UT Basketball Scores New Leadership
Rick Barnes exits, Shaka Smart takes the helm
If UT's long-tenured men's basketball coach Rick Barnes felt bamboozled by his March 28 firing, after Athletic Director Steve Patterson's verbal commitment to keep him, it was nothing to how his roster felt. They found out on Saturday, when the rest of the city did, and then watched as he took a job with the University of Tennessee the following Tuesday. On Sunday, Barnes, who could not be reached for comment before leaving for Tennessee, said at a press conference that he was initially told by Patterson that his job was safe. Then he was given a decision: Fire assistant coaches or be fired himself.
"I've been carried by a lot of great people here. Every one of them said, 'No, don't give this up,'" Barnes recounted. "I couldn't do that. If I'm hired to do the job, and if I don't do the job, then I can be fired. But while I'm doing the job, I have to be able to use my judgment about who will be around me."
The 60-year-old Barnes had coached at UT since 1998, with a steady hand and a few bright blips: consensus No. 2 player in the NBA Kevin Durant, 6-foot pickpocket T.J. Ford, plus solid rotation spark plugs D.J. Augustin and Cory Joseph. But after yet another early loss in the NCAAs, this time to Butler, rumors began to swirl about a possible shake-up – and for good reason this time.
"For me, it's a little different; I'm not going to be here next year anyway, but for [the rest of the team] they're going through a lot of emotions right now," graduating forward Jonathan Holmes told the Chronicle last week. "We lost, and then hearing that coach is going to be gone – I'm sure they're trying to figure out who's coming in and what the team's going to look like next year. I'm sure they're going through a lot of things in their heads, and just sitting back and trying to cope with everything.
"I saw a lot of the good that he did in this place," Holmes added. "It was hard to hear that he's going to leave this place."
Holmes spent four seasons with Barnes beginning in 2011, when UT was eliminated by Cincinnati in a first-round match-up. Last year, after falling to Baylor in the Big 12, Texas went into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid, and progressed to the third round before losing to the Michigan Wolverines. As head coach, Barnes took Texas to two Elite Eights, and the Final Four in 2003.
"He gave us everything he could. For me personally, he made me into the player I am today. Even having a chance at playing in the next level – I give him all the credit for that," Holmes said. "This season, we can't put it all on him. There was a stretch there where I was averaging three points – that has nothing to do with coaching. We lost a lot of games by two or three possessions. We weren't playing well. What the game plan is, going into the game – if you can't put the ball in the basket, like we weren't doing, you're not going to win. It doesn't have to do with coaching, it has to do with our jobs."
But by the end of the week, the coach that had been with the team since they'd joined the program wasn't even headline fodder anymore. That honor went to basketball firebrand Shaka Smart, who leaves Virginia Commonwealth University after five years and a Final Four appearance (the school's first), despite heavy lobbying by Richmond businesses, offering free brisket and lap dances. Patterson introduced Smart at his first press conference April 3, saying, "He's the only person I interviewed." At press time, Patterson had not returned the Chronicle's calls for comment.
"I feel like at Texas this is an unbelievable opportunity for me as a basketball coach to help a group of young men pursue excellence," Smart said, after introducing his family and thanking past mentors. "As I think about the University of Texas, that's what comes to mind: excellence."
"I've spent a lot of time with this program, and this is a great university – a great place to be," Holmes said, days before the announcement. "So, there are a lot of resources here that they'll have. I just hope the best for whoever comes in next. Hopefully, they can get over the hump of winning a national championship."
Smart had better. UT brass has proclaimed that while football trumps almost everything in Texas, winning is really king.