MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Wren Baker was officially introduced as West Virginia University’s 13th director of athletics Monday at the Milan Puskar Center.
WVU play-by-play announcer Tony Caridi introduced the new head of Mountaineer sports alongside university president E. Gordon Gee in a packed room of WVU coaches, donors, families, staff and reporters. In fact, this event was Baker’s first trip to Morgantown as he prepares to begin his tenure on Dec. 19.
Baker feels he fit right into the town due to his background. He grew up in a small town in Oklahoma of 800 people, and his wife grew up in a town of 500.
“We’ve been taking country roads all our lives,” Baker said. “Who knew some 40 years later that those country roads would take us to West Virginia, but we’re so glad they did. They brought us home.”
Here are some of the key points from Baker’s opening press conference:
Navigating Name, Image and Likeness
The new frontier of college athletics is entering its third year as name, image and likeness rights continue to dominate the national conversation. Even Baker, who was hired to help bring WVU into this new age, is still adjusting.
“You get clarifications on that, it seems like every three or four weeks at this point,” Baker said. “Certainly, we’re not able to determine who gets money or where it comes from, but we can promote it. I think that’s the right place to be.”
Baker signaled his support for NIL shortly after his hire by making an appearance on the social media channels of the Country Roads Trust, the NIL collective that supports WVU’s student-athletes. Organizations like that, he said, should be an asset to the athletic department, and he will be as supportive to it as he can be.
“Really, name, image, likeness is about opportunities for student-athletes, and that’s what we’re here for, is to provide them opportunities. Opportunities to get degrees, opportunities to excel and grow personally and professionally as well as athletically…so I think it’s important that we embrace that, that we promote that,” Baker added. “It doesn’t have to come at the expense of other things we’re trying to do, but in the environment we’re in today, I think that’s a very important component to a healthy athletic program.”
Engaging with Mountaineer Nation
Baker built a reputation for himself as a fundraiser and an engager. Year after year in his career, his athletic departments have set fundraising records and helped bring sports from relative obscurity to the forefront of campus life.
At WVU, sports will likely always be at the forefront, so his challenge is a little different as he attempts to grow the Mounatineer donor base. Baker’s plan is to get “as many people in the door” to help donate to the athletic programs.
“Typically, people don’t start with seven-figure gifts, they start with something much smaller and grow over time,” Baker said. “Although, we definitely would let somebody’s first gift be a seven-figure gift if they want to do that.”
Of course, he hopes to continue this trend in Morgantown, and he feels his process for doing so will translate. The most important part, he says, is to get to know each donor, especially the ones who make the larger gifts.
“I see it more as matchmaking, if it makes sense, than fundraising,” Baker said. “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 interests.”
He has seen the same success at the grassroots level, as well, sometimes utilizing some creative channels to do so. At North Texas, for example, he took advantage of the university’s strong alumni tradition in pro wrestling and held a wrestling show ahead of a football game. Attendance at football games spiked 71 percent during his time at UNT, while the Mean Green saw a 125 percent rise in ticket revenues.
“You have to learn the place and learn the niches that you can use to turn around and engage people, and get that broad engagement with constituents,” Baker said.
Focusing on the teams on campus
Baker’s ambitious vision for athletic departments has gone hand-in-hand with his aggressive fundraising (or “matchmaking”) skills. A self-described college baseball fan, Baker laid the groundwork for a new baseball program on campus, including a brand-new stadium.
He won’t see the fruits of that labor as part of the Mean Green, but it is still part of the master plan.
Baker is tempering that ambition to start his WVU career, however. To start, his focus is squarely on the programs currently at West Virginia. Part of that, of course, is because he simply needs to get his bearings on campus.
“I’ve got a lot to learn, a lot of listening to do, but my first priority will be to make sure that our programs who are here are resourced in a way that they can compete for championships and be relevant nationally,” Baker said.
Some fans have expressed interest in sports not offered at WVU, namely women’s softball. Baker was “in the mix” with the UNT softball team, supporting the team right next to the dugout every game.
His commitment right now, though, is to the student-athletes currently competing for the Old Gold and Blue.
“My obligation is to come here first and provide the kind of experience for these student-athletes that they deserve,” Baker said.