We're All Angry & Disappointed, But Replacing Rick Barnes Doesn't Make Sense

When you reach the thousand word mark of a comment, it's worth considering whether you're better off throwing it together into an actual post. My post yesterday drew many interesting and thoughtful responses, including more than a few in disagreement. Which is great. I'm here to lay out my reasons for the position I've arrived at, but there are numerous ways one might approach an evaluation of Barnes and it's enlightening to hear other perspectives.

Below I respond to a comment left by flamingmonkeyass in the post about Rick Barnes. The first part of my thoughts repspond to FMA's misconception about the meaning of the short list of proven title-winning coaches that was included in the post. Second, FMA apparently mistook my acknowledging the fact that hoops is a lower priority for the fan base as a whole for my being personally willingn to settle for good enough; this could not be further from the truth, and my conclusion that it would be a mistake to replace Rick Barnes at this time is not in any way a reflection of low expectations. There's nothing passive or semi-attached about my interest in and aspirations for Texas basketball.

The idea that Barnes is the 6th or 7th best coach

In the country is laughable. The idea that Texas would somehow need to replace him with one of those coaches you mentioned in order to reach the "elite" status is almost as absurd.

(1) To begin with, I did not say Rick Barnes is the 6th or 7th best coach in the country. My contention is that there are a handful of high-elite coaches who are proven title-winners, of such a caliber as to permit one to conclude -- immediately upon their hiring -- that Texas had upgraded from Rick Barnes. In this group are the handful of guys who've proven they can do it and do it consistently -- guys like Izzo, Krzyzewski, Self, etc.



The crux of my argument is that once you get to any and all coaches who are not in that group, it bcomes very difficult (near-impossible, I submit) to be certain Texas would be upgrading its coach. I agree with you that it isn't the case that those proven coaches are the ONLY way Texas can achieve the highest level of success (I never said they were), but I contend that those are the only ones who we could know that we're getting something better. As I just wrote in another comment above, responding to UT2001, who said Texas should be looking to hire an "up and coming" coach:
Up and coming coaches

It’s a fine idea in theory, but in practice not only is it a gamble, but I’m pretty sure we wouldn't be on the right side of the odds.


Three years ago, if Texas was looking for a coach Texas fans would have been delighted to get "up and coming" Keno Davis (Drake), Greg McDermott (Northern Iowa), or Todd Lickliter (Butler). All three were hot commodities, but since heading to Providence, Davis has yet to make the NCAA Tournament; Iowa State fans wanted McDermott fired after this year and though he’ll be back one more time, if he struggles again, he’s out. And Lickliter, of course, just got fired after three lousy years at Iowa during which time he went 38-57.

I’m glad to listen to arguments for replacing Barnes with someone else, but I think outside the top proven coaches in the game, not only is it difficult to predict who might be special enough to win a national title, but it’s even difficult to predict which coaches would be able to come in to Texas and match the level of success that we already have with Barnes. I feel confident in saying that many, and in all likelihood most, replacements would struggle to match Barnes’ consistent level of season success.

Add it all up and not only are the odds against us picking a guy who can win us a national title, but the truth is that many of the replacements we might choose would actually cause us to regress.

It is certainly possibly that Texas could strike gold hiring an up and coming coach, but it's a roll of the dice -- no question about it, and not just in terms of winning a title, but even in terms of matching the level of success that we already have right now, with Barnes. Add into the pot odds that Barnes himself has been to one Final Four and three Elite Eights, achieving success at a level that makes plausible to believe he is capable of breaking through at some point. All things considered, making the case for replacing Barnes with an up and coming coach is, in my view, not at all a strong one.

Alternatively, we could look at laying out the money to hire a coach who is not in that high-elite group but who has a substantial track record of proven success at a big program already. Another commenter mentioned Jamie Dixon, who would be a fine example of a coach I'd be be satisfied with Texas hiring to fill a vacancy.

While we know intimately well what Rick Barnes' teams struggle with, the main reason his warts appear to us to be so ugly is because we repeatedly inspect them up close. The obvious problem, as I see it, is that all coaches have strengths and weaknesses, and outside the proven high-elite coaches already discussed, it's hard to evaluate whose limitations are the kind that will prevent them from reaching the top of the mountain. From our vantage point, it's easy to say that Rick Barnes' limitations appear to be just such a kind, but I ask, in all seriousness, whether we really know that. It's possible someone can craft a compelling argument that Barnes' weaknesses are limitations of the kind that make his ultimate ceiling being just below the title-winning threshold. Nevertheless, I do think it's difficult to say anything definitive. There are at least two issues that we at the least have to keep in mind:

First, even if we all agree Texas basketball should be gunning to win titles, in evaluating our pursuit of the goal we still have to be mindful of context and the nature of college basketball.  Pick any coach you can think of and, even among the great ones, it's guaranteed you will find some serious struggles mixed in with the successes. Roy Williams missed the NCAA Tournament with four McDonalds All-Americans on his roster this year. In one of the weakest NCAA fields ever, Jim Calhoun is in the NIT. Competing in the weakest Pac 10 in recent memory, Ben Howland's Bruins got run out of the gym on a regular basis and didn't even get an NIT bid. Jay Wright was lucky to escape Robert Morris yesterday. John Thompson III saw his team lit up for triple-digits in a blowout loss to 14th seed Ohio. Does this make these coaches worthless? Obviously not, but it provides some useful perspective for evaluating our own disappointments.

And second, how is it that we're supposed to tell that any of these coaches outside the proven high-elite group will match and/or exceed Rick Barnes' proven level of success? We can (and should) point out Barnes' myriad weaknesses, but at the end of the day, it's a very very tough call to say with any certainty that a given coach will; provide superior results. Because the truth of the matter is, whether you like him or not, whether you think him the seventh best coach in the country or the sevntieth, you barely need two hands to count the number of coaches who have been achieving at Barnes' level since he arrived at Texas.

For example, heading into the 2009 season, Texas was one of just three teams that had advanced to the Sweet 16 or beyond in 5 of the previous 7 NCAA Tournaments. The other two to go 5 for 7? Kansas and Duke.

Or we can consider Jamie Dixon, who just completed his seventh year at Pitt, where he has accumulated a 188-53 (.775) record, going 83-35 (.703) in Big East play. He's made the NCAA Tournament in each of those seven years, advancing to the Sweet 16 twice and the Elite 8 once, exiting during the first weekend each of the other four appearances. Outside the high-elite group, that's as strong a track record as you're likely to see. And yet, even Dixon's superb level of achievement in his first seven seasons is only enough to match Rick Barnes. During his first seven years at Texas (1998-2005), Barnes went 160-69 (.698) overall, 92-30 (.754) in conference play, making the NCAA Tournament all seven years, making two trips to the Sweet 16, one to the Final Four, and four exits on the first weekend of the Tournament.

And though the last two seasons have been challenging ones for Texas fans, it's probably worth mentioning Barnes' track record in the five years since: a 133-46 record (.751), 56-24 in conference play (.700), with NCAA Tournament appearances in all five seasons, including a pair of trips to the Elite 8 and three exits on the first weekend of the Tournament.

My argument was, and consistently has been, that when you take all of this material together, there is no slam dunk case for replacing Rick Barnes. Quite the opposite, the overwhelming weight of the evidence comes down on the side of keeping what we've go, absent an opportunity to hire one of the ten or so coaches who would appear to present an unequivocal upgrade over Barnes. And thus, the conclusion in my post: It seems to me that our options as fans are limited to making the case that Texas should make an effort to go after one of the proven, high-elite coaches or, more realistically and productively, taking time to think about and discuss what we've gotten so far from Rick Barnes (good and bad) and -- looking forward -- what it is, specifically, we think we need to see from Barnes. Thinking now about what those benchmarks and thresholds might be can provide us with a meaningful lens through which to evaluate Barnes, clear of both recency and tunnel-vision biases. After all, conversations of this kind typically arise across the country in March, with fans disproportionately focused on the most recent event, which of course for all but one is a season-ending loss.

Last night's post was an argument that while this season's bitter disappointment does not tip the scales towards the replacement of Rick Barnes, the troubling manner with which things unraveled should serve as the catalyst for some serious evaluating and questioning. As I wrote last night, the thing I'm most going to focus my attention on over the next year or two is whether, and if so how well, Rick Barnes learns from recent struggles (this year, in particular) and demonstrates ability to make smart, sensible adjustments. I'm not ready to replace Rick Barnes right now, but I might if his reaction to this season were absent or uninspiring.

(2) As for the second part of FMA's comment, I think I've at least implicitly addressed the second part of FMA's comment with everything I just discussed, but this is worth saying explicitly and clearly, since I apparently left my post open to misinterpretation. FMA wrote:

Will Rick Barnes be replaced? 

Will Rick Barnes be replaced? Of course not. Should he be? That’s a bit more murky. As long as the program continues to have some success and makes money I don’t forsee him ever really coming under administration pressure. For those of us who don’t buy into the self defeatist attitude that we somehow don’t have the resources to have both an elite football and basketball program (ahem* Peter), that’s disappointing. We could be so much more when in comes to basketball. More importantly we SHOULD be so much more

I suppose there was a tinge of defeatism in my post insofar as I argued that unless fans want to argue that Texas should begin to look at whether it can hire one of the proven high-elite coaches to Austin, better to focus our attention on Rick Barnes and what he needs to do to improve. However, it was not "self-defeatist" in the way FMA suggests. First of all, I haven't any doubt at all that we have the resources to be an elite program in both football and basketball, and I've spent many thousands of words over the last five years writing about my love of Texas basketball, the high aspirations I have for the program, and how frustrating the football-first sports culture can be during hoops season.

Last night's message was not about me or my willingness to settle for less than the best. It was a candid (but wholly uncontroversial) assessment based on the reality of actual fan support of Texas basketball: We're a 50,000 student university in a town of a million people, with no competing pro teams in the city, yet we struggle to fill the lower level of the FEC during December games. It's fair to say that February and March are months of huge interest to Texas fans, so long as you're referring to football recruiting. And, as I wrote earlier this year, huge swaths of our fan base are at best semi-attached to the team and program, explaining how and why the same fans can be both content to accept mediocrity when expectations are low, and scream Burn it all down! when their expectations are raised but not met.

Whether you or I hates it and wants more for this program, that is the reality. And quite apart from the resources that we have, it is a reality that can, has, does, and will play a relevant role in how the program is run. To begrudgingly accept that fact and acknowledge the role it plays in evaluating Barnes' future is not self-defeating. It is pragmatic and reality-based.

It seems to me that underlying FAM's gripe is an idea that my conclusion (that fans should focus on how Barnes must improve, rather than on how he can be replace) reflects a passive acceptance of "good enough" where Texas basketball is concerned.

My view about Barnes isn't at all related to lowering my standards for basketball. My reasons for wanting to keep Rick Barnes right now are rooted in my analysis that replacing Rick Barnes would be the wrong move to make at this time. I'm not saying I've concluded that Barnes is a permanent answer; as I explained in last night's post, perhaps the best thing we might do is begin to think seriously about how to evaluate the job Barnes does over the coming couple of years. The single best thing we can do to help ourselves evaluate and make meaningful decisions about Barnes down the line, is to think through and articulate -- now, ahead of time -- what specifically we hope/want to see from him heading forward. Considering the odds facing any and every team, winning the national title may not be the best standard to make our determinations. A title-less season may or may not provide reason to be discouraged about the future; more helpful would be to have thought about what, specifically, are those things we want to see from Barnes and the program, irrespective of whether the team cuts down any nets.

I've begun thinking about what I expect Rick Barnes to do on the other side of this season -- things that I think can help provide a meaningful basis for making a decision as important and consequential as keep-him-or-cut-him.

As of now, I've yet to see a cohesive, concrete argument that persuades me a replacement should be made. But as always, I'm open to listening, if anyone thinks they've got one.

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