One of the many curiosities of life as a Division I college basketball coach is the day you are placed in a position about which you have dreamed your entire career, which you have worked toward since you were old enough to bounce a ball with a purpose, might come to be described as “a long day for us.”
Rodney Terry did not expect to become head coach of the Texas Longhorns like this. He did not expect to become head coach of the Texas Longhorns in any fashion. The idea, in April 2021, was to leave his head coaching position at UTEP to become associate head coach at UT under its new boss, Chris Beard, and achieve enough success to possibly become a candidate for a major-conference position elsewhere.
In early December, that simple plan was indelibly altered by Beard’s arrest on a third-degree felony assault charge, which led to his immediate suspension by the University of Texas and his termination not quite a month later. It was apparent from the time this news broke that Texas’ basketball season would be different. We need not go into the details in the arrest documents – which are horrible and easy enough to research – because that is not what this is about.
No, this is about how Terry managed the aftermath of “like this”, accepting the responsibility of acting head coach and then interim head coach and managing to hold together a Longhorns team that easily could have shattered, and how his conquest of this circumstance led to his selection as The Sporting News Coach of the Year for the 2022-23 college basketball season.
Beard was arrested on Dec. 12 and suspended as soon as the university learned the details. The Longhorns had been the Associated Press preseason No. 12 team and were 7-1 as that day began, with victories over Gonzaga and Creighton and the one loss coming against Illinois because of a late blown lead. On the Texas men’s basketball schedule that night, there was a game against Rice set at the program’s new home at the Moody Center.
Terry knew he’d coach that game, but not what would happen beyond. He wasn’t made the “permanent interim” coach until Beard officially was fired Jan. 5.
“It was shifting gears for everybody,” Terry said. “I think our staff – I’ve got a really good staff that has a lot of experience; two guys that have been head coaches – they really helped in that transition as well. From that point on, we tried to really get the guys to buy into: We’re going to control what we can control, and we’re going to try to have the kind of season we thought we’d have from the start.”
Texas needed overtime to win that game. Senior guard Marcus Carr rescued the Horns with 28 points on a night when his teammates shot 1-of-15 from 3-point range. That night, it seemed very much like the Longhorns’ promise would dissipate. They would be one of those teams that became less than the sum of their assembled talent.
Instead, they won 11 of their next 14 games. Terry pushed the team to play faster; that was his one alteration of the Longhorns’ approach. They went on to defeat each of the Big 12 Conference’s other nine teams at least once, with sweeps over Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Their decisive final-day victory over league champion Kansas placed them as the lone runner-up, a game ahead of third-place Kansas State and Baylor.
“Obviously, when things happen, it’s almost impossible to not think about certain things,” Carr told The Sporting News. “But at the same time, you just want to put all your attention and focus into things you can control. That was the message he kept preaching to us.
“We didn’t have a lot of information yet, so we didn’t know what was going to happen in the future. We just had to be focused on winning the game. I think a lot of teams might not have responded the way we did.”
Carr, who grew up in Toronto, is playing for his third college in his sixth year and fifth season, and Terry became his fourth head coach.
“Definitely all coaches are different. They have their own coaching styles, their own kind of niche that they carve out,” Carr said. “But RT, I’ll say he’s a big energy guy. He comes in every single morning before practice, and every morning is a good morning. It’s a great day to be here, a great day to be alive. I think it’s all about approach, and the way he instills that in us makes sure that every day you’re waking up with a good attitude before anything else.
“And then as far as it comes down to the real coaching, Xs and Os type of thing, he’s a great defensive coach, offensive coach as well. He really knows how to bring that next level out of us at the defensive end, and also allowing us the freedom to play and giving us the confidence, as well. It’s definitely been a pleasure playing for RT.”
Terry, 54, is from Angleton, Tex, a small city south of Houston. He played in college at St. Edwards, a Division II program in Austin, and began his coaching career there in 1990 before moving on to three different high schools in the state, including his alma mater. The point, you can see, is Terry is very much a Texas guy. With the exception of time spent at UNC Wilmington as an assistant to Jerry Wainwright and his seven seasons as head coach at Fresno State, he’s spent his entire life in the state.
That includes his decade as an assistant coach of the Longhorns under Rick Barnes, during which time they reached a Final Four and recruited such elite talents as Kevin Durant, La Marcus Aldridge and Tristan Thompson, the last of whom happened to be from a Toronto suburb. So when Terry was brought back two years ago to be, in language the Texas people certainly can understand, the Longhorns’ defensive coordinator, Carr was able to gather a quick assessment from people who’d been in contact with Terry during the recruiting process a decade earlier.
“RT was definitely known in my city and had relationships with a lot of guys, so once he reached out and I talked to my circle of people, they’re like, ‘Yeah, we know Rodney,’” Carr said. “Getting to know him was super easy, and we definitely were able to build a relationship pretty quickly.”
Terry’s ebullient personality helps him connect with his players, but assuring these Longhorns pushed themselves to deliver their best performances required more. A head coach must be able to connect with his players without them viewing him as malleable.
“I continued to stay me,” Terry told TSN. “I wasn’t going to be something that I wasn’t. Those guys know me as RT, and they know me as a guy that’s going to hold them accountable – previously, on defense – at a very high level. And now that accountability became all the way around, became on the court, off the court, and I was the guy in the decision-making position. But the respect was already there. It wasn’t that much of a transition in that regard.”
Terry received a substantial raise over his associate head coach salary because he took on the head coaching duties, but there has been no announcement or suggestion about what Texas might do with the position in the future.
He has a significant resume as a head coach. In 2011-12, he took over a Fresno State program that had one winning season in the previous six years and three in the decade after Jerry Tarkanian coached for the final time in 2002. In Terry’s third year, the Bulldogs went 21-18 thanks to a successful run in the CBI, and in his fifth, they went 25-10 and reached the NCAA Tournament. He left with four 20-win seasons in seven years. At UTEP, he turned an 8-win program his first year into 17 his second.
His record with these Longhorns is 16-7, including 12-6 in in the deepest league in college basketball history. There were no bad teams, no “gimme” wins in the Big 12. The Horns grabbed a bunch, anyway. Texas is trending toward a No. 2 seed for the NCAA Tournament as the Big 12 tournament approaches, a feat last accomplished at Texas in 2008.
There were no real upsets associated with this team, although a road loss to Texas Tech stung a bit. That is, there weren’t any until I asked Carr whether he’d said anything publicly about whether Terry deserves to be promoted to fulltime Longhorns head coach.
He told me he hadn’t been asked.
“If that opportunity does arise, I would definitely be someone who would champion RT to take over that role. I feel like not only what he has done this year, but just his coaching resume overall, it’s been impressive. He’s a great coach. He loves Texas. He’s been a part of a lot of the glory days at Texas. He knows what it takes here. He knows this community. He has a love for the university. And, at the end of the day, he’s just a great coach.”