Coach's Corner

Let's have a little historical perspective here. Rick Barnes is doing a fine job as the UT basketball coach, but he didn't single-handedly create the UT basketball program. That was Abe Lemmons, in 1976.

The Boar War, by Thomas Pakenham, and The History of the Irish Potato Famine, by Don Nardo, are both exceptionally bloodless, turgid affairs, even, I'd imagine, by the standards of the committees who must read essays of this type in musty offices on the forgotten fourth floors of ancient university history departments. I can't conceive of anyone -- except for myself and an entry level editor at some obscure university publishing house -- who has ever read either of these two deadly tomes from start to finish. Nardo's book had no redeeming qualities whatsoever: a sad, sad story, astoundingly dull prose, and no pictures. Mr. Pakenham (unintentionally, I'm certain) at least caused me to snicker when he referenced dead, long forgotten generals, adjutants, and ministers of Parliament as "outstanding chaps" and often referred to Boar guerilla tactics as "cheeky." His book had pictures, too.

This is what happens when history's a minor hobby and your wife spends too much time in secondhand bookstores. I did, I'll concede, express some interest in these subjects, and the books weren't exactly collector's items, costing $3 and $7 respectively. I suppose, in retrospect, the bleak, depressing, single-minded subject matter of the Potato Famine (the potatoes stopped growing, lots of people died, etc.) and the obscurity of the Boar War (a war about pigs?) caused our great historical writers to give these events (forgive me, Mr. Pakenham) a jolly wide berth.

In the week preceding UT's Sweet 16 game against Oregon's "quack attack" (I wish I'd thought that one up!), I heard on nationally syndicated radio programs and read in the local paper a good deal of what can only be labeled badly revised history dealing with Rick Barnes and what too many apparently view as the sudden rise from obscurity of the Texas basketball program. I like Barnes and what he's done here, but it's grossly inaccurate to give him credit for resurrecting a lost program. That's just not the way it is.

The historian in me must set the record straight -- for local writers who know better but perpetrate this myth anyway, and for Jim Rome, who doesn't. In fact, with no question whatsoever the father of modern UT basketball is Abe Lemmons. You talk about a dead program -- before the colorful Lemmons was hired to sell tickets for the new Erwin Center in '77, UT played before a few hundred kids in Gregory Gymnasium. In his second season, Lemmons had filled the Erwin Center, featuring an eclectic, entertaining team that went 26-5 and won the NIT when the NIT was still worth winning. He immediately disproved the nevertheless oft-repeated mantra, carried on today by Barnes and our local media, that Austin fans will only support college basketball if there's no spring football practice scrimmage to watch. It would be a fine gesture for the UT Athletic Dept. (i.e., DeLoss Dodds) to officially bury the hatchet with the very sick Lemmons and give him a special night and a nice banner or something, but I won't hold my breath.

After Lemmons was fired, UT plummeted into the darkest of dark basketball ages, heralded by the coming of Bob Weltlich. Gone were the 20-win seasons. Gone was the fun. Gone were the fans. Dodds seemed determined to find the polar opposite of the iconoclastic Lemmons, and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Attendance declined to artmovie house levels on a Tuesday night.

When Dodds finally realized he was killing any hope of a major basketball program and had created a horrible internal and external embarrassment, he canned the Kaiser and hired Tom Penders, as opposite from Weltlich as Weltlich was from Lemmons. Penders picked up, straight away, where Abe left off 10 years before. UT won 25 games, went to the NCAAs for the first time in 12 years, and began an almost uninterrupted string of tournament appearances for Texas. Old season-ticket holders returned. UT basketball became respectable again. Austin, contrary to persistent media reporting, supported the team.

So Rick Barnes, while doing a fine job, did not -- in any way, shape, or form -- resurrect a moribund or chronically languishing program. A decent fan and talent base was firmly in place, along with a budding tradition and rising fan expectations. All of these things were nonexistent in 1976.

Notes on the tournament: It was gratifying to see Texas perform up to their potential instead of the other way around. Oregon was an excellent team. The better team did win. T.J. Ford's (5'9") matchup with Oregon's own McDonald's All-America guard, Luke Ridnour (6'5"), vividly displayed the results of the classic sports argument of a good-quick-small-man vs. a good-quick-big-man. I'll take Jordan over Iverson everyday. I appreciated the maturity of UT's sophomore guard, Royal Ivey. While the Austin media was drooling over next year like this was Duke or something, Ivey placed UT's run in a realistic perspective many pro athletes never really appreciate. They better enjoy it while they can. Make the most of every moment. Assume nothing. There are no guarantees.

They may never pass this way again.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle