Faith, father’s memory and keeping it light: How Rodney Terry’s calm demeanor powered Texas to the Sweet Sixteen


Alex Luevano

Interim head coach Rodney Terry yells at his basketball players on Jan. 11, 2023 at the Moody Center.

Mantra Dave, Managing Editor

Rodney Terry didn’t worry about Penn State. 

But don’t confuse a lack of worry for a lack of respect: Terry starts every press conference, win or lose, by stressing his respect and admiration for the opposing coach. He and his staff are diligent with their scouting, film review and game planning for each opponent on the schedule.

He just doesn’t really worry about things. 

“If you stay prayed up and have faith, you don’t need to worry,” interim head coach Terry said before Texas’ NCAA Tournament game against Penn State. “Nothing positive comes from worrying, so just try to … be positive and you will have positive results.”

There are a few themes that come up often with Terry — drilling down the details in practice, shifting credit to his players and corny aphorisms — but prayer is perhaps the most prominent of those. 

Rodney Terry is a man of serious faith. Though he’s the first to take the blame in games that Texas loses, he’ll almost always credit God after a victory.

“God is great,” Terry said after beating Penn State. “He’s great, you know? And I’m so blessed to work with this group of guys every day.”

Belief in a higher power is a big reason Terry stays calm. He’s focused on controlling what he can — one of Terry’s common refrains — and not stressed about things that are out of his hands. 

“God is going to put you right where you’re supposed to be,” Terry said. “He has the master plan. We’re just living the everyday plan.” 

Make no mistake, Terry works the plan every day. He breaks down film, scouts opponents and creates detailed practice plans with the best of them. His meticulous preparation has the Horns prepared for everything that comes in front of them: practices, games, press conferences and community engagement. 

“His organization keeps everybody on the same page,” East Carolina head coach Michael Schwartz, who worked with Terry at Texas, said to The Athletic in January.

But when it comes to taking credit for the fruits of his labor, he calmly thanks those around him and the man above. And then he gets back to work.

Two minutes left, down by one, calm under the lights

Some coaches try to light a fire under their team by being loud and in your face. That’s not Terry. Even in tense late-game situations, his demeanor is virtually unchanged. 

A typical Texas timeout this season has the guards on one side, bigs on the other, with those on the floor in the center and substitutes standing behind them. As Terry and his staff — assistant coaches Bob Donewald Jr., Chris Ogden, Brandon Chappell and special assistant to the head coach Steve McClain — share the whiteboard and draw up plays, the huddle looks as calm as any in the country. 

“We’ve said to our guys, ‘Everybody, just take a deep breath,’” Terry said. “ Let’s stay calm right now. Let’s regroup and talk about what we really have to do.” 

Graduate guard Marcus Carr notes that a calm voice leading the team has taught him and his teammates to stay similarly focused during tense games.

“In the huddles there is a sense of calmness from RT,” senior forward Timmy Allen said. “He doesn’t want a lot going on.”

That’s by design — Terry doesn’t want his players running too hot or too cold. Over the course of a long season, he thinks staying level is the best way to set up for sustained success.

“There is a lot of player dialogue, but we always circle back to what he and our staff is saying,” Allen said. “ His level of calmness … lets us go out and play free.”

Drawing from his past

Like the everpresent insurance ad, Terry knows a thing or two because he’s seen a thing or two. A born-and-raised Texan, Terry’s played at St. Edward’s University, a Division II school in Austin. He’s got 28 years of coaching experience at the Division I level and draws on lessons from the staffs he’s been on. 

After starting out as an assistant coach at Baylor, Terry followed Jerry Wainwright to UNC Wilmington, where the Seahawks made the NCAA Tournament twice during his tenure. Terry said that experience of working for Wainwright taught him that worrying doesn’t get anyone closer to their goals — a message he repeats often.

Rick Barnes then hired Terry to be his assistant at Texas, where he served on the bench for nine years. In addition to recruiting top prospects like Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge, Terry picked up on Barnes’ style of leadership.

“I’ve worked with Rick Barnes for nine years, and we were in postseason play every year,” Terry said. “He’s really loose. He is one of the wittiest guys that you know in terms of always joking.”

Terry keeps it similarly light with his players, even during the business end of the season. 

“The hay is in the barn,” said graduate forward Brock Cunningham when asked which of Terry’s sayings is his favorite. “That’s the one he likes the most. The preparation is done. Now you just gotta go take care of business.”

“Combo plate is the meat and potatoes and the laser focus, putting it (all together),” added graduate guard Marcus Carr. “That’s one of my favorites for sure.”

The interim head coach has a laundry list of phrases for every possible situation, and while his players may laugh at sayings from another generation, they clearly understand the messages Terry is trying to get across.

Fulfilling a father’s dreams

After more than 30 years in college basketball, it would be reasonable for Terry to wonder if his chance to be a Power Five head coach had come and gone. Terry’s head coaching resume, while impressive, didn’t jump off the page as a can’t miss candidate for major openings. 

In seven seasons at Fresno State from 2011-2018, Terry guided the Bulldogs to their first NCAA Tournament in 15 years by winning the Mountain West Conference Tournament in 2016. Posting a 126–108 record, Terry took over a program that was well below .500 before he got there and guided them to four 20-win seasons.

Terry returned to Texas with UTEP in C-USA, one of the nation’s most isolated mid-major programs. Through three seasons before he left for Austin, Terry’s winning percentage of .435 was underwhelming, especially given the talent on his rosters, which included current Xavier graduate guard Souley Boum, who Texas will face in the Sweet Sixteen. 

Dating back to his time at the midmajor level, Terry will tell you that he’s always been content with whichever role he holds at a given time — looking too far ahead isn’t really his style.

“You’ve got to treat every job like it’s your last job,” Terry said. “You can’t be looking at this job or that job. You have to do your job to the fullest.”

But when pressed, Terry isn’t shy in admitting that he has long dreamt of being a high-major head coach. The catalyst behind that dream? Terry’s father, Calvin, a longtime Texas high school basketball and football coach.

“I thought … (I) would probably have an opportunity at some point to be a Power Five coach,” Terry said. “(My dad) always dreamed bigger than I did in terms of seeing myself on that stage. 

Calvin passed away last August, and Terry has dedicated this season to his father, who instilled a love for hoops in a young Terry.

“(My dad) would be super excited about what’s going on right now,” an emotional Terry told March Madness MBB in a recent video.

After assuming a Power Five head coaching role in incredibly difficult circumstances, Terry is, calmly, one step at a time, living out the dream his father so believed in.

“My dad, all the time, instilled in me to dream big,” Terry said. 

As Texas has moved from strength to strength under Terry, the conversation about removing the interim tag in front of his name has intensified. His players are pretty clear where they stand.

“He’s like the definition of a leader,” graduate guard Sir’Jabari Rice said. “I love RT. I wouldn’t want to play for anybody else right now. … Why not RT?”

Terry refuses to bite when asked at practically every press conference about the full time role. He’s predictably focused on the next 40 minutes.

But as his Horns reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 15 years, the last when he was an assistant at Texas, Terry’s steadfast leadership has Texas living where its feet are.

If you ask Terry though, he’ll reroute the plaudits.

“It’s not about me, not about me at all,” Terry said on Saturday.

You wouldn’t expect him to say anything else.