In those first chaotic hours after Chris Beard’s arrest on December 12, the man tapped to take over the University of Texas men’s basketball program gathered a group of anxious players before that night’s scheduled game against Rice. Three months later, it seems clear that interim head coach Rodney Terry’s calm and confidence in that first meeting went a long way toward keeping one of the country’s best teams and a legitimate national champion contender together.

“Control what you can control,” Terry told the Longhorns that day. “In life you’re going to always have to adapt and adjust. Nobody controls your own destiny but you.” He’d just learned he would be the interim head coach as the school investigated the circumstances leading to Beard’s arrest for felony domestic violence. It would be another 24 days before Texas would fire Beard.

That first day, Terry, who grew up the son of a public school coach and teacher in the southeast Texas town of Angleton, told his players he did not have many answers. Instead, he urged them to trust one another, ignore the swirl of social media, and keep things simple. His instincts told him to rely heavily on a roster that was one of the country’s most seasoned and a coaching staff with a combined 45 years of head-coaching experience, including Terry’s 10 years in charge at UTEP and Fresno State.

At 54, Terry was plenty familiar with the University of Texas, having previously worked as a Longhorns assistant for nine seasons under Rick Barnes, the best coach in program history. Texas went to the NCAA tournament in all nine of those seasons, including a 2003 trip to the Final Four.

But this was different. This had been Chris Beard’s team and Chris Beard’s program. The coach had been the face of the program, its alpha leader, and its voice. He’d returned to his alma mater with fanfare from Texas Tech in the spring of 2021, promising to restore the luster to a program that had just been unceremoniously knocked out of the NCAA tournament by Abilene Christian.

In Austin, Beard worked every angle, holding fireside chats with players and celebrities, returning the Longhorns to the revered Gregory Gym for a game, and delivering two straight stellar recruiting classes. He was arm in arm with Matthew McConaughey, the self-appointed UT minister of culture, for the opening of the Moody Center, the new home of UT basketball. He called it the “best arena in the world.”

And then he was gone. Texas was 7–1 and ranked seventh in the Associated Press Top 25 at the time. Since December, players have had no meaningful contact with the coach who recruited them to the Forty Acres.

To think any single person could keep the program on track under those circumstances stretches the imagination—and Terry will tell you that it was not any single person. That it was a collaborative effort. That the players took ownership of the program. That the coaches worked in unison. Forward Timmy Allen told the Athletic of a conversation with guard Marcus Carr in which he said: “This is our team. This is our year. We control it. That’s the message. That’s what this is about. That’s all this is about. It’s about us.”

Carr added: “It got thrust on us. But we built a culture here. A coach might establish it, but it’s up to the players to live by it. It’s our standard.”

Terry has been the calm at the center of it all. Texas is 16–7 under him and 23–8 overall as it prepares to play Oklahoma State in the team’s Big 12 tournament opener Thursday night. The Longhorns are seventh in the Associated Press poll after finishing the regular season with a 75–59 rout of Kansas, the team widely projected to be the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament that begins next week.

“The guys set out at the very beginning with incredible goals for this season, and that was still all in play for them,” Terry told Sports Illustrated last month. “It was still in front of them. I give them a ton of credit. They made a commitment to one another to be great teammates and have each other’s back. I think you’ve seen that over the course of the last month and a half. Those guys are playing for each other and they’re playing to win.

“The best teams are player-driven. We had seven returners from last year. Coach [Beard] did a great job last year, and our staff did a great job from last year creating the culture, and the guys defended the culture.”

The most recent projections have Texas entering the Big Dance as a number two seed, and optimism abounds despite the midseason upheaval. Texas is among the country’s deepest teams, with nine players averaging double-digit minutes and four averaging double-digit scoring. UT is ninth in bench scoring with 29 points per game.

“What were we supposed to do?” forward Christian Bishop said to the Athletic. “Fall over? Honestly, just lay down and give up? ‘Oh the season is over.’ ”

Texas’s depth is reflected in the roster’s balanced scoring. Carr leads the team with 16.2 points per game, but three others—Sir’Jabari Rice, Allen, and Tyrese Hunter—are in double figures, and the bench averages another 29 points per outing.

Under Terry, the Longhorns have five victories over Top 25 teams and a 7–1 record in games decided by 5 points or less. Texas has rallied from several double-digit deficits, including an 18-point comeback for a 79–75 victory over TCU on January 11.

The Longhorns are the seventh-oldest team in the country, averaging 3.26 years of experience per player, according to KenPom. The UT roster has more than six hundred career starts and includes six players who are either seniors, fifth-year seniors, or grad students. Before he was fired, Beard constructed the Longhorns to win, and with a rotation that runs nine deep, they may be capable of doing just that.

“Not much has really changed,” Allen said of Terry taking over. “Maybe a few minor differences, but really it’s the same message. Just with that Southern twang of his.” 

Bob Donewald Jr. is the coaching staff’s offensive guru. He has more than a decade of head-coaching experience in international pro leagues and the NBA G League. On the defensive side, Chris Ogden was head coach at Texas-Arlington for three seasons. “One of the things that made it easy for the staff is R.T. just being an everyday guy,” Donewald said of Terry. “R.T.’s demeanor is not high, not low. We just followed our big brother and kept going.”

Former Texas great T. J. Ford told Sports Illustrated: “These guys are familiar with his voice. He’s a player’s coach, he’s easygoing, he’s understanding, he’s a listener. . . . This thing could have gotten really, really ugly. They’re still dedicated to the University of Texas, and I don’t want that to be understated.”

During a recent press sit-down, when reporters asked Terry about possibly getting hired to be the Longhorns’ full-time head coach, he wouldn’t even nibble. His answer, though, reflected plenty of what he’s told this team. “You live where your feet are, man,” he said. “Embrace it, you know. I don’t give any second thought to anything outside of the forty minutes that’s in front of us, to be honest with you. I think it’s about just enjoying the moment, you know what I mean?”

“I always tell guys that every day is a great day,” Terry continued. “We live it right now. We don’t know; tomorrow’s not even promised. We gotta live today to the fullest, man. And just be thankful for what we have.”