Texas Athletics is entering a new era. Last fall, the University replaced longtime athletic director DeLoss Dodds with Steve Patterson. Patterson’s hiring raised the already high expectations for the Longhorns athletics program. Since his introduction, Patterson made waves with the hiring of head football coach Charlie Strong.
Now that football season is over, many fans are turning their focus to the University’s other big breadwinner: men’s basketball. Rick Barnes is in his 16th season of coaching the men’s team, and after last year’s dismal 16-18 record, the floodgates of speculation have opened with many thinking that this might be Barnes’ final season guiding the Longhorns.
Changes at the head coaching position in NCAA Division I basketball have become extremely common. Over the last three years, 152 head coaching positions have changed hands. Barnes is well aware of the evolving culture of programs cycling through head coaches as soon as they step foot on their campuses.
“There’s no question that society today is, ‘What have you done lately?’” Barnes said. “But the fact is that you don’t worry about those things. You just do your job, and that’s what we’ll do here.”
Patterson is in the difficult position of having to choose between continuing to pay Barnes like a top-10 coach — Barnes is owed $2.4 million this year, and his contract runs through 2017 — or firing a man who has won 70.2 percent of his games at Texas. Because of this conundrum, Barnes’ performance this season will likely be under a microscope.
But there’s reason to believe that Patterson will not be as hasty to replace Barnes as he was with Brown. The crux of the argument lies in the team’s recent surge and two common misunderstandings fans have about NCAA basketball.
The basketball team has just knocked off three ranked teams in a row — No. 8 Iowa State, No. 22 Kansas State and No. 24 Baylor — for the first time in the program’s history. The Longhorns’ record sits at 16-4, and they are in an excellent position to make the NCAA tournament. This is a pretty big accomplishment for a team that was picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 preseason poll.
Despite lacking major NBA talent along the lines of a Kevin Durant or LaMarcus Aldridge, the Longhorns have shown resiliency in the clutch, as evidenced by Jonathan Holmes’ recent game-winning jumper against the Wildcats. Certainly, there will be variance in these types of close-game scenarios — the team has won seven games by three points or fewer — but the ability to pull out these nail-biters could suggest that Barnes’ program has turned a corner.
For many years, Texas has been snake-bitten in the NCAA tournament. Fans don’t need to be reminded of the epic 2011 loss against Arizona. Much of the blame for Texas’ poor season finishes has been rightly placed on Barnes’ shoulders.
But there are two assumptions that have incorrectly added to Barnes’ image as a late-game blunder manager. Firstly, the NCAA tournament is a series of one-game scenarios. Anything can happen under these circumstances, and year after year we see this come to fruition with a variety of comeback stories: underdog teams that make deep runs in the tournament. Over time, it becomes more and more likely that this variance will flatten out and Texas will make another deep run.
Secondly, there tends to be an assumption among fans that coaches can either be characterized as good or bad. This is faulty logic. Coaches have the ability both to make and learn from mistakes. Just like their athletes, coaches can take time to develop parts of their game. It could be that Barnes has learned from his past late-game gaffes.
Barnes said he hasn’t had a chance to spend a lot of time with Patterson, but based on his conversations with former head coach Mack Brown, he can trust Patterson to be forthcoming.
“Mack Brown told me through his conversations with [Patterson] that you can trust him,” Barnes said. “That he’s a man of his word.”
Barnes will have the opportunity to earn Patterson’s trust with a strong 2014 campaign. If the team can continue its winning ways, the narrative focus will shift to whether Barnes has put the past behind him and prepared his team for an NCAA tournament run.