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T.J. Ford: "The Straw That Stirs The Drink"

As the Texas basketball team continues its methodical push towards a Big 12 Title and the NCAA Tournament, it is also a good time to reflect on how far the program has come. Obviously Texas is a national contender this season, but more importantly, it is also a top-level program.

It is no longer a surprise to find Texas in the national rankings on a weekly basis.

It is no longer a surprise to find elite recruits listing Texas among their choices.

It is a surprise -- and a disappointment -- when the team finishes 24-10 and is a one-and-done in the NCAA tournament.

Building this kind of program takes time and it takes a solid foundation, and that begins with players. For Texas and coach Rick Barnes it specifically began with one player -- T.J. Ford

T.J. Ford made it cool for elite basketball players to come to a "football" school.

When Ford came out of Sugar Land Willowridge High School, he was a McDonald's All-American and a consensus Top 20 national recruit. He was a point guard with Pied Piper skills who naturally attracted other players. If you follow Texas basketball you know the stats: first freshman to lead the NCAA in assists (8 per game). As a sophomore he led Texas to the Final Four winning the John Wooden and Naismith awards as the National Player of the Year.

Ford's influence on the program far exceeds his on the court exploits. He helped make Texas a destination program for elite Texas HS players such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Daniel Gibson and Damion James. What T.J. Ford started led to Kevin Durant, which led to Tristin Thompson, Cory Joseph and Jordan Hamilton.

Ford's transcendent impact reached into all phases of the program. Rick Barnes, who has displayed the quality of self-examination for change, talks freely of how Ford altered his coaching philosophy during his two-year stay on the 40 Acres.

Last night on his statewide radio show, Barnes told a fascinating story about the 2003 Final Four team and Ford's leadership ability. The #4-ranked Horns final regular season contest was in Norman against #5 OU. It was the first time in school history that UT had been involved in a match-up of two AP Top Five teams. It was also senior night for a group led by Hollis Price. There were balloons stored under the ceiling ready to be released at the end of the game.

OU built up a 15-point lead with just over 12 minutes to go. Texas called a timeout. Forward Brian Boddicker had given up two straight offensive rebounds, and Barnes ignored the rest of the team to spend the entire timeout ripping Boddicker to shreds. Barnes told him, "You are done, sit down, you are not playing the rest of the game." Boddicker tried to say something and Barnes just cut him off at the knees, reiterating that his night was over.

As the team began to work their way back to the court, T.J. approached Barnes.

T.J.: "Coach do you want to win?"

Barnes: (sarcastically) : "Yeah, I want to win."

T.J.: "Then you need to put Brian back in."

Barnes: "Did you not hear me? He is not going to play."

T.J.: "I guess you really don't want to win."

Barnes said he looked at T.J. then went down to the bench and told Boddicker he was going to give him one more chance. Boddicker hit two straight 3-point shots in the next minute and soon Texas had cut the lead to 58-52. Ford, who only had 4 points in the game at that time, scored 14 points in the last 10 minutes, including a game-clinching jumper as Texas came back to win 76-71.

Barnes said as the team was walking off the court after the game, someone slapped him on the butt, hard. Barnes whirled around, and there stood T.J., smiling and saying:

"Hey, you are one helluva coach!"

And he was one helluva player