Rising expectations and rising negativity: How has the Texas fan base come to its current view of Rick Barnes?

Is it time for Rick to get a scorpion tattoo? (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

In the modern workplace, most of us quickly learn the importance of managing expectations.  Facing lofty expectations, and then failing to meet them, can be harmful to your career.  But if expectations can be kept low, it is often pretty easy to appear successful. 

The biggest problem with expectations is when they are set higher than they should be.  When someone fails to live up to unreasonable expectations, narratives start to develop about that person that can then define and limit their career.  I have seen this happen to colleagues on more than one occasion. People start to view this person's work in a negative light.  Short of leaving the company or getting a scorpion tattoo on their wrist, their options for improvement are often limited.

This great article about Rick Barnes by tjarks at Barking Carnival and the associated discussion that followed in the comment section got me thinking about expectations surrounding Texas basketball.  Just how did expectations for Texas basketball get so high?  And why are we, as a fan base, so damn negative about Rick Barnes?


A personal history of expectations and Texas basketball

 

I started as a student at The University of Texas in the fall of 1995.  This is the beginning of my entire history with the Longhorns.  I wasn't a lifelong fan; I had spent my teenage years growing up just outside of Buffalo, NY.  I had grown up playing and watching basketball, and I quickly became a huge fan of the Runnin' Horns.

I cannot say anything intelligent about the expectations for Texas basketball prior to the 1995-1996 season, but I do think I have a pretty good feel for the expectations from that point on.  1995 was a pretty exciting time for Texas basketball.  Tom Penders had a nice run of NCAA tournament appearances, and the Longhorns had reached the NCAA tournament in all but one of his seasons as a coach.  But more than just that, expectations for the future were great.  Texas had an exciting team.  Penders had landed Kris Clack, perhaps the most highly regarded recruit in school history at that point.  We had a McDonald's All-American on the 40 acres, and people were pretty excited.  Another freshman, Chico Vasquez, was also a fine player.  Penders also had a wing in Reggie Freeman who could put the ball in the hole, and an undersized but hard working big guy in Sonny Alvarado.  That team was a lot of fun. 

But Texas' place in the basketball world was quite different in the Penders years, when compared with where it is today.  There was that one nice tournament run in 1990, where the Horns made the regional finals before being knocked out by the "40 minutes of hell" Razorbacks.  The only other time the Runnin' Horns made it past the first weekend in the tournament was 1997, when Texas knocked off Coppin State, who was that year's big first round upset winner.

I think that this level of success was basically OK with the Texas fan base.  Penders missed the Tournament in 1998, and was fired.  Of course, it wasn't really the on court performance of the team that got him fired; missing the tournament sure didn't help, and probably contributed to his downfall, but Penders was fired over the Luke Axtell/Eddie Oran saga.

The 1997-1998 school year had been a miserable year for Texas sports.  The buzz was that the basketball team might make a big hire.  I remember many names being thrown around, but the one that sticks in my head the most was Rick Majerus.  I was totally ready for the Rick Majerus era at Texas, and was a little bit disapointed when Rick Barnes was hired instead.

Things were different with Barnes as the coach.  The "Runnin' Horns" moniker was dropped.  (I played on an intramural team named the "Walkin' Horns" one year.  I doubt that anyone at Texas still uses this name.)  Barnes also refused to take random, just-for-the-hell-of-it, technical fouls to get the home crowd into the game.  (Penders had this great way of doing this.  He would wait until the other team had the ball, so as to minimize the damage, and then would just walk out onto the court towards one of the officials while saying hardly anything.  Automatic technical, but no one had to get upset or raise their voice.  Good times.)

More substantially, Barnes' style of play was quite different.  The team was more disciplined on both ends of the court, and played a much more physical style.  With Mihm and Muoneke inside, the Longhorns were well suited to play Barnes-ball.  And Clack and Vasquez, both good athletes who played hard on defense, fit in well with Barnes' approach.  (It is sort of a shame that Clack didn't get a few extra seasons with Barnes as his coach.  Clack was an explosive and graceful athlete with long arms who played hard.  With a couple more seasons being tutored by Barnes, he might have had a nice NBA career as a defensive specialist.)

The on-court change in switching from Penders to Barnes was immediate.  This was followed by an improvement in recruiting.  Barnes' first big recruiting score was high school All-American Brian Boddicker, who was followed in the next season by the great T.J. Ford.  We were starting to learn the extent to which Barnes' was a recruiting magician.

The 2002-2003 season was the greatest in the history of Texas basketball.  Then T.J. Ford left for the NBA.  The 2003-2004 team was also very good; it was a deep and experienced team that made it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.  If the Ford, Ivey, Mouton, and Boddicker group had been the only great collection of players that Barnes had put together before returning to a Penders-like level fringe top 25 success, I wonder how we would feel about Texas basketball today.  I suspect that we would probably be OK with it, and Barnes legacy would be one of a coach who has had a really good career, and had that one great team.  I don't think we would be losing our patience with him the way we are now.

But that is not what happened.  It is what Barnes did next as a recruiter that changed things.  Aldridge, Gibson, and Mike Williams (remember him?) were the first truly elite Texas recruiting class.  This changed the game for us as fans.  This was a recruiting class on the caliber with what schools like Duke pulled in.  After this, things would just never be the same for Texas basketball.

When you recruit like Duke, people expect you to win like Duke.  Rick Barnes had changed the culture and the expectations surrounding Texas basketball.  Following up seasons with a Final Four and a Sweet Sixteen with one of the very best recruiting classes in the country will do that.

Another factor at work here in raising expectations for Texas basketball is our culture of "continuous improvement."  Continuous improvement is a business idea that is built on the assumption that little, easy to identify, incremental improvements can always be made, and that this should result in steady improvement in various performance metrics.  Like so many business ideas, there is something to continuous improvement, but there is also probably a limit to how far it can take you.  And continuous improvement ideas are probably counterproductive, and maybe even dangerous, when the metrics expected to show year after year improvement are as volatile as NCAA tournament performance.

So when exactly did fans start to lose their patience with Barnes?  Was it the Durant team, when national writer Bill Simmons adopted us, and then crapped all over Barnes because he didn't like the way he used Durant?  (I can't honestly remember what Simmons' specific complaints were.)  Or the loaded, but deeply flawed team of 2009-2010, that went into a free-fall after being ranked #1?

 

Narrative and evidence


Whenever it happened, there now seems to be a significant portion of the fan base that has grown frustrated, and is looking for evidence to support the very convenient, off-the-shelf national narrative that the press is writing about Barnes.  Barnes is now the great recruiter, can't coach, just roll the ball out guy.  With Roy Williams winning two national championships, we sure needed a new one of those to kick around.  As a bonus, Texas writers can just recycle those old "Coach February" stories.  Just need to do a find and replace for the words "football" and "Mack."

But there is only one problem; easy narratives aren't true.  These easy to digest rationalizations are just made up by a columnist on deadline.  What is worse is that with a narrative in hand it is easy to start looking for certain pieces of evidence, while ignoring all the rest.  There is a very famous quote about this.

 

I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. But the note itself. What do you deduce from it? -- SHERLOCK HOLMES, A SCANDAL IN BOHEMIA

 

So when evaluating Rick Barnes as a basketball coach, it is easy reject a lot of evidence about how he takes hard working players like Royal Ivey and turns them into NBA material.  Fans focus on the fact that Balbay cannot shoot, while ignoring his contributions on defense.  They argue that Rick Barnes is a lousy offensive coach because they don't like his sets, while ignoring the things that his teams do well offensively, and the fact that he has had many productive offensive teams.  It is argued that his teams need a great point guard, and he can't do anything with low post players.  This seems strange, given that his first really good Texas team featured an Ivan Wagner/William Clay platoon at the point guard spot, and had an offense built around getting the ball inside to Chris Mihm and Gabe Muoneke.  Three of the top four scorers on that team played inside (Chris Owens was the fourth leading scorer on that team).

When it comes to how narratives and sports commentary mix, I cannot put it better than xkcd.  The narrative about Barnes, combined with his failure to consistently meet what I think are unrealistic expectations, has gotten us to the point where we now view everything surrounding this program through a very particular lens.

 

But don't worry, we aren't the first fan base to have this problem

 

There is a chapter in Dean Oliver's 2004 book, Basketball on Paper, that is titled "Should I Firebomb Billy Donovan's House?"  The chapter's title was inspired by a question Oliver had been asked by a Florida basketball fan related to Donovan's coaching ability.  Remember that this book was published before Florida had won two national championships.  Oliver discusses Donovan's early recruiting success, along with his appearance in the 2000 Final Four.  But my favorite part is about expectations.  This is how Oliver concludes the chapter

 

Clearly, the subjective expectation has been that Florida should have done better.  But that expectation has been based on over-hyped talent - Brett Nelson and Teddy Dupay being good examples.  Maybe these two players' lack of development is Donovan's fault.  Maybe they would have been superstars in another program.  If that is true, then maybe you should find the matches.

But give him a little time so we can be sure.

 

Many teams have failed to live up to expectations.  Florida was just the school of the moment when Basketball on Paper was written.  During the 80s and 90s, similar things could have been written about Syracuse or Connecticut.  If Oliver had written his book in 2010, don't you think there would at least be a chance that this chapter would have been about Rick Barnes?  And don't you think some Ohio State blogger will likely be writing a post similar to this one in a few years about Thad Motta?  It's the cycle of life.

So what are we, as an angry fan base, to do?  It is easy to get distracted by shiny baubles from Indiana, but shiny bauble coaches don't necessarily jump to schools with deranged fan bases who run off proven winners.  Even when they do jump, it doesn't alway go well.

My advice is that we listen to tjarks at Barking Carnival, and enjoy Texas basketball for what it is.  Texas is now one of the 10-15 best basketball programs in the country.  Rick Barnes puts a good team on the floor every year.  Every so often, Texas has a shot to win the conference or even the NCAA championship.  While Texas plays in a conference that is dominated by one of the powerhouse basketball programs, which makes conference championships hard to come by, Texas' best teams are usually good enough to challenge Kansas.  Still, we alway have to remember that college basketball is a sport where the vast financial resources that Texas has at its disposal don't help very much, and where being in the state of Texas only provides a modest recruiting advantage, rather than an overwhelming one.  NCAA basketball is a sport where small private colleges in North Carolina are on even footing with giant state schools.  In other words, this isn't football.

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