AUSTIN, Texas — “These decisions are never easy, and I am an emotional person. But I don’t make decisions based on emotions.”
With a voice that trembled at times with emotion, Texas Longhorns athletics director Chris Del Conte introduced former associate head coach and former interim head coach Rodney Terry as the program’s 26th head coach after what school president Jay Hartzell described as a “very long job interview” he thanked Terry for making “easy.”
What both leaders made clear is that the elevation for the former longtime assistant to Rick Barnes ultimately wrapped around the spectrum from emotional to rational after Terry stepped in amidst the adversity of Chris Beard’s felony domestic violence arrest and held the team together to finish second in the Big 12 regular season before going on one of the most magical postseason runs in school history, winning the conference tournament and then advancing to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2008 before falling just short of the Final Four.
When news of Beard’s arrest broke on Dec. 12, hours before Texas was set to host Rice at the Moody Center in the season’s ninth game, Del Conte’s emotions mirrored the shock and uncertainty of the situation.
“I remember not too long ago, when we made the decision to appoint Coach Terry as the interim coach and we had a conversation, how nervous I was to meet with you all, nervous not knowing exactly what was going to become of our team,” Del Conte said, addressing the players assembled to support their coach’s introductory press conference.
In the midst of all the upheaval, there was still a basketball game to play, so Del Conte handed Terry a whistle and offered a simple message.
“You’re in this job — it belongs to you,” Del Conte told Terry. “Block out all the noise. Block out everyone who is gonna say that you can’t do the job. Block out everything that we can [block out].”
The veteran team responded, gutting out a tough overtime win over the Owls keyed by early jumpers from sixth-year senior guards Sir’Jabari Rice and Marcus Carr in the extra period and then clinched by Carr at the free-throw line.
As Del Conte and leadership up to Board of Regents chairman Kevin Eltife watched Terry’s leadership under pressure and how the team banded together, they knew in the days after Terry took over that he was the right person to take over the program, but Del Conte wanted to stay true to his policy of not making coaching decisions during the season. He wanted to see how it would all unfold. To make a rational decision instead of an emotional decision.
Terry did his part, constantly deflecting questions about how much he wanted the job by putting the focus back on the team, but current and former players became increasingly vocal as the postseason run unfolded with fans and the national media joining the chorus of calls for Terry to have the interim label removed after the Sweet 16 win over Xavier.
When Texas reached the Elite Eight, Terry was hoping for a Final Four berth as his birthday present on Monday. Instead, he signed a five-year deal for $15.3 million — his longtime goal of becoming a high-major head coach was finally reality, albeit more surreal than anything for Terry, who was still trying to process it all on Tuesday morning as current players, former players like TJ Ford and LaMarcus Aldridge, and other burnt orange luminaries like legendary women’s basketball coach Jody Conradt filled the Carpenter-Winkler Centennial Room in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and burst into standing ovations on multiple occasions.
“Every day and every year, you’re just blessed to be here and have an opportunity to live in the moment and have an opportunity of a lifetime to be the head coach here — it’s a dream come true for myself,” Terry said. “I’m a native Texan, a Texas guy through and through. You won’t find a more Texas guy than Rodney Terry.”
The dream started following a playing career at St. Edward’s University in Austin and a one-year stint on that staff before Terry spent several years as a high school coach, making the jump back to college as an assistant under Harry Miller at Baylor. A few years later, Terry got his big break when Rick Barnes hired him from UNC Wilmington in 2002, just as the Longhorns were entering a golden era under Barnes that eventually featured a Final Four, three Elite Eights, and five Sweet 16s.
prepared for the moment #HookEm pic.twitter.com/V0UwiGkci4— Texas Men’s Basketball (@TexasMBB) March 28, 2023
The success on the Forty Acres earned Terry a chance to rebuild Fresno State in 2011. Over seven seasons with the Bulldogs, Terry made one NCAA Tournament appearance before returning to the Lone Star State in 2018 as the UTEP head coach. In 10 seasons as a head coach, Terry compiled a 163-156 (.511) record before joining Beard’s staff in 2021 as associate head coach.
During the pandemic, Terry had bought a house in Austin, a sign of his commitment to a city in which he’d spent 16 formative years that bridged his playing and coaching careers. In a prominent place downstairs, he hung a picture of a Longhorn even though he was still coaching at UTEP.
“I purchased a home because I love this city and I love this community and I knew no matter where my journey took me, I knew one day I wanted to continue to be here and I wanted to help this community,” Terry said. “I purchased a home not even knowing that I’d have an opportunity to come back and be a part of this university again — maybe be around it, but not be a part of it — but again, God has the master plan. When we think we know where we’re supposed to be, he puts you right where you’re supposed to be.”
For Terry, that was back on the Forty Acres when Beard made his own return to Austin after coaching Texas Tech to a national championship game in 2019. But as Terry made that move, he made an important promise to himself after pushing hard to find success at Fresno State and UTEP, two programs with only limited historic success that the new Texas head coach described as “total rebuilds” when he arrived.
“Even as you got the program where you wanted it, you still would just fight every day to continue to try to keep the program there and I think I never really got a chance to enjoy it — as you build it and you thought you had a level of success, you still just really didn’t enjoy it,” Terry said.
So Terry took the opportunity to step back and reflect on what mentors like Barnes, Miller, and Jerry Wainwright at UNC Wilmington had often told him — to enjoy the moment or, as Terry likes to say now, “live where your feet are.”
“It sounds a whole lot easier than to actually do it,” Terry said. “But having a chance to step back that one year maybe put a lot of things into perspective and I vowed that if I got another chance to be a head coach, I was going to be Rodney Terry — guys call me RT — that I was going to have fun, I was going to enjoy it every day, I was going to smile, I was going to coach guys hard, hold them accountable, but I’m going to enjoy the process doing it.”
Terry still builds his program around defense — it travels, as he constantly preaches to his team — but his preacher-like attitude that Del Conte said made team meetings feel at times like a Sunday sermon fundamentally changed how Terry interacted with the Texas team as its interim head coach, focusing on laughing and joking with his players when he could and coaching the team with more poise and calmness during games, a sharp contrast to Beard, the red-faced authoritarian prone to sideline tirades reminiscent at times of his mentor Bobby Knight.
Fundamentally, though, Terry was still much the same person who earned Longhorn legend TJ Ford’s support after mentoring the point guard on the way to the program’s only Final Four in the modern era.
“He’s an excellent man, excellent at giving advice and wisdom,” Ford said on Tuesday. “We talk basketball all the time, but we also talk about life all the time. He’s been an important person in my life — that has nothing to do with just basketball because in my own experiences and things that I deal with, he’s been a good voice for listening and reasoning, and letting me know when there are things I could do different.”
The relationships that Terry built in his time as an assistant at Texas not only contributed to the widespread support he received on Tuesday and in the lead up to the most rational decision the administration could make about its head basketball coach, but also formed the foundation of Terry’s approach that allowed him to put the final piece of his coaching style in place to help this year’s team overcome so much adversity in producing one of the best seasons in school history.
And so, in the surreal haze of Terry’s birthday dinner after signing the contract to fulfill his dream of more than 30 years to coach a program like Texas, his mother received a notification from ESPN, the kind she and Terry’s late father, who passed away last fall, would often receive this time of year, ever prompting one or the other or maybe even both to tell Terry he’d be perfect for the job. Jay Wright just retired at Villanova? Their son would be perfect for the job.
On Terry’s 54th birthday, the notification was finally for him — he was the perfect guy for the job, and Charles Philips could beam down from heaven with his horns up, wearing one of those Elite Eight rings gifted by his son that he’d always worn so proudly in his mortal life.