Maybe you remember when basketball just wasn’t our thing in Texas. Oh, we knew it existed and channel surfed onto a game now and then. But for the most part, the sport felt as if it existed for little reason other than to kill time. As a University of Texas official once said: “Basketball is what we do between fall football and spring football.”
Former Longhorns coach Rick Barnes joked that among UT fans, the pain of an NCAA Tournament loss lasted until the backup quarterback debate resumed in Austin. So, about 24 hours. He said that tongue in cheek, but his larger point was that basketball had its place.
Well, Rick, check this out: Texas suddenly is a basketball state, possibly the best basketball state in the country. We’ve got great teams and a string of colleges committed to being on the national stage by spending on coaches and facilities. Texas has four of the nation’s top ten men’s teams in the latest Associated Press rankings: number-two Baylor, number-five Texas, number-six Houston, and number-ten Texas Tech (whose days among the top ten appear numbered, after a one-point loss to number eleven, West Virginia, on Monday night). The the women’s programs at Baylor and Texas A&M have also been wildly successful. Coach Kim Mulkey’s Lady Bears have won three national championships since 2005 and are ranked number nine this season. Hers is one of the gold-standard programs in any sport. At Texas A&M, coach Gary Blair won a national title in 2011 and the team is currently ranked number eight.
In today’s men’s basketball AP Poll, the 1,214th all-time edition:
Baylor, Texas, Houston and Texas Tech are the first quartet of schools from a single state ever to be ranked in the Top-10 of the same poll.
— Jared Berson (@JaredBerson) January 25, 2021
But wait, there’s more. That Aggies are carving out a spot on the men’s national stage, making Buzz Williams (formerly of Virginia Tech) one of the dozen highest-paid coaches in college basketball with a contract worth around $24 million over six years. This season, Texas hired head coach Vic Schaefer, who twice led the Mississippi State women to the national championship game, for a deal worth $13.8 million over seven years.
Shortly after Texas A&M opened matching men’s and women’s practice facilities in 2010, Blair proudly toured me through the study area with the iMac desktops and big-screen televisions, through the hair salon and the ballroom-size weight room. Later, he would stand behind his aircraft carrier of a desk and ask, “Can you believe it?” Decades earlier, when Blair took over as head coach of the women’s team at Arkansas, he remembered being shown to Eddie Sutton’s old desk and told to make do. Texas A&M, he said, “has given me everything I need.”
And that’s the new standard. Want to compete for conference titles and national championships? Hire great coaches. Build beautiful facilities. Recruit like crazy.
Blair arrived in College Station in 2003 and quickly grew frustrated by his struggles to recruit players from Houston. Enter the city’s two most famous residents at the time, George H.W. and Barbara Bush. “Here’s the story,” former A&M athletics director Bill Byrne told me a few years ago. “President Bush and Barbara would sometimes sit in a small suite I had at our home football games. It was not long after we’d hired Gary Blair to be our women’s basketball coach, and Gary was obsessed with recruiting a player named La Toya Micheaux from the Houston area. Gary was trying to get her away from LSU and asked if he could bring her by my booth before a game.”
La Toya is the daughter of former University of Houston player Larry Micheaux, a member of coach Guy Lewis’s legendary Phi Slama Jama Cougars teams in the early eighties.
“So here we are, a couple of hours before a game, and Gary nonchalantly sticks his head in the door and sees the Bushes,” Byrne recalled. “George and Barbara say hello, and in walks Larry Micheaux behind Gary.
“‘Larry Micheaux! Phi Slama Jama!’ Bush shouted. ‘What a team you guys had.’ And then La Toya appears behind her father. ‘And you must be Larry’s daughter,’ Bush says. ‘Barbara and I have been talking about how much we’re looking forward to watching you play for the Aggies.'”
Byrne has told that story a time or two and has the punch line down cold. “That was the end of La Toya’s recruiting,” he said. “There was no chance she was going to go anyplace else. And she opened doors for us into the Houston area we hadn’t been able to open. And from her coming to Texas A&M in 2005 had to have played a role in us winning the national championship in 2011.”
This season, what’s striking about the four ranked men’s programs is how different their paths to success have been. Baylor was a mess in 2003, when head coach Scott Drew was hired to take on the seemingly insurmountable task of restoring Baylor’s reputation after possibly the worst scandal in the history of college sports, with basketball player Patrick Dennehy’s murder at the hands of teammate Carlton Dotson.
In the beginning, Drew sold hope. That was enough, because when he started, Baylor had exactly none. The soft-spoken Drew, with his boyish looks, forbids cursing and preaches faith and family to his players and the media. Amid all that politeness, the coach was also aided from within, by a maniacal work ethic, and from outside himself, by a campus building boom that brought first-rate facilities to Baylor’s Waco campus.
“Well, first, I believed in the mission of Baylor University,” Drew said during a press call this week. “I believed in the administrators and their vision. The Big 12 Conference had been the best in the country for six out of the last seven years.
“I knew all the opportunities our players would have, and our staff would have here. And, again, if you believe in the people, and you believe in what they’re about and what they stand for, then you can accomplish most anything.”
Drew has stepped on a few competitors’ toes along the way, with rivals openly wondering how he was landing all those dazzling recruiting classes. None of it ever stuck.
“People said early on he’s a phony, he’s a charlatan,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla told Sports Illustrated. “But the more you see it, you know it’s real stuff. He’s like that Sunday school preacher, but he believes what he’s preaching. Optimism, with him, is like breathing.” And with that boundless positivity and all that blue-chip talent, Baylor made its first NCAA tournament appearance in twenty years in 2008. This season, the Bears will be making their ninth trip to the Big Dance in the last fourteen seasons and trying for a fifth Sweet Sixteen. Junior guards Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell seem likely to join an array of former Baylor players in the NBA.
At Texas Tech, athletics director Kirby Hocutt’s trust in head coach Chris Beard was the first step toward building one of the country’s best programs. Beard had spent a decade as an assistant for the Red Raiders. That had been his longest stay in a career dotted with high school and community college coaching gigs, at Division II and Division III schools, and with the semipro South Carolina Warriors.
That Beard would need just three seasons to get Texas Tech to the 2019 National Championship Game is a story of a smart, tough, born-to-succeed coach hidden in plain sight. In the beginning, he took unheralded recruits and molded them into disciplined clubs that passed smartly and played hellacious defense. His coaching acumen was apparent both in the way his players responded to him and how tenaciously they competed.
If you find a Texas Tech fan who thought Beard would still be in Lubbock two seasons after that high point, you’ve met a true believer. Having moved so much, though, Beard, unlike so many of his coaching brethren, understood that he had everything in needed right there on the South Plains. His commitment to remain in Lubbock when he could have had almost any open position, and Tech’s commitment to make him one of the country’s five-highest paid coaches—at an annual salary worth $4.43 million—speak volumes of the university’s ambitions to compete with blue-blood programs like Duke and North Carolina.
Kelvin Sampson, who has taken teams to the NCAA tournament fifteen times, left an assistant coaching job with the Houston Rockets to take over at the University of Houston in 2014. The Cougars were long past their powerhouse days, having not won an NCAA tournament game since dropping the 1984 National Championship Game to Georgetown. Sampson diagnosed the Cougars’ thirty-year malaise. “Apathy,” he said. “I don’t think anybody really cared. What’s the least we can do to get through this? That’s where we had to start. You have to create your vision, but you have to explain it. Sometimes, it’s like trying to describe the Atlantic Ocean when someone has never seen water.”
In the seven seasons since Sampson’s arrival, UH has rebuilt its playing arena, constructed a top-notch practice facility, and gone 83–20 over the last three seasons. One early challenge for the coach was convincing his first two athletics directors, Mack Rhoades and Hunter Yurachek, that the Cougars could still be great. “They didn’t see it as a championship program, but I did,” Sampson said. “I thought it was a goldmine. Are you kidding me? We’re in Houston, Texas, one of the greatest cities in the world. Look at what our city stands for: diversity, ambition, people that became successful by pulling themselves by their bootstraps. We’ve got the oil and gas industry, technology, thirty Fortune 500 companies.”
He recalled a lunch meeting in which prominent UH backer (and Houston Rockets owner) Tilman Fertitta asked, “Do you think you can win a championship?”
“That got my blood going,” Sampson said. “Three years later, he wrote a twenty-million-dollar check to put his name on the Fertitta Center. Without him believing, we couldn’t get where we are. We’ve won two straight conference championships, and we climb a ladder to tear down the nets. Every one of those steps on that ladder represents someone’s support.”
The Cougars’ leading scorer, guard Quentin Grimes, was a five-star recruit at The Woodlands College Park High School, who spent a season at Kansas before transferring to UH. Another high-scoring guard, Marcus Sasser, was a three-star recruit out of Red Oak High School.
At a time when Texas, Texas Tech, and Baylor are in football rebuild mode, Texas college hoops is flourishing like never before. This trend appears likely to endure, as success translates to more success, television exposure, and an understanding among elite Texas talent that they can grow as players, prepare for the NBA, and compete for NCAA championships without leaving the state.
Coaches like Sampson and Drew, who are leading this roundball rebirth, credit the rise of Texas high school basketball over the past decade with the emergence of college powerhouses in the state. Texas teams no longer have to recruit in California or New York to succeed. “At the end of the day, most kids want to stay within three hours of home,” Drew said. “Plus, I think everybody likes warm weather, and when you come back from the northern schools, and it’s fifteen degrees and snow, you’re like, ‘I’m glad I’m in Texas.'”
And football? That’s the thing school do before and after basketball season.