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Texas Basketball Fans Are Over Rick Barnes

rick barnes

No, not all of them.

Just the ones that used to fill the empty seats at the Erwin Center. Or are no longer starting the conversations at the water cooler that we used to have. Or would type on the basketball threads that used to garner 78 replies that now get 19.

Whether its fans voting with their feet in the Erwin Center (6,349 attendees for a crucial conference game against Iowa St despite a 12-1 home record?), a general sense of disinterest conveyed by fan comments on the blogs, or the current feeling that hangs over our program that we're a productive NBA factory excelling at individual talent maximization more than a college basketball team, I haven't felt this much apathy towards our basketball program since Tom Penders stopped getting perms at Supercuts, leaving drunken rambles on Brandy Perryman's answering machine, and bragging about his fast-pitch softball achievements.

Much of that apathy is focused, as much as one can focus apathy - maybe I should call it defensive dispassion - on Rick Barnes.

Rick Barnes is unquestionably the greatest basketball coach in Texas history. 13 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, a Final Four, three Elite 8s, 12 20+ win seasons, 3 Big 12 titles, numerous monster wins over elite programs, and the cementing of Texas basketball as the 2nd best program since the Big 12's creation behind Kansas. We're even more respected nationally than we are in the state - which is an odd dynamic I've never quite been able to reconcile.

Barnes winning the league with 7 scholarship players in his first year after a 3-8 start is still the single best coaching job I've seen at Texas in any sport and his record of consistency has been remarkable when even legendary peers (and better coaches) like Knight, Coach K, Boeheim, and Calhoun have weathered rougher periods than we've ever seen. Or - like Ben Howland at UCLA - are on a fast track to nowhere.

So why are fans tuning out Texas basketball?

Fan disaffection generally happens in three ways: constant losing - which Barnes has never done; scandal - of which we've never had a whiff - our academic and off-court citizenship in the program is nothing short of incredible and our program is fairly low on the corruption scale; but last, and perhaps most dangerous, failing to deliver after the giddy ratcheting of expectation; the sense that something great is about to happen, where nothing is ultimately delivered.

This happens in winning programs all of the time, where repeated success in effect creates your own future torment. And no place does it better than Texas.

That Barnes has done.

Between 1999-2008, Barnes was as beloved a figure at Texas as you could find. His hardassedness was celebrated, his refusal to give an inch to player brats was lauded, his sense of humor was appreciated, his desire to upgrade to elite talent was heartily endorsed by all, and his down-to-earth work ethic was admired.

My how things have changed. And it only took two years. Years in which, bizarrely enough, Texas basketball went 52-18. Texas basketball didn't crater altogether. It cratered relatively. But that's more than enough to turn fans away from your product.

In 2009, Texas basketball started the season 17-0, found itself ranked #1 in the nation in mid-January, and just as fan expectations were rising to levels unprecedented in Texas basketball history, the Horns shat the bed. Spectacularly. A team that would see three players drafted by the NBA finished the season 24-10 playing sub .500 ball down the stretch and exited with a first round loss in the Big Dance. I

2010 was expected to be a rebuilding year, but Tristan Thompson's surprising early development, a reinvigorated offense with crazy concepts like screens and movement, and Jordan Hamilton's early season interest in something beyond himself propelled Texas high on the national stage. At one point, we were playing arguably the best basketball in America. Then we saw a late season recalibration of hardwood reality that cost Barnes his 4th Big 12 title (13-3 league record), forced an exit in the 2nd round of the NCAAs - cast as another late season swoon even if it is a bit of a crapshoot - and a fan base nursing wounds and grievances from an underachieving football program was happy to put some of that bitterness on basketball, too.

Expectations raised. Expectations dashed.

In two consecutive years, Barnes' teams created massive expectations and then failed to deliver. That's tough anywhere, but it's deadly at a place like Texas where we pair Top 10 basketball program expectations with Top 35 fan support. Unless you find elderly court side donors with their arms folded like the Old Men Balcony Muppets as intimidating as I don't.

2009 was a coaching failure. More forgiving Texas fans allowed the mulligan and moved on, but the popular narrative on Barnes shifted considerably. Hard-working became singularly obsessed, demanding became bullying, his sharp wit was cast as cruelty, and a desire to recruit elite talent morphed us into a NBA prep school. I'm not interested in whether that characterization is fair - I suspect it's not - but perception is reality. He has to change it. And that only happens Big 12 hardware and deep tourney runs.

In 2010, it looked like we might do just that. We exceeded modest expectations, but the expectational tide rose throughout the year to meet higher levels, and a horrible first half of basketball against Arizona in the NCAA tournament and bad late game refereeing turned a 28-8 team that might have otherwise been hailed as beloved overachievers that made a nice tourney run into another example of Rick's failure to raise the program another level.

Which brings us to present day...

A young Texas team flushed with 18 year old talent is struggling for its NCAA tournament life and what should be a fun process of watching a young team grow has been turned into an exercise in expectational management as fans gird and armor themselves from disappointment with disinterest, catch a half on television instead of trekking to the game, and evidence a Show Me mentality best suited to the SEC's new entrant.

No one ever pretended that Texas basketball interest was a mile deep, but to see it in drought this quickly is startling.

I'm not sure if I'm writing this as a lamentation, a general observation, or just a general "are we on the same page?" with the Texas fan base.

Is it that we're all convinced that Lucy is going to keep pulling away the football?