AUSTIN – The University of Texas parted ways with Rick Barnes the week following the NCAA tournament. It didn’t come as a shock to anyone who paid attention to the program over the past several years.
Barnes, the head coach for men’s basketball at Texas for 17 seasons, wasn’t getting the job done. Always able to recruit talented and well behaved individuals to an under-the-radar basketball program, he was never able to take the next-level step into consistent competition for NCAA titles.
That is, after all, what a school of Texas’ size and wealth wants from its athletics program, let alone from a coach it’s paying $2.6 million a year. For that we expect an occasional national championship and more than occasional trip to the Final Four.
Barnes had only one Final Four appearance, with T.J. Ford in 2003. Ford is now running an AAU organization in Austin called T.J. Ford Basketball, and Barnes is the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers.
Enter Shaka Smart. Texas was swift and decisive in hiring Smart — not unlike the coach’s playing philosophy. Smart, who is named after African warrior-king Shaka Zulu, is known for his full-court press defense and transitional offense.
In six seasons at Virginia Commonwealth University, Smart posted a record of 163-56, going 7-5 in NCAA Tournament games with one Final Four appearance as a No. 11 seed.
Now he will take the reins at Texas, where his potential for success would seem to be far greater. From the beginning, Smart was the choice of Steve Patterson, Texas’ athletics director. Texas did not waiver, and now it has an aggressive, driven coach who’s full of energy at 38.
The basketball problem here is not yet solved. It is simply the first step in a string of moves that will play out over the coming years with Patterson at the helm.
Patterson is passionate about two things, making money for the university and building a basketball tradition. He had a long history of managing pro basketball teams (good results in Houston, mixed in Portland), and he wants Texas to be more than the football school it has always been.
His experience at basketball’s highest level speaks volumes of his intent. He was president and general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers from 2003-2007, after being GM of the Houston Rockets from 1989-1993. Patterson was one of the architects behind Houston’s ’94 and ’95 championship teams.
His new project is making Texas a top-tier destination for basketball talent. The first step: acquiring a head coach who can win, and win often.
Next, his plan is to grow the Longhorn brand globally. He has proposed games to be played in China. Why is it important? More eyes on Texas.
Another key element of his plan is to move out of the Frank Erwin Center to make way for Dell Medical School. A new arena will symbolize a fresh start for the program and will give Smart a recruiting edge against most of the competition.
Every year Texas fans watch the Longhorns play in Allen Fieldhouse, home of the Kansas Jayhawks. It’s always a sold-out crowd, and the atmosphere is unmatched among Kansas’ Big 12 opponents. Even without holding up their end, the Longhorns have formed an intense basketball rivalry with Kansas.
Once the half-empty, fair-weather crowds of the Erwin Center have dissipated, Texas will finally have the basketball presence it is finally seeking.
It is a long road. Hiring Smart was merely a first step, but in the right direction.
Click here for Steve Patterson’s Letter on Firing Barnes