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Evaluating the Rick Barnes Decision

What are the parameters for evaluating Barnes' future at Texas?

Rick Barnes wants that muffin. That one right next to the one you are touching.
Rick Barnes wants that muffin. That one right next to the one you are touching.
Ronald Martinez

Sometime over the last four years, the Texas basketball fan base started to become disenchanted with head coach Rick Barnes. "Why Rick Barnes should be fired" has become a popular topic of discussion in the comments sections here at BON, popping up with each loss over the last two seasons.

By and large, the two of us have supported retaining Rick Barnes, although that support has never been unconditional. Our basic argument boiled down to this: prior to the 2012-2013 season, Rick Barnes record at Texas was outstanding. Barnes' critics seemed to focus heavily on Texas' recent string of NCAA tournament disappointments, using that as a basis for arguing for his replacement. We essentially rejected this argument for three reasons:

1. Coaches that win 70 percent of their games don't grow on trees, and while there had been some recent post-season disappointments, the Texas program consistently performed at a level that all but a few programs would envy.

2. Replacing Rick Barnes came with significant downside risk, and had relatively little upside. This was an argument that was supported by recent college basketball history; there are very few examples of schools that have replaced coaches who performed as well as Barnes had and actually improved. Conversely, the recent past is littered with examples of universities unable to replace a successful coach.

3. Focusing on recent NCAA tournament performance, and rejecting all other evidence, is just not our style. Although it seems to be the key element in many coaching retention decisions these days, we believe that this is suboptimal, myopic, and likely to lead to truly undesirable results. Other universities pursuing this strategy do not seem to be reaping benefits.

None of this has ever been to say that Rick Barnes should never be replaced. Particularly after this season, this miserable season, it's become much easier to envision the end of Rick Barnes' tenure in Austin.

The Coach Makes The Program

An important characteristic of college basketball is that the coach makes the program. While there are some other factors that come into play, such as geography, for the most part it is the ability of the coach to deal with the unique challenges and advantages of a particular institution that determines success.

This assertion is perhaps an uncomfortable ones for Texas fans to swallow. Very few schools have huge structural advantages on the hardwood, and Texas isn't one of them. Sure the University has money, and Texas' deep pockets means that it can enjoy certain luxuries, like having a separate basketball practice facility or flying charter to games. These used to be significant advantages, but these days these luxuries are enjoyed by nearly every other major conference program, as well as virtually all of the prominent "high mid-majors." (Nothing divides haves and have nots more than the ability to fly charter.)

Another often cited advantage that Texas should capitalize on is the large number of good basketball players that live in the state. This is a real thing. There are good high school players in Texas, but there are also good high school players in California, in the northeast, in Florida, in the mid-Atlantic states, and all over the midwest. The state of Texas has a huge population, but that population doesn't turn out a particularly high rate of top high school basketball players on a per capita basis, which dilutes the impact of Texas' size advantage. Texas high school basketball has produced more RSCI top 100 players than any other state not named California, but the advantage over much smaller states isn't as large as you might expect. (For what it is worth, mid-Atlantic states like Virginia and Maryland produce a staggering number of good players. And Indiana's basketball reputation is well-earned.)

With that said, we feel that an inability to capitalize on Texas' elite in-state players is the biggest worry with the current path of the program.

This is not meant to excuse poor performance at The University of Texas, but is rather meant to make a very important point: we are not special. If Texas wants to have a strong basketball team, it isn't going to happen without a really good coach.

Downside Risk

When thinking about a coaching change, it is important to consider just what the downside looks like. This downside risk explains why we have continued to support Rick Barnes after each NCAA tournament failure.

If you accept the basic premise that the coach makes the program, then the downside risk of a coaching change is that a program will end up being terrible. Basically, the best way to think of the downside risk is to imagine the 2012-2013 Texas basketball season repeated for each of the next five to ten years.

Such a drop off in performance is very common when a successful coach retires, leaves for greener pastures, gets fired, or otherwise is run out of a program. Here are a few examples taken from a long list of coaching changes that did not go well. These examples have been selected to specifically highlight cases where a coach was fired or run off, and things went south quickly.

Arkansas has suffered a lost decade of irrelevance after Nolan Richardson was dismissed in 2002 after lashing out in the media. The national championship winning coach was a tough act to follow. Since Richardson left, Arkansas has a total of three trips to the NCAA tournament, and only one win. The Razorbacks are on their third coach, and can no longer be considered a national power.

Wake Forest head coach Skip Prosser died suddenly in the summer of 2007. Prosser was a very good coach, part of a long line of outstanding Xavier head coaches who had success at other programs as well. Dino Gaudio was named as Prosser's replacement. In the five seasons prior to Prosser's death, Wake Forest had an average winning percentage of 66 percent. After Prosser passed, the average five year winning percentage was 54 percent. But by 2010, Gaudio at least seemed to have the program on a decent track, taking the Demon Deacons to the NCAA tournament two seasons in a row.

Then, after winning his first round NCAA tournament match up against Texas, Gaudio was fired. Some of the reasoning was recounted by ESPN's Andy Katz:

"The decision was based on the overall performance the past three years," [Wake Forest AD Ron] Wellman said. "I looked at our February and March records and how the performances declined rather dramatically. We were 16-17 in February in those three years and in March 4-7, and 1-6 in postseason play, including the ACC tournament. In six of those losses, we were the higher-seeded team or better seeded in five of those losses. Yet the games weren't even close."

Wake Forest no longer has to worry about having a poor record in postseason play. Problem solved. On the other hand, now the Deacons don't just lose games in February and March. In the three seasons since firing Gaudio, Wake Forest has gone 34-60.

North Carolina State suffered a long post-Jim Valvano drought, but Herb Sendek had finally gotten the Wolfpack back to the NCAA tournament. By 2006, Sendek had been to five consecutive NCAA tournaments, including one trip to the Sweet 16. It wasn't enough. Wolfpack fans wanted more and Sendek was run off. Wolfpack fans didn't get more. Instead they got five seasons of Sidney Lowe, and no trips to the NCAA tournament.

Notre Dame suffered a losing record and missed the NCAA tournament in 1991, and Digger Phelps was pushed to retire. It was only the sixth time in Phelps' 20 seasons at Notre Dame that he had missed out on the tournament, and it snapped a streak of six consecutive trips. After Phelps was pushed out, Notre Dame's next NCAA tournament trip would not come until 2001.

Michigan fired Steve Fischer for things that had nothing to do with on court performance; he was let go because he was the man in charge of the program during the Ed Martin scandal. But they still had to go out and find a replacement. In retrospect, Loyola's Brian Ellerbe seems an odd choice, and after four seasons with him Michigan replaced him with Tommy Amaker. Amaker was a young and promising coach at the time, with modest success at Seton Hall, and experience as a player and coach under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. Amaker looked great on paper, but he went six seasons at Michigan without a single trip to the NCAA tournament. All told, Michigan went a full ten years without a single NCAA tournament berth, before John Beilein got them back in 2009.

Iowa's fall into basketball irrelevance is an interesting case study in a program that grew tired of a successful coach, and replaced him with a young up-and-comer. Tom Davis won more games than any coach in school history, but Davis' contract was not renewed after the 1998-1999 season -- a season where Iowa reached the Sweet Sixteen. Steve Alford was the young coach desired by everyone. In the last five seasons coached by Davis, Iowa's average winning percentage was 68 percent. In the first five seasons coached by Alford, Iowa's winning percentage was 55 percent. In 2007, Alford left for New Mexico, and was replaced by Butler coach Todd Lickliter. Lickliter doesn't coach at Iowa anymore either. Since letting Davis go, Iowa only has won one NCAA tournament game. Although to Iowa's credit, the Hawkeyes have at least made the NCAA tournament three times in the last 14 years.

Upside Potential

History shows that there is real downside risk with making a coaching change. But there are of course some counter examples that illuminate the upside potential of making a coaching change, as well.

Kentucky replaced Tubby Smith, and after a false start ended up winning a national title with John Calipari. And Louisville pushed out Denny Crum, and has won big with Rick Pitino. Of course, the lesson in these cases is probably that if you have to replace your coach, you are best served hiring a coach with a long track record of high level success.

Sadly, very few schools can realistically hire coaches with this sort of track record, and even for the best programs these sorts of candidates are not always available. Recall that North Carolina once hired Matt Doherty, a coach with with a resume that in no way matched what would typically be expected for the head man in Chapel Hill. UNC eventually corrected its mistake by hiring Roy Williams.

Every once in a while a school will get lucky the way Marquette did when it guessed right on one of their assistant coaches, Buzz Williams. At the time, Williams had only one year of head coaching experience in the Sun Belt (his conference record that year was 9-9). Or the way Michigan State did when it promoted Jud Heathcote's longtime assistant Tom Izzo after Heathcote retired. But let's be clear here, these cases are outliers, and it is hard to understand how these successes could be predictably repeated.

The Risk/Reward Calculation

We have long supported Rick Barnes as the basketball coach of The University of Texas. Prior to the 2012-2013 season, the risk/reward calculation associated with this change just didn't make sense to us, and the debate over whether or not Barnes should be retained as head coach seemed to us fairly clear cut. Changing coaches always seemed like a move with little upside, and a great deal of downside. The near-best case scenario would be to replace Barnes with another coach who would approach or match his level of success.

After doing more research on this topic, it's clear that Texas fans are hardly alone in their impatience. Universities foolishly run off or fire successful coaches rather frequently, thinking that they can do better. Some examples of this sort of thinking were highlighted above. Schools that hired future Hall of Famers with long track records of success at multiple universities got away with it, but schools that didn't suffered.

The lousy 2012-2013 season impacts the analysis because the program's current level has sunk closer than ever before to the downside in the risk/reward calculation. And with another year or two like this last season, the fact of the matter is that the downside risk won't seem so bad any longer; we will be close enough to the downside that there won't be much risk at all. Moreover, there won't be much reason to believe that Barnes achieving the highest level of success.

If the downside risk of a bad hire is that the 2012-2013 Texas basketball season is repeated for each of the next five to ten years, that risk is much more palatable when it looks like things might end up that way even without a coaching change.

The Difficulty of Changing Coaches

Part of the challenge that comes with replacing a coach is that the pool of coaches willing to take the job isn't particularly deep. In another piece in this series, we take a look at four recent high profile coaching changes as an example of how an actual coaching search goes. These recent coaching changes highlight a major issue with firing a coach -- the most desirable replacements don't seem to want to leave their current positions. The real pool of candidates is mostly occupied by coaches that are out of work, dissatisfied with their present position, or have resumes that are a little light for the position. Only in rare cases can a school actually hire a "sure thing" like Rick Pitino or John Calipari.

If You Do... Get It Right

The importance of making the right coaching hire is well illustrated by comparing the fates of the Texas and Texas A&M basketball programs over the last 20 years. The main difference between Texas basketball and Texas A&M basketball over the last two decades has been the coaches. Most of everything else has been the same:

The two schools recruit the same region.

Both schools have historically experienced similar levels of fan engagement and national visibility.

Both until very recently have played in the same conference, providing access to the same level of national exposure.

Texas A&M was actually a somewhat better program for portions of the 1980s, but for the sake of argument we will call it a draw.

The difference between these two programs since 1990 is basically that Texas hired two good coaches in a row, Tom Penders and Rick Barnes, and Texas A&M hired Tony Barone and Melvin Watkins.

When the time to replace Rick Barnes comes, if the replacement choice isn't right, Texas basketball will wither and die. And then, like so many others who went down this path before us, we will pass the time hoping for the next savior to come along.

In the end, we all want the same thing: wins. Until recently, we'd always been satisfied with Barnes' ability to win, and his potential to win big. But things are headed the wrong direction, and if Barnes can't turn them around -- and quickly -- then there won't be any downside to fear. It'll just be time to roll the dice.