Frisbie: UT's best men's coach? It's Barnes

Who is Texas&#146; best men&#146;s coach at any position? The vote here is for hoops coach <B>Rick</B> <B>Barnes</B>. And it has been for years.

This week, Barnes was named the Big 12’s Coach of the Year and is finalist for Naismith Coach of the Year Honors. But long before the gaudy success of this year’s third-ranked, 22-5 team (that will finish no worse than an unprecedented NCAA No. 2 on Selection Sunday), I became convinced that Barnes was AD DeLoss Dodds’ best hire (which won’t speak volumes to Orangebloods of the man who brought you Bob Weltlich and John Mackovic).

But I was not always convinced that Barnes was the right guy for the Texas job. When the popular Tom Penders left with his suntan at the end of 14-17 season in 1998, I was hoping Texas would at least make a parallel move in its next hire. I was aware Barnes’ success at Clemson, but did not believe the North Carolina native could take the program to the next level.

By halftime of Texas’ second game of the 1998-99 season, I threw away the basketball schedule. The team had just started the season at 0-2, looked completely out of sync and would proceed to lose six of it’s next nine.

In the meantime, I had been reading John Feinstein’s book "A March Toward Madness" to gain a better perspective on Barnes (The renowned sports writer, author of "Season On The Brink", chronicled a year in the life of the ACC, including Barnes’ first year at Clemson).

The account was amazing. For starters, league coaches tended to observe a moment of reverent silence any time North Carolina coaching icon Dean Smith entered the room and Barnes, frankly, would not allow that kind of chronic genuflection to affect both his burning desire and expectation that his squad would some day beat the snot out of the Tar Heels.

After Barnes’ Clemson team marched into Cameron Indoor Arena and upset Duke for the first time since God was a boy, his Tigers found themselves in a dogfight with Carolina in which Barnes felt like the referees were not giving his scrappy but unheralded squad a chance to compete. At one point, Barnes wanted a conference with the officials and with Smith, shouting, "You tell Smith to get his ass over here!" (In Chapel Hill, where I grew up, that would be like an altar boy telling the Pope to "get his ass over here").

In short, the more I read about Barnes, the more I knew the Texas program would not only survive but thrive in the Big 12 (When this conference was formed, I only hoped that Texas coaches would keep the married athletes off the court when they traveled to Kansas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State). Texas’ not only was a league contender during Barnes’ first season, it won the whole damn conference.

Five years later, Barnes trails only Kansas’ Roy Williams in Big 12 wins and has finished either second or third in each successive season. This Sunday, the Horns will be invited to a school-record fifth straight NCAA appearance and with its highest seed ever.

While the jury is still out on this season, my vote for Texas’ best all-around coach is still cast for Barnes despite some heady competition.

The nation’s best coach at his position is, without question, Texas swimming and diving coach Eddie Reese. With nine national titles in 25 years, and with the inevitable annual conference championship, Reese would already have a building named after him if he were in charge of a revenue-producing sport. But let’s face it: the only time you’ve seen the swim team is when they are honored at halftime of a home football game.

Football Mack Brown doesn’t get the credit he deserves for breathing new life and loyalty into a storied program that had been painfully inconsistent for 15 years. Brown’s best days are still in front of him (we hope). But despite the best five-year start of any Longhorn football coach in history, Brown’s teams have yet to emerge from their Big 12 first runner-up status (palatable in any sport at Texas except football).

Baseball’s Augie Garrido national title team last season gives Barnes the closest run for his money as Texas’ top coach, but there’s no comparing basketball to baseball on a national level. College baseball enjoys an intense, cult-like following in certain parts of the country, particularly in warm-weather climates (college baseball is about as popular in Massachusetts as college hockey is in Austin).

The other difference is that Garrido is the guardian of the NCAA’s most successful baseball program and is expected to contend annually for the national title. Barnes, meanwhile, inherited a program with fledgling NCAA success and was in shambles following the abrupt and messy departure of Tom Penders.

Barnes has done the most with the least, and the state’s deep and under-appreciated pool of high school basketball talent has noticed. Three of the four McDonalds All-Americans to have ever worn the Burnt Orange are current players, and all will return next season. (Sophomore all-American T.J. Ford, named this week as Sports Illustrated Nation Player of the Year, has not backed off from his pledge to stay in school for at least one more year).

If there is a rub on Barnes, it is that he works his players so hard that they don’t have legs left when its time to Dance. His slate of one-and-dones in the NCAAs earned him the moniker "Regular Season Rick". But Barnes got that gorilla off his back (for now) with last year’s surprising Sweet Sixteen run and what is expected to be no less than a Great Eight showing this year. And if Texas can end up in the South Regional in San Antonio, in front of tens of thousands screaming Orangebloods, Barnes has the golden opportunity to take the program to the Final Four for the first time in more than sixty years.

From a sports writer's perspective, Barnes is refreshingly candid while remaining courteous. Fans sometimes berate Barnes for being publicly critical of a player. My perspective is that this seldom happens. And Barnes does not insult our intelligence when we can clearly see, for example, that a certain freshman forward did not attempt a single shot all game, or that a key reservist needs to do a better job in the low post and scrap for rebounds. Like most coaches, Barnes will not voluntarily offer his perspective. However, will not flinch when asked, and typically responds positively in terms of a player’s performance. (Or, as one Burnt Orange Club member stated following a tougher-than-expect win: "God, I love Rick Barnes. He doesn’t sugar coat the s--- and try to shove it down your throat."

What Barnes does better than any UT coach in the past 25 years, besides get his kids to play defense, is get inside a player’s head (in order to get the best out of him) just when the team needs him most. Barnes will admit to being "hard" on a player (and sometimes Ford will remind Barnes to compensate for the criticism by showing "some love"), but Barnes has an incredibly keen eye for identify and developing talent…particularly relatively unheralded kids like junior G Royal Ivey.

As one former member of the UT Athletics Council told me, "No coaches have ever worked harder at Texas than Rick Barnes and his staff."

So far, this is the year where all that hard work pays off for Barnes and Texas hoops. Let the Madness begin.

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