V’s Up: Mission native Villarreal in the middle of UTRGV renaissance

UTRGV assistant to the head coach Caleb Villarreal sits at the scores' table during a practice at the UTRGV Fieldhouse Tuesday in Edinburg. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor dlopez@themonitor.com

EDINBURG — All UTRGV special assistant Caleb Villarreal wanted after high school was to go to a big university with big-time college athletics.

After graduating from Mission Veterans in 2010, Villarreal did just that, attending Texas Tech.

“I chose Texas Tech because it was a big school, it was far enough away from home and my mom has family in Lubbock,” Villarreal said. “I was far, but it still felt like home with her brothers and sister out in West Texas. It was good for me to go out there.”

Villarreal got a job with the Red Raider Club, Texas Tech’s principal fundraising arm for the athletic department. Villarreal’s job was to drive university donors and dignitaries to a stadium or arena on game days.

Romeo De La Garza, Caleb’s high school coach at Mission Veterans, called Villarreal to let him know that he’d be in the Lubbock area for a coaching clinic.

“I was going to fly out there for the clinic that took place before our season started,” De La Garza said. “Caleb wanted me to come stay with his family. On the day of the clinic, Caleb wanted to go with me and check it out.”

At the clinic, Villarreal noticed Texas Tech’s then-new basketball coach Billy Gillispie.

“I saw coach (Billy) Gillispie walking, so I wanted to go say hello and I did,” Villarreal said. “I turned around and he asked me, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Wherever you need me to go, coach.’ We talked while I drove him around for about 30 minutes. He seemed to enjoy the conversation and he ended up asking me if I wanted to come to one of his practices and help him out as a team manager. I had no idea what a manager was. I was just excited that he invited me to a Div. I practice.”

Villarreal became a manager during the 2011-12 season, his sophomore year in Lubbock, and worked in that capacity through his time as an undergraduate. Gillispie resigned before his second season with the Red Raiders after he was reprimanded for holding practices longer than the NCAA allowed and worsening health issues.

One of Gillispie’s assistants, Chris Walker, stepped in Gillispie’s place in 2012-13 before another former Kentucky coach took over the program in 2013-14: Tubby Smith.

“I learned a lot from all three of those coaches,” Villarreal said. “Coach Gillispie was very respectful and treated me well. I love seeing him whenever I’m out on the road. Chris Walker did a tremendous job of keeping that team together. He worked for Jay Wright at Villanova, so I learned a little bit more about recruiting during my second year. And when we all found out Tubby Smith was coming, the city of Lubbock went crazy at that time.”

Villarreal was a three-time varsity captain for De La Garza, who is now an assistant at PSJA North.

“I still talk to coach De La Garza all the time. One time he asked me, ‘What do y’all do with coach (Tubby) Smith?’” Villarreal said. “I told him we did the same stuff I did with him at Mission Vets: shot fake, jump stop, layups, follow through. We did some different things on defense, but coach Smith focused on the basics. He was professional and had a great relationship with his players.”

Villarreal graduated from Texas Tech and became a graduate assistant for two seasons at Southern Miss under coach Doc Sadler. When UTRGV hired Lew Hill in 2016, Villarreal caught wind that Hill was looking for a special assistant to the head coach with local ties.

“I thought I fit that criteria,” Villarreal laughed. “My good friend, Derrick Jasper, who was the video guy at Texas Tech when I was there, first played with coach Gillispie at Kentucky. When DJ (Jasper) transferred, he was recruited by coach Hill to finish his college career with coach Lon Kruger at UNLV. I asked if he could call coach Hill and throw my name out there if I had a chance. He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll give him a call.’ When I got on the phone with coach Hill, it all had happened so fast.”

As a special assistant to coach Hill, Villarreal handles the travel, housing and nonconference scheduling among other duties for the men’s basketball program.

“I know that when I talked to him prior to going to Texas Tech, college coaching was not the first thing on his mind,” De La Garza said. “But he took advantage of an opportunity and ran with it. I know he’s loved by coach Hill because he’s a hard worker and a loyal man. It’s no surprise he got this far.”

“I didn’t think about coming back down to the Valley, but when the opportunity presented itself, I was excited,” Villarreal said. “I was going to be with a first-time head coach and have a chance to build something special down here.”

UTRGV (18-14) is having its best season in 11 years. Seven of its 18 wins have come after facing a double-digit deficit. UTRGV’s nine wins in the WAC are the most conference wins since 1994-95.

The Vaqueros will wrap up its regular season at 7 tonight when they host California Baptist at the UTRGV Fieldhouse, but the season won’t end there. They’ll travel to Las Vegas as either the No. 4 or No. 5 seed in next week’s WAC tournament.

Regardless, their first-round opponent will be CSU Bakersfield, a team they split wins with this season.

“Our focus is on Cal Baptist, but I also think this is the first year where no one knows what could happen in Vegas,” Villarreal said. “Coach Hill had said in one of his postgame press conferences this season that we expect to win whenever we go out there. If we do what he expects from us, we expect to win. We’re still working on putting UTRGV on the map.”