Former Longhorn assistant finds success as head coach of Austin Spurs

Steve Helwick

Austin Spurs coach Ken McDonald called a timeout late one Saturday night at the Cedar Park Center, as his team trailed by three. He rapidly moved his hand, addressing figures drawn up on his whiteboard as his entire team gathered around.

When the timeout concluded and the players were ready to execute his strategy, he continued to call out to his players until the ball was inbounded. Even after the play commenced, he commanded orders and motioned at his players.

At any given moment on the hardwood, he is focused on one thing only — winning. 

McDonald fostered that focus on winning under former Texas head coach Rick Barnes. After achieving All-American honors in junior college, McDonald was given the opportunity to play for Barnes at Providence. 

When his playing days finished, he immediately entered the coaching business. In 1994, Barnes offered McDonald a coaching position at Clemson. Ten years later, he reunited with his longtime mentor as an assistant coach for the Texas Longhorns.

“Coach [Barnes] is like a dad to me. From recruiting, to offering me a scholarship, to giving me an opportunity in the coaching business, I’m forever in his debt,” McDonald said. “It was a special time to be a part of the Longhorn team during that stretch.”

McDonald was a part of four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and 106 wins while coaching under Barnes, the most in a four-year period in Texas program history. 

The Longhorns won two Big 12 titles and earned two Elite Eight appearances with McDonald as an assistant coach — honors Texas has not achieved since his departure in 2008. McDonald also helped develop some of the Longhorn’s best players in LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant.

McDonald left in 2008 to take over the head coaching position at Western Kentucky, but returned to the Austin area in 2012 as an assistant for the then-Austin Toros. He took over the head coaching duties in 2013.

Now 20 miles from UT, McDonald remains successful. He led the Spurs to the second-best record in the NBA D-League last season and received the honor of coaching in the league’s All-Star Game on Feb. 14.

“What stands out about [McDonald] is that he’s an aggressive guy. He’s a guy that wants to win, and that’s something that’s special about him,” Austin Spurs small forward Deshaun Thomas said. “When he played, he never took plays off. He always executed, and that’s one thing he preaches.”

Described as “hungry” by Thomas, McDonald is constantly setting goals for himself and his team. As the Austin Spurs lead the Southwest Division for a second-straight year, he proves he is a proficient leader.

Not unlike the players he coaches, McDonald hopes the focus he developed under Barnes pays off with an NBA job. 

“[NBA] opportunities are hard to come by. I’m taking care of what’s in front of me and trying to help my players get better. Everyone’s trying to better their situation here,” said McDonald. “The goal would probably be to be in an NBA environment with a team.”