Texas is a NCAA Tournament threat with no permanent head coach. What does it do now?

    Texas is a NCAA Tournament threat with no permanent head coach. What does it do now?

    Texas does not have a permanent men’s basketball coach anymore, which is a hairy situation at any time. It’s a holy mess when that’s the case in the middle of the actual basketball season, and the basketball team hopes to chase down a championship or two. Not the time for an existential crisis. Not in a conference that’s a thumbscrew. And yet here Texas is, having to figure itself out all over again at the most difficult time imaginable.

    What happens now in Austin, after Chris Beard’s firing on Thursday?

    A lot. A whole lot of things happen. Make sure a promising season doesn’t unspool completely. Evaluate the men left in charge of the program. Poke around to see who else might be interested in taking over. And, by extension, find out how attractive the job is or how many problems exist – real or perceived – that might reveal Texas isn’t the shimmering beacon of dominance it believes it is, or at least can be.

    The Athletic spoke to a variety of sources within the college basketball community, including coaches and agents. Some were granted anonymity either for competitive reasons or because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

    “I think it’s a good job,” one coaching agent said. “But I don’t know that it’s the end-all, be-all no-brainer.”

    It’s never good to have more questions than anyone can handle six days into the calendar year. Texas simply doesn’t have a choice but to find answers, in a hurry.

    Saving the season

    On Friday morning, the Longhorns woke up as the No. 13 team in the NCAA’s NET rankings, and anywhere from No. 9-17 by the leading analytic sites. They also woke up another day closer to two decades without a Final Four bid. The chance to be the team that ends the drought is real, and the urgency to protect that potential is extreme for acting head coach Rodney Terry and his staff.

    The good news? Even Big 12 peers believe all is not lost, just because the previous head coach lost his job. “I think they will be great, honestly,” one conference assistant coach said. “(Terry) has been a successful head coach before and his voice will resonate with those guys. He will get them to buy into his system. Their roster, top to bottom, is still one of the most talented in the league.”

    Or as another Big 12 head coach put it: “(Terry) is doing a good job. They play hard and are still on top of everything. They’re playing with passion.”

    Rodney Terry is 5-1 as Texas’ acting head coach, and won 163 games in 10 years as a head coach at Fresno State and UTEP. (Scott Wachter / USA Today)

    Now that there’s finality and players know Beard isn’t coming back, the priority is to keep the threads from fraying. Texas will have four former head coaches in the building every day: Terry (Fresno State and UTEP), assistant Bob Donewold (multiple overseas teams), chief of staff Chris Ogden (UT-Arlington) and special assistant Steve McClain (Wyoming and Illinois-Chicago). There can be some comfort in knowing none of the drivers are on their learner’s permit.

    But none of them are Beard, either, and how that affects preparation or in-game strategizing is clearly in the balance. Every remaining regular season opponent, as of Friday, is ranked inside the top 37 of KenPom. Any slippage – even a little – could have significant ramifications.

    “There’s basketball acumen on that staff,” another coaching agent said. “And they’ve clearly got very good talent. Does that translate to them winning at the same level as Chris Beard? No. Definitely not. Chris Beard as a game manager and Xs and Os guy, an on-court coach – probably one of the top five, six, seven in college basketball. So there’s going to be a clear dropoff no matter what. But Texas is uniquely positioned where they’ve got guys with experience.”

    Rodney Terry’s balancing act

    Less than a year ago, upheaval at Louisville left Mike Pegues as a power-conference interim coach with a lot of season ahead of him. Pegues doesn’t know Rodney Terry, but he has a suggestion for Texas’ acting head coach: Start a journal. Write it all down, good and bad. These will be three unusual and trying months. Maybe the toughest stretch of Terry’s coaching career. But having a catalog of thoughts and experiences when it’s all over will be valuable. “It’s a lot,” says Pegues, who’s now a Butler assistant.

    The situations sit at opposite poles, yes. Texas is a No. 3 seed in The Athletic’s latest Bracket Watch and its interim coach has 319 games of head coach experience to draw upon. Louisville was cratering and the interim leader hadn’t been a head coach since he ran a grassroots team. But the checklist is the same, and it means Terry isn’t merely charged with putting together game plans that win in the Big 12. The job is far more fraught than that.

    He’s performing emotional triage on his players — probably twice over now, after Beard’s initial suspension last month and then again after the official dismissal Thursday. He’s reshuffling staff duties. He’s likely delicately putting his own touch on the operation while also not changing so much that it’s counterproductive. And even if auditioning for the full-time gig is not front of mind, Terry is inevitably showcasing his coaching ability under a scorching spotlight, for anyone who might want to hire him if Texas doesn’t.

    How nimbly Terry navigates the asteroids coming at him, every day, is a massive variable. “At least in Texas’ case, I would like to think they have something to play for,” Pegues says. “If I’m Rodney Terry, I’m trying to convince the guys, we lost our leader, there’s no ducking that, we’re in a tough time. But we also put ourselves in a really good position to this point. If we can come together and concentrate on getting better every day, we still have the opportunity to do everything we set out to do.”

    Never mind the joyous water bottle celebration after Terry led Texas to a win over Rice on Dec. 12, his first game as acting head coach. These are young men in their late teens and early 20s, all with exospheric aspirations. Terry’s roster is naturally on edge, at some level.

    Pegues spent his first night as Louisville’s interim head coach contacting the team’s leaders, knowing he had to salve wounds and worries as quickly as possible. During a team meeting the next day, he gave players the floor to air out their emotions. He also understood the work of managing feelings wouldn’t be done when they left that space. “Guys have questions they can’t get immediate answers to,” Pegues says. “There’s a sense of why is this happening to me, and why is this happening to us, and what do I do from here. Human nature is to look at the big picture and not concentrate on practice that day. It’s easy to lose sight of what’s right in front of you.”

    So far, Texas has won five of its six games with Terry as acting head coach. Very good sign. But in the two games against KenPom top 40 teams, the Longhorns beat Oklahoma by one and dissolved defensively in a loss to Kansas State. Two games into an 18-game Big 12 schedule, Texas has only just now entered the gauntlet. How a shaken group of players reacts to any upcoming adversity lands, fairly or not, at Rodney Terry’s feet.

    All while he surely knows everyone wonders if he’s good enough to do this past April. “If Rodney Terry went to a Final Four, it’s probably hard not to take a look at him,” one agent says. “I don’t think it’s a very smart move. They shouldn’t have anybody there who’s on this staff.”

    He’s been around some. But Terry never has faced something like this.

    “People have them as a lock to finish on the high end of the Big 12 and put themselves in position to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Pegues said. “Winning is still an expectation around there.”

    Defining Texas, the job

    We’re also heading toward a referendum on Texas men’s basketball. There’s a $300 million arena that just opened. There’s a $60 million practice facility that just opened. There’s a recruiting base as fertile or more fertile than any in the country; it’s not a stretch to say Texas could field competitive teams without crossing state lines to find players. “It’s as good as it’s ever been,” one coaching agent said. “The job itself is positioned pretty well.”

    Also? All the money and resources and available talent haven’t brought Texas anywhere near a national title in a very, very, very long time.

    “In the last 12 years, they’ve won five NCAA Tournament games,” another coaching agent said. “Not great, right? I mean, Saint Peter’s won three last year.”

    Maybe Beard was en route to straightening it all out, but there’s clearly a gap between what Texas should be doing and what Texas is doing. Running one of the more prominent athletic programs at any school is complicated. Running one of the more prominent programs at Texas adds an exponent to the chore. “Texas is big,” one person with knowledge of the school’s athletics operations said. “There’s a lot of moving parts within the day-to-day operations at the place, and then there’s moving parts outside of the operation. Sometimes those parts work together. Sometimes those parts are drastically different. And then sometimes the parts within each place change. There is a lot going on, a lot of the time. To compartmentalize and simplify is very important.”

    Sir’Jabari Rice and Texas are playing in a brand-new arena that opened this season. (Scott Wachter / USA Today)

    The job has everything any coach could want and the job is also much more difficult than anyone might imagine. Both of these things are true. It’s certainly as good an explanation as any for why such a well-armed operation isn’t making much postseason noise.

    The impending move to the SEC, and the impending competition with all its characters on the men’s basketball sidelines league-wide, only underscores the idea that a Texas men’s basketball coach will have to be extremely good on the floor and extremely dynamic off of it – and stumbling or coming up short in either way means you’re probably not going to succeed. The pool of people who can handle both elements, deftly, is not shallow … but isn’t diving-tank deep, either.

    Still, one agent pointed out that Texas women’s volleyball program just won a national championship. Other sports thrive as well. The place is equipped to produce high-level performance. That much is undeniable. But the agent wondered, rhetorically, why it’s not happening for football and men’s basketball.

    “In those sports,” the person familiar with Texas athletics said, “it’s hard to just be the program.”

    Choosing the next coach

    At some point, athletics director Chris Del Conte and any other stakeholders have to find a permanent solution. At this point, most people only have speculative thoughts about the direction Texas’ athletics director will go. But his past hires provide a few tea leaves to read. He hired Jamie Dixon at TCU after Dixon put together a long and successful Pittsburgh tenure. He grabbed Steve Sarkisian for Texas football, coming out of the Nick Saban rehabilitation program. He plucked Vic Schaefer from Mississippi State after Schaefer led the women’s basketball program there to a pair of Final Fours and an Elite Eight. Go back even to 2018 and the search for a new softball coach; it ended with Mike White, who’d won nearly 80 percent of his games in nine seasons at Oregon. And, of course, Chris Beard.

    Splash. Names. Brands. It’s certainly not absurd to respond to a terribly messy situation with a statement hire that wipes the slate clean.

    And most people figure Del Conte doesn’t have to think small. Not when Texas was paying the last guy $5 million a year, and surely has enough left in the couch cushions to present a compelling package.

    “It’s a big brand,” one coaching agent said. “So I think there’s going to be a lot of interested parties.”

    As The Athletic’s Seth Davis noted in his list of candidates for the job, those interested parties may well be very big names. An asterisk on that: Most observers feel the big swings might not connect. That Texas will wind up being a leverage play for a lot of coaches who are looking for more security or more money or more love, or all of the above, from their current employer.

    But Del Conte has more than enough time to do his homework behind the scenes and suss out what’s real and what’s bound to be a disappointment. He’ll also have time to examine the hefty buyouts that may get in the way. (UCLA’s Mick Cronin, Missouri’s Dennis Gates and Oklahoma State’s Mike Boynton, to name a few, fall into that bucket.) In the end, he won’t be bereft of options, even if the options aren’t necessarily galaxy-shaking.

    A few names that teeter on big swings, where it’s a little less if Del Conte would be allowing Texas to be used? Eric Musselman has a new contract at Arkansas potentially running through 2028. His buyout, though, is a relative pittance at $2 million after this season. Would Sean Miller leave Xavier after one season? Xavier pours a ton into its men’s basketball program and Miller can lead a pretty low-profile life in Cincinnati, which wouldn’t necessarily be the case in Austin. But could be worth a call. Illinois gave Brad Underwood a new contract through 2028 and a freshly renovated practice facility. Underwood might think he has the better job as it is. Flip side? He sprung onto the scene at Stephen F. Austin, and if Illinois doesn’t pull out of its current malaise, maybe he’s open to a change of scenery.

    Dana Altman, meanwhile, doesn’t have Oregon humming lately — 15 losses last season, an 8-7 record so far in 2022-23 — but maybe that’s a springboard to hitting refresh at 64 years old, looking for one last run. Altman certainly would be a fit, from talent-acquisition and demeanor perspectives.

    Is Jerome Tang too much Baylor for Texas fans to handle? Not that Tang necessarily would leave Kansas State after a year, either, but Texas offers resources that the 56-year-old won’t find in Manhattan. (Like, potentially doubling his salary, to begin with.) Boynton and Gates would merit a look if the buyouts aren’t an issue; there’s some risk, particularly with Gates being all of 14 games into his first power-conference job at Missouri, but the upside is steady, long-term plays. Andy Kennedy finished second in the race for two power conference jobs last cycle, per a source with knowledge of those discussions, and the UAB coach could be an intriguing wild card here. Wake Forest’s Steve Forbes would bring a personality Texas fans can latch on to and a high-effort system those fans can get behind, but the 57-year-old is credibly comfortable in Winston-Salem. Does he want to take on all of what Texas is?

    And, well, Rodney Terry can make this a moot discussion by April.

    In all, the last time it hired a men’s basketball coach, Texas surely figured it had covered any angle and checked every conceivable box. It found its answer. Less than two years later, it’s facing all the same questions — and a few more — all over again.

    (Top photo of Texas’ Dillon Mitchell: Chris Covatta / Getty Images)

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