“We got it right.”
On April 1, Texas Longhorns athletics director Chris Del Conte was on a plane with new head basketball coach Chris Beard, watching Beard’s emotions as he processed ending his enormously successful time leading the Texas Tech Red Raiders and prepared himself for a homecoming on the Forty Acres. Those moments solidified Del Conte’s belief that the administration’s top choice was the best choice for the future of Longhorns basketball.
A little farther west and a little while later, UTEP head coach Rodney Terry, the longtime assistant under Rick Barnes, heard the news of Beard’s decision and felt similarly to Del Conte, calling it a “home-run hire” and quickly coming to the belief that Beard’s “gonna blow it out of the water” in Austin, he said during a Zoom meeting with reporters on Wednesday.
Beard arrived in Lubbock as an assistant for Bobby Knight at Texas Tech in 2001, a year before Rick Barnes hired Terry away from UNC-Wilmington to serve as one of his assistants on the Forty Acres. Over the next nine years, Beard and Terry competed against each other on the court and in recruiting, developing a relationship that left Terry convinced of Beard’s ability as a coach.
So after spending the last decade as a head coach at Fresno State and then UTEP, Terry was ready for his own homecoming at Texas.
“The one thing that really attracted me to coming back was having an opportunity to come back to work for Coach Beard,” Terry said.
Terry sounded like an echo of his head coach in talking about the expectations for Beard’s tenure as the Texas head coach — Beard was unapologetic in his introductory press conference about wanting to coach on Monday night again and win a national championship with the Longhorns. Terry believes.
“He’s the kind of guy who’s going to come back here and win a national championship here,” Terry said. “What he was able to build out in Texas Tech in the time that he was there was incredible — he’s the right guy, the right time.”
An Angleton native, in addition to previously serving as an assistant at Texas, Terry played college basketball in Austin at St. Edward’s and coached at Austin Bowie shortly after his playing career ended. As much as Terry loves the city and the University of Texas brand, he continually emphasized that his return was largely about his deep belief in Beard.
Former Texas Tech assistant Ulric Maligi and former Kansas assistant Jerrance Howard both looked up to Terry when they were coming up in the college basketball world, including a year coaching together at SMU in 2012-13.
“When we first got into the business, we all wanted to be like Rodney Terry,” Howard said. “So it just checked all the boxes to be on staff with a guy that all the younger coaches in my day grew up wanting to be like.”
Howard and Maligi always talked about working together again and the chance to win a national championship. Both have come close — Howard made it to the Final Four at Kansas and Maligi made it to Monday night with Beard.
Now they’re finally back together working with the associate head coach they admired as young assistants for a head coach they too believe can secure that title at Texas.
Maligi knew he wanted to be a coach at 15 when he was playing at Arlington Bowie after moving to Texas from North Carolina the year before. Asked by his Bowie head coach to lead the school’s spring league team, they went undefeated — through no great coaching of his own, Maligi says, in his first try — prompting the parents to ask Maligi to start an AAU squad that eventually became the Dallas Mustangs.
At Howard University, Maligi served as the head manager as an undergraduate and then returned to the Lone Star State to become an assistant at UT-Arlington. By that point, he started dreaming about being able to recruit with that Texas logo on his chest just like Terry.
So following Beard from Texas Tech to Texas was an easy decision for an assistant who has been back in the state since he was 21 and joined Beard in Lubbock in 2019 after working for Larry Brown, Jerry Lucas, and Billy Kennedy.
“He’s just elite — I’ve been fortunate to work for some really good head coaches at every level throughout my journey in my career thus far, but he’s a teacher, he’s diligent, he’s an everyday guy, he’s a developer of people,” Maligi said of Beard. “He wants everyone around him to be the best version of themselves every day. He demands excellence out of his players, his coaches, sports information director, everybody.”
Beard’s Texas teams will have a defense-first identity — as Terry knows, shooting percentages can fluctuate from game to game.
When Howard played for Bill Self at Illinois, the Fighting Illini had that type of defensive mentality with some of Howard’s former high school rivals from Peoria Manual.
In a physical, hard-nosed Big Ten that featured coaches like Knight, Gene Keady, and Tom Izzo, no Illinois player more personified that toughness than Manual product Sergio McClain, a 6’4, 230-pound forward with a linebacker’s build and commensurate mentality who served as the team’s emotional core.
The son of Manual head coach Wayne McClain, an eventual Illini assistant under Self and then Bruce Weber, the younger McClain knew how to play the right way. The Peoria way.
“I take a lot of pride and honor of being from Peoria and saying I’m a Peoria basketball player,” Howard said.
The values of playing hard and being tough and competitive were instilled in Howard from a young age in Peoria and then reinforced playing in a rugged conference under Self. A continued belief in those values were what always attracted Howard to Beard as a coach. Self and Beard aren’t perfect analogues in their coaching styles, but they do share common traits that made Howard feel comfortable leaving Kansas and the coach both Beard and Howard call “The Godfather” to accept a new challenge at Texas.
Even as Beard and Howard want to flash back to those Big Ten teams from 20 years ago, there is the modern twist that the new staff wants to put on the old formula.
“We want those old school Big Ten games where the score is 58 to 61 and that’s just credit to that toughness and grinding games out and being the tougher team and getting stops, so we definitely want to bring that basketball back,” Howard said.
“But on the flip side, we want to play at a high level and play fast — you want to play at a pace where it’s fun to watch.”
All three assistants are also known as strong recruiters.
Terry in particular has seen the recruiting landscape change tremendously, but the biggest change for all of them occurred in recent weeks with the one-time transfer waiver.
Now, instead of projecting players to remain on campus for two or three or more years, roster management is a year-to-year task.
“The dynamics have changed a great deal, but we’re still going to be a program that’s kind of built with high school kids,” Terry said.
Terry understands that recruiting is based on relationships and he’s now spent 25 years building those relationships in the state of Texas.
Maligi, of course, is young enough to look up to Terry, who is 17 years his elder, and may be one of the best in the business at building relationships — Maligi never liked the assistants who came off as used-car salesmen who over promised and under delivered. The first college graduate in his family, Maligi got into coaching to build relationships, to be a mentor, to see players graduate themselves, and to see all their hard work pay off in getting to play professionally.
“I can’t believe they pay me to do this — I get a chance to fulfill my dream every day,” Maligi said.
Instead of trying to evaluate and land recruits before Texas gets in on them, Maligi’s challenge in the past, his task on the Forty Acres now that he has that iconic logo on his chest is to ensure that the Longhorns don’t let any players slip through the cracks. At Texas Tech, it wasn’t just Transfer U, as Maligi worked with Beard and the rest of the staff to identify and land those under-the-radar prospects.
The only 2021 Texas signee, wing Jaylon Tayson, is exactly that sort of player — Beard and Maligi built a relationship with Tyson before he took off as a junior on both ends of the court, scoring at three levels and showing the defensive toughness that Beard demands. As a senior, Tyson improved further as a playmaker for his teammates after signing with Texas Tech and finished the cycle nearly ranked as a five-star prospect by 247Sports.
The relationship that Beard and Maligi built with Tyson survived the coaching transition and Tyson ended up followed them to Austin after Beard took the Texas job.
When it coms to handling major roster turnover, like Beard and his assistants are facing this season, it’s arguable that no one is better at that task in college basketball than the new Texas head coach.
Maligi believes that has a lot to do with Beard’s experience working at the junior college and semi-professional levels, forcing Beard to quickly develop an ability to fit rosters together with complementary pieces. Sure, most teams that win the Big 12 have at least three future professional players on the roster, in Terry’s estimation, but the bigger key is each player buying into their specific role.
“You can’t have five corner pieces — you can only have four, and I think he gets that in terms of building championship teams,” Maligi said of Beard.
With Beard focused on a positionless style of basketball that doesn’t feature particular assistants coaching particular positions and demands that players can switch on defense and play in versatile roles on offense, the three experienced transfers fit that mold in forwards Timmy Allen, Dylan Disu, and Christian Bishop.
“We’re getting proven guys — guys that have already put it in the books, you know what I mean? Obviously, they’re gonna have to adapt and adjust to our style of play and the way we do things, but those guys have already done it at a very high level,” Terry said.
Allen is a point forward who can pass and play with or without the basketball, according to Terry, who called Disu one of the best players in the SEC because of his rebounding, scoring ability, and his length. Bishop received commendations for his athleticism and his own rebounding ability.
Texas isn’t done yet in the portal and still has two players from last year’s roster who have yet to make decisions about their futures — forwards Jericho Sims and Greg Brown III — but Terry believes that the Longhorns are close to putting the 2021-22 team together over the next few weeks, with Maligi teasing the potential addition of another 2021 high school player.
No matter what happens as the rest of the roster comes together, there’s a profound sense that there’s something special about Beard’s homecoming, the relationship with Terry that led to his own homecoming, and the relationship between Maligi and Howard that resulted in the Kansas assistant rejoining his old friend and leaving his coaching mentor.
“Opportunities have a lot to do with time and I think the time was just right, to step out on faith and have a new challenge,” Howard said.
A Monday night type of challenge.