Wren Baker is on the rise again, but not at Northwest Missouri State University.
After two years as Northwest's athletic director, Baker accepted a position as the deputy athletic director of external affairs at the University of Memphis — a Division I school in Tennessee that's getting ready to move to the Big East.
The deal was finalized Tuesday afternoon and announced Wednesday morning.
Baker will stay at Northwest until Feb. 22 and begins his duties at Memphis in early March. He will be replaced on an interim basis by compliance officer Lori Hopkins.
"I've always been open and honest in that I have some aspirations to advance in this profession," Baker said. "I always thought we'd have at least four or five years here if not a little longer. I wasn't actively looking for anything different.
"I got a call two, two-and-a-half weeks ago from the AD at Memphis. We had met a few times, and he just said he had an opportunity he wanted to talk to me about. We just continued to talk and visited more in depth. Ultimately, it was such a great opportunity that it was something I couldn't pass on."
As the director of external affairs, Baker will be second in command at Memphis behind Athletic Director Tom Bowen who's been on the job for six months.
The position, which was recently created, entails supervision over development, marketing, ticketing and Tiger Sports Properties.
Baker will also work closely the men's basketball program — the school's most prominent sport.
"One of my strengths is building relationships and getting out and visiting with donors," Baker said. "I think it's important and something I enjoy. Given my background, I'm a big-time fan of college basketball. To go to a place that averages 16,000 fans a game, I think it will be fun."
Baker, 34, views his new job as a step toward his ultimate dream of being an athletic director at a Division I university. After starting out as an athletic director at NAIA Rogers State, he's now just one more upward move away from making that a reality.
"This opens up a lot of opportunities for me that may not have been there," Baker said. "I know some of the best coaches and administrators are in Division II, but for whatever reason a lot of presidents and regents at the Division I level take an assistant AD that's fifth or sixth in command, which is really unfortunate. Same way with coaches."
Baker added that Memphis is a good fit for him, given his family's Southern roots.
Baker and his wife, Heather, are native Oklahomans. They have a 19-month-old daughter Addisyn who has not yet started school.
"I was willing to stay here for a long period" Baker said. "I was only going to go somewhere where my family could be happy. Memphis is a little bit closer to home. It's got Blues and good food. We've always enjoyed that. It was a situation that kind of fit our personal lives pretty well.
"I hope that I have an opportunity to be a Division I athletic director, but at this point, my decisions are going to be guided based upon family, too."
Rumors of Baker's departure circulated Sunday on a D2Football.Com message board, but speculators had him headed for the athletic director position at the University of Tulsa. Baker says that was nothing more than newspaper fodder.
"I got a lot of calls when the Tulsa AD job came open," Baker said. "Tulsa is absolutely a wonderful institution. It's a really good job. I made a lot of friends there when I was in Claremore. When the job opened, I never had any conversations, formal or informal, with anyone from Tulsa about the job. Newspaper writers, you get paid to throw names out there and see what sticks. How it surfaced was conjecture by the beat writer that covers Tulsa from the Tulsa World."
After being contacted by Memphis, Baker kept Northwest Missouri State president John Jasinski apprised of the situation, but no one else. Once Baker's hiring became official, he informed all of the coaches and other Bearcat athletic department personnel.
Baker said his colleagues were disappointed but supportive.
"One of them said 'you have to do that,'" he said. "This is the third time I've transitioned, and the thing I've learned is that you leave a situation and you leave a community, but you keep the friends and keep the relationships. When you look at it that way, it's really a positive. We have great friends in Stillwater. We have great friends in Claremore. We have great friends in Maryville that I know we'll stay in contact with."
A former men's basketball assistant under Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State, Baker got his start as an athletic director at Rogers State in 2006.
After five years there, Baker was hired as Northwest Missouri State's athletic director in December of 2010.
Before his introductory news conference in January of 2011, Baker had already dealt with one of a number of difficult situations that arose during his two-year stint.
Long-time head football coach Mel Tjeerdsma announced his retirement in late December, forcing the transitioning Northwest athletic department to target a replacement. The Bearcats hired defensive coordinator Scott Bostwick less than a week after Tjeerdsma's retirement.
Just as Bostwick was settling into his new role, he died of a heart attack in June of 2011. This forced a grieving Baker to once again hire a new head football coach.
The Bearcats went with another internal hire, naming Adam Dorrel as Bostwick's successor in July.
Dorrel led Northwest to an 11-3 record during that emotionally-charged 2011 season and went 10-3 this past year.
"As a coach, as a player, as an AD, as a president, as an institution, there's not a guideline on how to deal with something like that," said Baker. "It was difficult. There were a lot of tears. Even now, just sitting here talking about it, I get emotional. I have to fight back a little bit.
"I think what you end up doing is falling back on relationships. That's what we did. We just leaned on each other. I don't know that we could've dealt with things any better than we did. Ultimately, I feel like we landed on the right coach. (Adam) is a perfect fit for us and that just worked out the way it was supposed to."
Baker led three more coaching searches during his time at Northwest, two of which were within the same month for the same job.
Northeastern State's Randy Gipson was Baker's initial choice to become the head women's basketball coach, but backed out on the job right after being hired.
Baker had to re-start the hiring process and landed Mark Kellogg from Fort Lewis (Colo.) where he had been the winningest Division II coach over the last seven years.
"When that first happened, that was an embarrassing situation," said Baker. "I was upset that it happened, but would I have changed anything? Not necessarily.
"I think this program has the potential to be a top 15, top 20 program every year and I wanted to get the very best coach we could get. I'm very well-connected in college basketball—more so than other sports—and wanted this program to have a chance to be successful. That was uncomfortable for a few days, but coach Kellogg is a better fit than who I tried to contact the first go-around. He's done some awesome things with that program. It worked out the way it was supposed to. That happens more than people realize. You have to roll with it. It was a great experience for me. It's something that's going to help me down the road."
Beyond the three coaching hires, Baker and his athletic department team were able to secure a donation from Nodaway Valley Bank for a new scoreboard that will be ready in time for the 2013 football season.
Baker also points to increased revenues, an updated compliance system and the creation of a facilities assessment package that will be adapted into a sharable plan as his proudest achievements.
"We got a lot of things done in a two-year period," said Baker. "When I say 'we,' I mean we. One person can not doing anything. Literally, in my 10 years of college athletics, I have never accomplished one thing. I've been surrounded by great people. And collectively, we accomplished a lot of good things."
Jasinski says Northwest will conduct a national search for Baker's replacement.
The new full-time AD will be Northwest's third of the current decade.
Current MIAA Commissioner Bob Boerigter served as Northwest's AD previous to Baker.
By Joey Falkoff firstname.lastname@example.org
The Maryville Daily Forum - Maryville, MO
By Joey Falkoff email@example.com
Updated Feb. 7, 2013 @ 12:03 am
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