As you've no doubt heard by now, Rick Barnes has been fired from his position as the head coach of the Texas Longhorns. After 17 years, 402 wins, a Final Four, and 16 NCAA Tournament appearances, Steve Patterson has decided to make a change for the Texas basketball program. It's one I advocated for earlier this season, and a change that Peter Bean & Jeff Haley over at Burnt Orange Nation have acquiesced to as well. This seemed inevitable as soon as the final horn sounded in Pittsburgh, when a team that was ranked in the top 10 earlier in the season failed to live up to expectations. I understand why it needed to happen, and I agree with moving on. It still sucks.
I went school at Texas from 1996 to 1999; if you asked me to name the top 3 sports memories from my time at Texas, they'd go as follows:
- Steelers Roll Left
- Ricky's TD run to break Tony Dorsett's record
- Mack Brown being hired
There's not a single basketball-related memory in there; the closest I can get is being at the basketball game where Mack made his first appearance at halftime. (It was probably the loudest the crowd was the entire game, BTW.) Maybe I could include Tom Penders' fax machine downfall at #4, but that's about it. I love basketball, but Texas basketball wasn't a passion when I was in college. It was a fun diversion, an entertaining offensive display, but Tom Penders' ceiling was well-established and his teams weren't a legitimate threat to do anything significant in the NCAA Tournament most years(to me, at least). I say that as someone who was a fan of his; I lived & died by the BMW team, and made my dad take me to the Erwin Center when they came back from the Elite Eight to get a program signed by them. I still have that program to this day, and I'm pretty sure I'd be terrified of talking to Travis Mays if I met him now because I'm still not convinced he's human. But that's the height of my interest in the Tom Penders' era, over half a decade prior to when I taped my first Rage Against the Machine poster to a Jester dorm wall. Texas basketball mattered, but it didn't matter.
When Tom Penders decided to start faxing Luke Axtell's inseam measurements & Latin 301 scores to anybody with a full roll of paper and DeLoss had to can him, I didn't know much about Rick Barnes. I heard he had teams full of hard-nosed players who played defense, which sounded like the polar opposite of the Recently Departed Wonder Mullett. Dad heard he made players stop wearing headphones around campus, which made him happy because Walkmans meant rap music and rap music meant the downfall of society. I think somebody said players had to start wearing ties on game day, but I might've misheard that because I was probably 4 hours into a marathon Quake session at the time. (Related: my grades were not as impressive as my rocket jumping ability.) The point is that I didn't have much of an impression of Rick Barnes when he was hired, I was just hoping for improvement.
Boy, did he ever deliver.
Rick Barnes delivered Texas' only Big 12 (unshared) regular season title to date in his first season using a rotation of 8 scholarship players, a bag of fertilizer, and a Ukrainian woman named Helga. He followed it up with a string of 6 years where Texas averaged nearly 24 wins, including Texas' first Final Four appearance since Augie Garrido was in 2nd grade, and 3 straight appearances in the 2nd weekend of March Madness. Only once in those 6 seasons did Texas finish lower than 3rd in the Big 12, which was the 6th season('04-'05). How did Rick Barnes follow that disappointing season up? Only with 30 wins, a share of the Big 12 conference title and an Elite Eight appearance. Oh, and he ended that season getting a commitment from some scrawny Maryland kid named Kevin. These were the halcyon days, everything looked amazing and nobody would've faulted Rick Barnes if he had yelled "I'M GONNA LIVE FOREVER" from the top of the clock tower.
Unfortunately, this was more like the New Years Eve party from Boogie Nights, where things started to go downhill for everybody. It didn't happen immediately - there was another 31-win season, shared conference title and an Elite Eight appearance left in the tank - but it was definitely the apex of Rick Barnes' Texas career. From that point on, the returns on each season began to diminish. Texas still played well, still racked up 20-win seasons, still contended for the conference title...but the NCAA success vanished, and Texas became less of a force in the conference. Other teams started to work back into the conversation(Hello, Iowa State, nice to meet you. Your new man looks like a keeper.) and Texas seemed less like a usurper to the Kansas Jayhawks and more like a scrappy underdog. The bar that Rick Barnes set with his first decade on campus looked further and further away as the seasons passed, ultimately arriving at our destination today. It still sucks.
I have never met Rick Barnes; all I know about the man is what I see on TV and the stories I hear from people who do know him. He seems like a pretty easy person to diagnose though, as every person says the same things about him. He's warm, friendly, and likes to verbally poke his best friends in the ribs. He's genuine to everyone and unlike most D1 coaches has a life outside of basketball. He loves to tell stories, rambling like an ADHD kid off their meds. In other words, he's a great guy to share a beer with if you get the chance. I'll probably never get that chance now, which sucks on a level I'm grasping at straws to adequately describe except in gif form.
Rick Barnes will move on. He'll find another job elsewhere, and he'll probably win 20 games a year wherever he goes. I want to see him pick up a downtrodden program and return it to prominence. Maybe that's Tennessee, maybe it's somewhere else(I bet Clemson would be happy to have him back). There's a solid chance he retires with 800 career wins and his name on more than one basketball court. He'll be fine.
Texas will move on. They'll find another coach, hopefully one that builds on the foundation Rick Barnes laid. This program is where it is because of Rick Barnes, he put this school on a level well above anything it had seen prior. He's also left the program stocked with enough talent for whoever signs on the dotted line this off-season. Texas will be fine.
With all due respect to Augie, Rick Barnes is my last real tie to my days at Texas. I know he's just a coach and not my friend. I know that this is how things go with college coaches. I know that next season will be interesting on a number of levels that I haven't experienced in nearly 20 years. I know that I should appreciate the totality of his tenure rather than focus on it ending, and eventually I will. It still sucks.
Coach, thank you for the last 17 years. Thank you for the Final Four. Thank you for Kevin Durant, T.J. Ford, LaMarcus Aldridge, P.J. Tucker, Jonathan Holmes, Myles Turner, and every other player that put on the burnt orange since 1998. Thank you for building Texas from a regional nuisance to a national power. Thank you for building a clean program in a world of dirty AAU connections. Thank you for everything. If I ever get that chance at sharing a beer, the first round is on me.