Ask any fan what type of coach they want and how they want their program run, and they’re quick to start listing a series of unyielding principles that promote toughness and discipline. Listen closely enough, and they sound a lot like A Few Good Men, only instead of terms like “code,” “honor,” and “loyalty,” they use words like “hardnosed,” “demanding,” and “accountable.”
For a coach to embody all of those adjectives, there’s a certain way he must conduct himself, and there’s an inherent philosophy he must enforce. He has to require that everybody practices hard, that everybody plays hard, and that if you don’t do both of those, you won’t see the floor. He has to adhere to an unbendable creed: If you’re loafing, you’re coming out. If you’re not doing your job, you’re coming out. If you keep making the same mistake over and over and over, if you just don’t get it, we’re going to find somebody else who does. And above all else, he has to be fully focused on the process, and he can’t put any individual above the greater good of the team, sometimes sacrificing the present for the future.
On paper, what fan in America would take issue with this ethos? It’s what they scream about from the cheap seats and it’s what they post oh-so eloquently about on their message boards. The second a player commits a silly foul or blows an assignment or gets beat for an easy bucket, they want him immediately shown the bench—and they expect their coach to follow through on their desires. If the coach doesn’t, he’s labeled weak, or coddling, or spineless. In other words, it’s their Webster’s Dictionary definition of Mack Brown.
Well, Barnes is carrying out those wishes. All of them. In a sense, he’s coaching the way the message board geniuses and the knuckleheads in the fifth row would coach if they were given the keys to the team—only he’s doing so not quite as irrationally or impulsively, and driven by solid, thought-out reasoning.
It’s obvious in his comments to the media, and it’s even more apparent in the way he manages games. If a player doesn’t execute or give maximum effort on every possession, that player’s almost assuredly coming out at the next whistle. Look no further than sophomore Sheldon McClellan. As the leading scorer on a team that struggles to score (Texas ranks 258th in the country at 64.1 points per game), you’d think he’d never leave the floor, but it’s been almost the opposite. His desire and concentration have been sporadic at best, and Barnes has yo-yoed his minutes accordingly. Early in conference play against Iowa State, McClellan got beat for an offensive rebound/put-back on his first possession of action, immediately got yanked, and didn’t play the rest of the game. It was the same thing last week against TCU, when he subbed in, failed to fight through a screen on defense—then failed to get out of his warm-ups the rest of the night.
This quick-trigger treatment hasn’t been limited to McClellan, either. Nobody is immune from it; Barnes is an equal opportunity enforcer. Guys like Julien Lewis, Jaylen Bond, Prince Ibeh, Ioannis Papapetrou, and Cameron Ridley—guys who were highly regarded and expected to be integral parts of this team—have all seen their minutes taken at times by others who, at least in Barnes’ eyes, have done things the right way.
In a vacuum, it’s hard to argue with this hard-line approach. How can you create a hardnosed squad if you don’t insist on all-out effort? How can you be great if you don’t demand precise execution? How can you hold your team accountable if you play those in games who fail to bring it every day in practice, or who repeatedly fail to prove trustworthy?
The counter would be that every player is different, and there are different keys for reaching each of them—some respond to tough love, some shrink from it. And some guys are just poor practice players, yet are able to perform when the lights come on. And sometimes, instead of giving the quick hook, you have to let guys play through mistakes, because when they’re terrified of screwing up, it only leads to them doing it more often. But more than anything, regardless of what method is used, it’s the coach’s responsibility to get his players to produce, and thus, it’s his fault when they don’t. He recruited them, he’s around them every day, he devises and directs the strategy they’re expected to follow in games, so it’s up to him to figure out what works. There’s a very linear logic to it:
His job is to get players to perform—players aren’t performing—therefore, he’s failing at his job.
There’s merit to both arguments, and like most things, the ideal methodology probably lies somewhere in the middle. But the only time this discussion comes up, the only time when fans actually worry about the approach their coach is taking is when things aren’t going well. Because while principles may sound good in theory, there’s really only one thing that matters in reality:
Fans only appreciate what’s working—right here, right now. Not what worked yesterday. Not what worked last week. Right now. That’s it. And the moment the losses start to come, they flee from any preconceived code quicker than PFC William T. Santiago. Magically, being hardnosed, demanding, and accountable transforms into being hard-headed, stubborn, and out of touch. Instead, they want someone who’s a player’s coach, who gives their guys the freedom to express themselves. After all, when the Dallas Cowboys were winning three Super Bowls in the 1990’s, there weren’t any Cowboy fans who took issue with Jimmy Johnson giving preferential treatment to certain players, or who were bothered by the stars of their team snorting cocaine off hookers’ stomachs after practice, were there? More often than not, though, fans want any coach from any other school in the country who is having success at that exact moment.
It’s all about the scoreboard, and right now, the scoreboard is not being kind to Rick Barnes. And even though he’s building a foundation for a promising future, if things don’t change soon, he won’t be around to see the project through. The cries for his head will inevitably get louder, the apathy towards the program will grow stronger, and the powers-that-be will ultimately have no choice but to give in and give the fans what they want.
Despite the fact that, if you listen closely, they’re currently getting exactly that.
You can contact Brent Stoller at [email protected]