Goodbye Rick Villarreal

As a joke in the MGN Slack, I have slackbot responding to RV’s name with one liners like “at least the soccer team is good!”. It made everyone chuckle the first couple of times, but as this news broke in the last few days, I had to remove it as it became tedious. That whole episode felt markedly similar to my feelings on the guy during his tenure — especially after the debacle that was the Dodge era.

Your feelings on him are a function of what you think the half-life of success is. He will rattle off his accomplishments for you if you just ask him to do so. Five bowl games including four straight in the early 2000s, the Johnny Jones years, John Hedlund’s soccer dominance, the improved tailgating atmosphere, the Mean Green Village, and Apogee Stadium. Oh, and millions of dollars in donations and a shiny new CUSA membership. Just ask him.

The above is quite a legacy but one that excludes the worst football and basketball coaches in history, the worst loss in FBS history, a dearth of winning football in between bowls 4 and 5, and very little since 5, the squandering of the most talented basketball roster in school history, the dwindling of attendance in both premier sports, and the relative anonymity of the athletics department compared to regional competitors.

Every excuse he made weakened every argument that defended him. And he often made these excuses. Villarreal was always a vigorous self-defender on the popular message board, through emails, and in interviews with the beat writer. His personal public relations campaign to put all culpability for the worst loss in FBS history on Dan McCarney and simultaneously take all credit was on full display last October. After a cadre of fans flew a ‘Fire RV’ banner . He called them a ‘vocal minority’ in his discussion with Denton RC writer Brett Vito.

He sat down with NT Daily editor Scott Sidway to discuss his accomplishments. He defended his time at North Texas with Brett Vito. He podcasted with GMG and defended his tenure.

I am writing this while re-reading an email he sent to an alumnus that is one-thousand hastily written words that go coach-by-coach in defense of his hires in basketball and football. The problem with his self defense is that it is really the same arguments that a random message boarder would make. I prefer a smarter argument that uses the inside knowledge of an Athletic Director, not a “look at the stadium, bro” defense. Instead he is spouting “Bill Parcells liked Dodge”. It makes the successes on his resume seem more like luck than the result of any underlying process. All that defense seems a trifle bit unnecessary for the average successful Athletic Director. Maybe the AD did protest too much.

He was a man who liked the spotlight and hated criticism. He spoke for something like 15 minutes in his introductory press conference for new coach Seth Littrell, touching on the search, the process, and meandering here and there with thank yous and half-anecdotes. It was down-homey and charming if this were 1937, and UNT were a D-II school someplace. It went on for about 13 minutes too long. In some ways this 15 minutes is a good representation of his time here. He really wanted this moment to be touching and impactful but didn’t quite have what it takes to pull it off.

Whatever the legacy, he is gone despite telling Vito in October that he felt he wanted to see out the big plans he had for the athletic department. He announced his resignation a couple of days ago. It sure seems like President Neal Smatresk wanted a change but thought it prudent to allow long-tenured Rick Villarreal to see out the year. Anecdotal evidence from fans in the stands suggested that Smatresk was just as frustrated with the awful attendance as well. He was more diplomatic in the media while still being straightforward, telling Sidway

“I don’t blame people for leaving after that kind of performance,” Smatresk said. “Would I like to see better and more? Yes. Do I hope good fans will find reason to be hopeful now? Yes I do. But those things will come in time, and there’s a timing for all the things that are happening here.”

I may be reading too much here, but in the announcement RV called it a ‘mutual agreement’. He mentioned something similar in his exclusive conversation with the Daily,

From your point of view, what played into the decision to step down?

RV: I think a lot of things. The time I’ve been here and the amount of things we’ve done, all those were great. But at the end of the day, you have to do everything, and we struggled in football, we struggled in basketball, and those are the sports we have to win. Somebody’s held accountable for that, and I think that along with the fact I had been contemplating how much longer I was going to do this. With conversations between the president and myself, we came to this decision and felt like it was best.

Mutual. Okay.

Rick Villarreal did do a lot for the University of North Texas. He was good for what the position required at the time. I am not sure anyone else could have done a better job that would have taken the job. Once North Texas reached a status to which RV helped bring them, the requirements of the Athletic Director changed. I am not sure the next hire would be able to accomplish what RV did from where he did it, but I am sure that RV is not the person that should take this department where it could go. And for that, I am glad for the new era.

Goodbye and thank you RV. You sure made it interesting.