Is Rick Barnes a Dead Man Walking at Texas?Posted by Chris Johnson on October 10th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
By the start of next college football season, two of the sport’s most high-profile jobs will have new coaches. One of them (USC) already fired its former coach, Lane Kiffin, and has presumably begun searching for a replacement. The other (Texas) has yet to dump longtime coach Mack Brown, but unless the Longhorns can engineer a miraculous midseason turnaround and win the Big 12 – and even that may not be enough to save Brown’s job – it’s all but guaranteed he too will be gone by the end of the season. That seems even more likely after former Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds, a longtime supporter of Brown, resigned last week. Both of these job searches will be fascinating to observe; it’s been a long time since two true titans of the sport have undergone head coaching changes. We’re more concerned about the college hoops side of things here, but that doesn’t mean we need to stop talking about coaching turnover. USC hired a new head coach, Dunk City orchestrator Andy Enfield, in April, and Texas enters the season with Rick Barnes’ coaching hot seat simmering. That was the general consensus following Texas’ 16-18 finish (and NCAA Tournament miss) last season, but the possibility seems even greater after comments published in Sports Illustrated reporter Pete Thamel’s recent article on the Texas athletic department shined a critical light on Barnes and Longhorns basketball. One damning assessment came from an unnamed high-ranking Texas official: “I can’t imagine [Barnes] turning it around.”
There were other harsh statements regarding Barnes included in Thamel’s piece (along with a number of unquoted characterizations from Thamel himself), and taken together, they seemed to paint a picture of a program in desperate need of a coaching change. Over 15 seasons at the school, Barnes has led the Longhorns to three Big 12 regular season championships, made four Sweet Sixteens, two Elite Eights and one Final Four. He has brought in elite high school players like Kevin Durant, Avery Bradley, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and Damion James. His teams almost always – even last season, when it ranked sixth in effective field goal percentage defense – play some of the toughest defense in the country. As C.J. Moore of Basketball Prospectus points out, Texas has finished in the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency rankings in 10 of the last 11 seasons. If that’s all true, why have the Longhorns struggled so much lately?
A quick look at the recruiting rankings provides the best answer. Courtesy of CBSSports’ Gary Parrish, Texas has signed – wait for it – just one of the 21 top-40 prospects from the state of Texas in the past seven recruiting classes. That is a problem. A big problem. And not only is Barnes not signing top prospects, he has lost the enthusiasm and zeal required to recruit against the top programs in the country, according to sources who spoke to Parrish. “Barnes at some point became disenchanted with the off-court grind it takes to maintain a certain level of success,” Parrish wrote. The recent improvements of Baylor and SMU have only made the problem worse. The Longhorns should have a stranglehold over the considerable high school talent located in Texas; these days, they aren’t even in the discussion for some of the state’s top prospects. Want proof? Take Emmanuel Mudiay, the No. 1-ranked PG in the 2014 class, and realize that Texas – a school Mudiay (a senior at Prime Prep Academy in Dallas), given Texas’ resources, stature, and history of producing NBA players, should have strongly considered, if not chosen outright – wasn’t even listed among Mudiay’s final five schools (Baylor, Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma State and SMU). A number of transfers and early draft defections have only made Barnes’ job tougher, but the driving force behind Texas’ recent decline, it seems, is recruiting.
The departure of Dodds, who shared a close relationship with Barnes, will not help the latter’s cause. Texas is not expected to compete for a Big 12 championship, or even an NCAA Tournament berth, this season. Former point guard Myck Kabongo’s early NBA Draft declaration, combined with the transfers of guards Julien Lewis and Sheldon McClellan – and forward Ioannis Papapetrou’s recent decision to play professionally in Greece – has left Texas with a young and mostly unproven roster, a group ill-equipped to compete with the likes of Oklahoma State and Kansas at the top of the Big 12. The prospectus is not bright for Barnes and the Longhorns. Unless he can get the wheels turning in the right direction, maybe sneak the Longhorns into the NCAA Tournament, Texas’s new athletic director — and with new athletic directors often come new coaches — may feel compelled to fire Barnes and try to build this program back to its rightful place among the Big 12 elite with a new head man in charge. Because that’s where Texas basketball, despite tepid fan support, should be: competing for Big 12 championships year in and year out. Barnes has let the Longhorns slip from that standard in recent years, and has not given any evidence that he’s close to tugging them back into annual conference championship contention any time soon.
There’s a passage in Thamel’s article that explains how Big 12 administrators and coaches view Brown’s situation at Texas. “Many coaches and administrators around the conference are fearful of the day when Brown finally leaves the Longhorns. They worry that a coach will come in who will be able to maximize all of the program’s resources and proceed to dominate the league. (The same can be said about the Texas AD position, as well.),” Thamel writes. If Texas basketball continues to backslide, one has to think rival hoops coaches might soon have the same opinion of Barnes.