The late University of Texas football coach Darrell K. Royal had already won all three of his national championships when he offered some advice to a new hire in 1976.
“This job’s not that hard,” the soon-to-be-retired Royal told then–rookie women’s basketball coach Jody Conradt. “You just have to be number one or better.”
Conradt went on to build Longhorns women’s hoops as surely as DKR built football; she and Royal are the only coaches who’ve been honored with statues on the UT-Austin campus. They were also irreplaceable—including by their own late-career selves. Royal won his last national title in 1970 and went 5-5-1 in his final season; it took the Horns 21 years and three coaches before Mack Brown began to set the program right. Conradt, meanwhile, led UT to one championship, one Final Four, and five Elite Eight appearances between 1982 and 1990, with another Final Four trip in 2003. She retired in 2007 with nine hundred career wins, and neither of her first two successors—Gail Goestenkors (2007–12) and Karen Aston (2012–20)—were able to get the Longhorns back on top . . . or ahead of Baylor, for that matter.
Texas football is, of course, back in the same cycle: eight years and three coaches into trying to live up to Brown, who also finished badly. But UT women’s basketball might have finally regained its footing. This is only Vic Schaefer’s second season as head coach, but the second-seeded Longhorns team that pummeled seventh-seeded Utah 78–56 in the second round of the women’s NCAA tournament looks ready for a run, starting with Friday’s Sweet Sixteen matchup against Ohio State. It’s Schaefer, slightly more so than men’s basketball coach Chris Beard and definitely more so than football coach Steve Sarkisian, who should be considered UT athletic director Chris Del Conte’s biggest coaching get, having won even more at Mississippi State than Beard did at Texas Tech. Schaefer is also the most likely of the three to win a championship, perhaps as soon as, well, now.
But even if that doesn’t happen this year—if UT can get through Ohio State, the Longhorns will probably meet defending champion and number one seed Stanford in the Elite Eight—Schaefer has already checked just about all the boxes for fans in Austin, including an earlier-than-expected Elite Eight run last season (the Horns’ first since 2016), and a Big 12 tournament championship this year (the first since Conradt’s in 2003). UT’s 67–58 win over Baylor in the conference title game was also just the third time Texas has beaten the Bears since 2010. The Horns have also already knocked off Stanford on the road this season, way back in November. They also tagged Texas A&M with a loss in the Aggies’ final campaign under Schaefer’s longtime mentor Gary Blair. (Schaefer was associate head coach on Blair’s staff for A&M’s 2011 national championship run.)
Schaefer happens to be an A&M graduate, but he was also born to take the Longhorns job—literally, having come into the world at Austin’s Brackenridge Hospital, across the street from the Frank Erwin Center, UT basketball’s home arena. (And now, of course, that spot will be part of the medical school.) He began his coaching career in 1990 with seven hit-or-miss seasons at Sam Houston before becoming Blair’s assistant for the better part of fifteen years, first at Arkansas and then in College Station. In 2012, Schaefer took over as head coach at Mississippi State, where the only thing he didn’t do was win a championship—though if you saw the Bulldogs break UConn’s 111-game winning streak in the 2017 Final Four, it sure felt like he had. Like hockey’s “Miracle on Ice” in 1980, that dramatic win—in overtime, no less—was actually in the semifinal. Unlike the Miracle on Ice, it wasn’t followed by another triumph. MSU lost to South Carolina that year, and also fell to Notre Dame in the 2018 final.
But those two Final Four appearances (plus an Elite Eight in 2019) still indicate a major upgrade for UT. The chance to win his first championship in Austin—and to restore what was once the state’s signature women’s basketball program to the national conversation—was a challenge Schaefer couldn’t pass up, even though he’d just finished building his dream house in Starkville, Mississippi (the money also isn’t bad, of course).
Schaefer came to Texas with an almost plug-and-play coaching staff (including associate head coach Dionnah Jackson-Durrett and his daughter, Blair Schaefer, who played on Mississippi State’s two Final Four teams) and is now riding a mix of holdovers and new arrivals, including transfer guard Aliyah Matharu, who played for Schaefer at MSU, and freshmen Rori Harmon and Aaliyah Moore, who were last year’s top high school players in Texas and Oklahoma, respectively. Point guard Harmon is the team’s breakout star and leader: a tone-setter, playmaker, and stopper. Moore has been an offensive force in the tournament, pouring in 21 points in just 21 minutes against Utah.
Since losing twice to Baylor in early February, the Horns are 13–0, with wins over all four Big 12 teams they’ve previously lost to (Baylor, Kansas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma). For the season, they held opponents to just 56.5 points a game, with a stifling, aggressive defense that even flummoxed Utah, which had the Pac 12’s top offense through the regular season and entered Sunday’s game with Texas coming off a 92-point bombardment of Arkansas in the first round. On offense against the Utes, the Longhorns also made sixteen straight shots, coincidentally mirroring the UT men’s streak of misses against Purdue.
You can say that all Schaefer’s team has done in this year’s tournament is win the games it’s supposed to win, but March Madness being what it is, that’s more than Baylor, LSU, and Iowa can say. The Longhorns also might not have even reached their peak yet—not just this year, but for years to come. And that is less about their talent, or Schaefer’s X’s and O’s, than it is about grit and intangibles.
“If somebody describes your team as a tough, physical, aggressive basketball team, that doesn’t say anything about your skill set,” Schaefer said on Thursday in Spokane. “Yet that’s the way I love my team to be described.”
In group chats, the Longhorns players tell each other, “One game at a time.” Before every game, they make it a point to say “Punch first.” Such things are easy to say, but harder to execute. That is Schaefer’s secret sauce—having great players and being a great coach, but never acting like that’s actually the case. (This is also what makes Nick Saban Nick Saban with Alabama football.)
Schaefer tells his players, “Just be Texas. Texas is good enough.” Fans of UT football, as well as of men’s and women’s basketball, have heard that sort of talk before. Schaefer might be the first coach in a while to make it mean something.
“Coach says this a lot—success is just so fleeting, so you always want to keep chasing it,” senior guard Joanne Allen-Taylor said before the tournament. “You get that [Big 12] championship and then, okay, after that, what’s next? Like, you stop working or you just keep going. You want to feel that again. . . . We don’t want to, you know, just bask in what we’ve accomplished. We want to just keep going.”