During the month of June, BON authors will memorialize the final days of the UT-A&M rivalry through a series of perspectives, as seen through The Eyes of Texas, to include essays, personal reflections and commemorations of significant note.
The Texas A&M mens' basketball program has been in existence for 100 years. For most of that time, they were an afterthought -- an unimportant appendage of an athletic program driven by football. But in recent years this has changed. The rise of Aggie basketball happened quickly.
We have reached a curious point in the history of Aggie hoops. Much has been written about how the Aggie football team is likely to fare in the SEC. The effect of this move on the mens' basketball team has not been as carefully explored. In addition to the change of conference, the Aggies are currently in the process of finding a new athletic director. The former athletic director, Bill Byrne, was very friendly to basketball and Aggie hoops flourished during his time in charge. And then there is the matter of coach Bill Kennedy's health -- last year, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease -- which for the purposes of this article I will ignore.
As Texas A&M prepares for life in a new conference, I thought it would be a good time to take a closer look at their basketball program. I wanted to consider where they had come from and what factors might influence their future. I don't have any answers about the Aggie's future, but I do have a few questions.
This sorry condition of Aggie basketball up through the late 80s and early 90s wasn't entirely their fault. For one thing, much of Texas A&M's basketball history took place in the Southwest Conference. From 1949-1996, the Southwest Conference finished college basketball's regular season with only 21 teams ranked in the final AP poll, or approximately 1 for every 2.3 seasons. To put that into a modern context, the SWC for most of its history played at what we might today call a "mid-major" level. The old SWC would probably be about as good as the modern Atlantic 10 or Missouri Valley conferences.
(As an aside, the SWC certainly wasn't as good as the Missouri Valley conference of the 40s through the 60s; a conference that included basketball legends such as Oscar Robertson and coaching great Hank Iba.)
The poor state of the SWC caused many of the best basketball players from Texas to leave the state for college. But the Aggie basketball program also suffered from another issue outside of its control. Texas high school basketball was not very good. There are a number of factors that are often cited as the reasons why high school basketball in Texas lagged behind much of the rest of the country for so many years. The most important ones seem to boil down to a combination of rules and culture pushing top athletes to spend more time developing at football rather than at basketball. Poor instruction and a general disinterest in the sport probably didn't help matters.
By the mid 1990s, these factors holding back Texas A&M were largely gone. Texas high school basketball was improving, and Texas A&M moved from the SWC to a newly formed conference where basketball received much more attention. Under these circumstances, and with many of the same historical barriers, basketball at The University of Texas thrived. But at Texas A&M it did not, at least not right away.
"I think the question here is, Why hasn't it [Texas A&M basketball] been better a long time ago? Because obviously they've got a lot of things here that you have to have. It goes back to the administration. They probably didn't care, but I think they care now." -- Texas basketball coach Rick Barnes (Houston Chronicle, 2007)
In 2002 Billy Gillispie, an assistant coach for Bill Self, took his first division one head coaching job at UTEP. His predecessor Jason Rabedeaux had not been successful. Rabedeaux had the difficult task of replacing retired coach Don Haskins, and Rabedeaux learned it isn't easy being in the shadow of a legend. Haskins holds a unique place in basketball history. Not many coaches have been the subject of a Disney movie.
The 2002-2003 basketball season at UTEP did not play out like a movie script. Gillispie's squad won 6 games and suffered 24 losses. It would have been hard to predict that Gillispie was about to rise through the college coaching ranks at a staggering pace. The following season was different. In 2004-2005, UTEP won 24 games and made the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than a decade.
Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne was just two years into his job. He hired Gillispie to be the head coach of the Aggies. The transformation was immediate. In the previous season under Melvin Watkins, the Aggies had not won a single Big XII game, and had only won 7 games in all. In Gillispie's first year, the Aggies went 8-8 in the conference, and won 21 games overall. Texas A&M had not won this many games in a season since 1980. 21 wins in a season was the third highest total in school history up to that point.
With the Aggies, Gillispie adopted a slow and grinding style of play. His team played a tough brand of pressure defense, forcing a large number of turnovers. The Aggies were methodical and disciplined on offense, protecting the ball and taking good shots. This style meshed well with a program that wasn't able to recruit McDonald's All-Americans. By his third season in College Station, Gillispie had turned the Aggies into a team that was in the hunt for a national title.
I doubt that anyone was surprised that Gillispie left College Station, given the job that was offered to him. He did exactly what most coaches would do when offered the Kentucky job. Texas A&M recovered quickly.
After losing Billy Gillispie, Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne needed a new coach. Byrne hired Mark Turgeon, head coach of Wichita State. Turgeon had been successful at Wichita State, making one NCAA tournament, reaching the sweet sixteen, and winning over 20 games in three consecutive years. Turgeon was a good fit for the new identity of Aggie basketball. Like Gillispie, Turgeon's teams were physical, focused on defense, and played a slow half-court game. Turgeon's approach to defense differed some from Gillispie's. Turgeon's teams did not apply the same degree of pressure and did not force many turnovers. They were still very difficult to score on.
The performance of Texas A&M during the Mark Turgeon's time was remarkably consistent. In each of his four seasons the Aggies won between 24 and 25 games and made the NCAA tournament. Turgeon's teams competed well in a tough basketball conference. Aggie basketball wasn't soaring to new, previously unattainable heights, but it was maintaining a level of respectable success.Texas A&M was a quality program winning against top competition.
The Aggies had come a long way from where they had been in 2003. The Kansas State and Baylor basketball programs were also improving over the same time period. The rise of these three programs added considerable depth to Big XII basketball.
An uncertain future
"I accepted the Maryland job earlier tonight. It was just too good an offer for me to pass on." -- Mark Turgeon, former Texas A&M basketball coach (Source)
"I'm really sorry to see Mark go. He did a tremendous job for us. He has continued to build our program. The good thing about this compared to when we hired Billy (Gillispie) and when we hired Mark is that we have built ourselves a basketball fan base and we've built ourselves some incredible facilities. So going out and attracting a great coach to Texas A&M is going to be a lot easier than when we hired Mark and when we hired Billy." -- Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne (Source)
I don't know that Mark Turgeon moving on to Maryland serves as an indictment of the Texas A&M basketball program. Maryland is a very attractive place to coach. The previous Maryland coach, Gary Williams, had left Ohio State to coach at Maryland. But it does give us a clear and realistic view of where Texas A&M stands in the basketball hierarchy. For any ambitious coach who succeeds at A&M, there will always be a better job somewhere else to consider.
Texas A&M basketball is now a stepping stone for coaches who want to run big name programs. It is hard to criticize Bill Byrne and the Aggie athletic program for this; Texas A&M has this problem precisely because it has hired well. The current Aggie coach Bill Kennedy is in many ways from the same mold as his predecessors. He has a solid track record, winning at Southeastern Louisiana and Murray State. His teams play a slow, grinding pace that is well matched for the type of players Texas A&M has been able to attract. The Aggies struggled this season, but that had as much to do with Khris Middleton's injury as anything else. Kennedy has enough going for him to suggest that he can win at A&M. The question is, if he does win, when will he move on to the next job?
The current Texas A&M basketball program is more or less as successful as The University of Texas basketball program in the last days of the Southwest Conference. This level of success is characterized by 20+ win teams and trips to the NCAA tournament in most years. Because the two programs share the same recruiting territory, we can look at the example of UT to see what factors could be important for determining the Aggie future.
The next critical step for the Aggies will be to improve their recruiting. Sustained success at the highest level for a college basketball program is difficult without bringing in the very best players. Coaching wizardry is great, but at some point you need guys who can beat the man guarding them. In the case of The University of Texas, making the leap in the late 1990s to a program that acquires top level players involved four factors. Let's see how each of these applies to the Aggies:
1) Improvement of Texas high school basketball. Texas high school basketball now produces a large number of top players. I am fond of the RSCI ranking, which is a composite of various recruiting rankings. Since 1998, Texas is second among states in the number of RSCI top 100 recruits. The state of Texas is also second among all states in RSCI top 50 recruits. This is the benefit of having such a large population. The state of Texas produces a decent number of players with the potential to have a very high impact. Since 1998, the state of Texas has produced 7 recruits ranked in the RSCI top 10, which is on par with results from traditional basketball states such as Illinois and Indiana. As the recruitment of Devonta Pollard showed, some kids want to play close to home. There is no reason why the Aggies can't take advantage of this.
2) Playing in a major basketball conference. Texas A&M will be playing in the SEC. This is a major conference, but it is likely a modest downgrade for the Aggies when compared with the Big XII, in terms of the national exposure for the basketball team. The SEC has two powerhouse programs that get a lot of national attention -- but there isn't much paid to the rest of the conference.
Don't believe me? Let's try a test. Without looking it up, name one member of the Alabama basketball team last season. Alabama was a good team; they won 9 games and made the NCAA tournament. I suspect that many readers would be able to name at least one player from a comparable program in the Big 10, Big East, Big XII, or ACC.
I watch and follow basketball pretty closely, and I didn't even see Alabama play until the end of January, when they played a surprisingly competitive game against Kentucky in Lexington. The reason is that Alabama wasn't on TV all that much. Alabama (a good team that went 9-7 in the SEC) played 8 conference games on CBS, ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU. Compare that with Texas A&M, a team that went 4-14 in conference play. 11 of the 18 Aggie regular season conference games were broadcast on ESPN, ESPN2, or ESPNU. It didn't matter that the Aggies had mostly faded from the national spotlight once conference play had started. Their conference affiliation got more then half of their conference games on TV.
Aggie basketball will spend less time on national TV in the SEC. This won't be helped if the Aggies keep up their practice of playing a really weak out of conference schedule. I don't know how much this will affect recruiting, but it certainly can't help.
3) Having a coach that recruits well. This is still an open question. Bill Kennedy hasn't been on the job for that long, and it takes a few years for most coaches to get their recruiting pipeline set up at a new university. The early returns seem respectable. J-Mychal Reese (RSCI #65) and Alex Caruso (RSCI #81) are the key members of Kennedy's first Aggie class.
(Caruso has one of the least impressive youtube videos that I have ever seen for a high school player. This is mostly because all of the footage seems to be shot in a single practice. I don't know that we ever learn very much about a player from these videos, and in Caruso's case I am pretty sure that we cannot. I suspect that he is a much better player than what this video shows.)
4) Leadership that supports basketball. Bill Byrne did a very good job of supporting basketball, and his hiring decisions were outstanding. This obviously extends to the womens' basketball program as well, which won a national championship in 2011. Who knows if Byrne's successor will do as well, and will provide the same level of focus and support for sports other than football. It seems unlikely that Aggie alumni will care enough to force basketball to be a priority for the next athletic director. Ideally for Aggie hoops, the next athletic director will be someone like Byrne, who supported basketball despite the lukewarm student and alumni interest.
College basketball is a very competitive sport. There are 345 teams in division one, and at least 100 of them are really good. Tiny private schools and giant state universities all want to kick ass, and all they need to do it is one great player or three really good ones. Barrier to entry is surprisingly low, which also means it can be hard to maintain success. When a school slips up in basketball, there are 100 teams that are ready to step on its throat.
I don't know what the future will hold for Texas A&M mens' basketball (other than it will probably involve many beatings in Lexington). With the move to the SEC and with uncertainty about the next athletic director, maintaining (or even improving) the Aggie mens' basketball program is not a sure thing.