MORGANTOWN — Wren Baker was officially introduced as WVU’s next athletic director during a press conference inside the Milan Puskar Center Monday morning.
Baker, 44, will officially start his duties at WVU on Dec. 19 following a successful six-year stint at North Texas, but took the opportunity Monday to introduce himself to the university, fan base and state.
“Our student-athletes’ success and well-being will be at the center of everything that we do,” Baker said after being introduced by university president Gordon Gee. “They will be at the forefront of our decisions and we will do everything we can to give them the best experience possible, because that’s what they deserve.”
Baker covered a wide range of topics Monday, including why he decided to leave UNT for West Virginia, the decision to retain head football coach Neal Brown, the possibility of adding programs to WVU athletics and the ever-changing landscape of modern college athletics.
Baker admitted that he has been reached out to about other job openings in the past, but said the proximity to his native Oklahoma made it difficult to justify leaving North Texas.
“I’ve definitely have had a lot of (job) inquiries because we’ve had success at North Texas over the years,” he said. “(Family is) a pretty strong hurdle to overcome so the bar is high when you’re looking at opportunities. This was really the first one where there was a consensus amongst our family.”
Baker was joined Monday by his wife, Heather, and two daughters, Addisyn and Reagan.
Shortly after Baker’s hiring was announced by WVU last week, it was also made official that Brown would not be fired this offseason. While the decision on Brown’s future was originally presented as one for the new AD to make, it seems like the decision was ultimately made by Gee.
Gee said he talked to many people about the situation and the overwhelming consensus was that firing Brown would be the wrong move.
“Almost to a person, they said they believed our coach had great opportunities in front of him and we needed to try to provide the kind of support and structure that would allow him to be successful,” Gee said. “One of the things I want to say about Coach Brown is that few people have connected so clearly with West Virginia and with West Virginians than has Neal Brown. He came in and embraced us and this is a moment we want to embrace each other now.”
“I look forward to getting in and really working with Coach Brown and really learning everything I can about the football program,” Baker added. “I’m confident we’ll, together, figure out where we need to go.”
While at North Texas, Baker added to the university’s long-term master plan the construction of a baseball stadium, with the intention of adding a baseball program at UNT. When asked about the possibility of adding long-absent softball and men’s track programs at WVU, Baker said his first focus would be on solidifying the existing programs.
“My first priority will be to make sure that the programs that are here are resourced in a way they can compete for championships and be relevant nationally,” Baker said. “I love the addition of sports, I love college softball, but my obligation is to come here first and provide the kind of experience for these student-athletes (already here) that they deserve.”
Also at UNT, Baker was involved with conference realignment, setting up the Mean Green to move from Conference USA to the American Conference in the coming years.
“At UNT, it was really about the geography was better, the television contract was much better, the institutional alignment was much better for us,” he explained. “I think all of those factors go in; I think it’s important in conference realignment to keep your head on a swivel, you never know when things will change.”
Along with realignment, the transfer portal and Name Image and Likeness (NIL) have created a landscape in college athletics that has changed drastically even since Baker started in the field 20 years ago. Baker said he is fully supportive of NIL, adding that collectives like Country Roads Trust can be strong allies for the university.
“Name Image and Likeness is about opportunities and so I think it’s important that we embrace that, that we promote that,” Baker said. “I see (Country Roads Trust) as an asset and a tool and somebody we have to have a relationship with. Not one that violates the rules, but one that is healthy and does everything it can to provide those opportunities to student-athletes.”
As for the portal, Baker said his focus is on the retention of student-athletes already at WVU while also providing WVU’s coaches with all the resources they need to be able to monitor and attract potential transfers for Morgantown.
On the administrative side, Baker was a strong fundraiser at UNT and explained his perspective on attracting donors and soliciting donations.
“Typically, people don’t start with seven-figure gifts, they start with something much smaller and grow over time — although we definitely would let somebody’s first gift be a seven-figure gift,” he said with a laugh. “And then with your larger donors, it’s really about getting to know them. I see it more as matchmaking than fundraising, I want to know what they’re interested in, what they’re inclined to support and then let them know the opportunities to partner with us that fit their personality and their interest.”
Despite having no prior ties to WVU or West Virginia in general, Baker made sure to show that he understands the position the university has state-wide.
“I love the passion that this entire state has for the Mountaineers — it is special and unique and something I am excited to be a part of and will not take for granted,” he said. “During the process, President Gee told me ‘if you love West Virginians, they’ll love you back.’ The Baker family is here to love you, West Virginia.”