AUSTIN, Texas (AP)Each Texas win on its march into the NCAA Tournament raises a recurring question about interim coach Rodney Terry: What more must he to do to earn the job on a permanent basis?
The Longhorns are the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region. They finished second in the Big 12, just a game out of first place, and routed regular season conference champion and No. 1 seed Kansas twice in a span of eight days.
That includes a 20-point pounding in last week’s Big 12 championship game.
All that came after former coach Chris Beard was arrested on a felony domestic violence charge on Dec. 12, suspended and then fired three weeks later when the school determined he was “unfit” to lead the program. The charge has since been dropped and Beard was hired Monday as the new coach at Mississippi.
But even with all that Texas winning under Terry, the chatter around him still seems to be that the 54-year must prove himself in March Madness as Texas readies for its opener against Colgate on Thursday. After all, that was the benchmark for Shaka Smart, who couldn’t get it done with the Longhorns and left for Marquette two years ago.
Terry shrugs off any suggestion that the next game, or two or more are yet another round of auditions for the permanent job. And is it even fair? Texas (26-8) hasn’t made it to the Sweet 16 since 2008.
If he gets the job, Terry would be just the second Black head coach to lead the program.
“I always tell our guys, live where your feet are, live in the present,” Terry said after Texas watched its NCAA tourney draw. “This team has been on an incredible journey. I’ve enjoyed being with them on this incredible journey. We’re going to try to go as far as we can. Really, that’s been my focus the entire time.”
Texas officials have laid down no public benchmarks for Terry. Athletic director Chris Del Conte has praised Terry’s job handling the team in crisis and given him a raise, though only through April. He’s also noted Terry inherited a veteran roster and strong staff of assistants built by Beard.
Beard indeed built a lineup that would seem to have the key ingredients for a deep tournament run. The Longhorns are one of the most experienced teams in the country with four players in their fifth or six year of basketball.
They are especially deep at guard, and play a rugged style of defense that can lock down opponents.
“There’s no substitute for experience,” Terry said. “Our guys understand the type of urgency you have to play with this time of year.”
And it was Terry’s steady hand that kept them glued together when the team was watching images of their head coach being led out of jail and wondering what might happen to their season. Texas had to play that night and struggled into overtime to beat Rice.
The Longhorns players and fans have rallied behind Terry. After Texas beat Kansas in the Big 12 title game, the players swarmed around Terry to hug and cheer him in front of television cameras.
“For everything we’ve been through, for us to get to this point right now, it’s not us,” senior transfer guard Sir’Jabari Rice said. “Everything is RT.”
T.J. Ford, the national player of the year when the Longhorns went to the 2003 Final Four, said last week it’s time to make Terry the permanent head coach.
“Let’s make it official that he’s our Head Coach and the leader of the program,” Ford tweeted.
Terry was an assistant under Rick Barnes on that Final Four team. He spent nine seasons with the Longhorns before head coaching stints at Fresno State and UTEP. Terry left the job at UTEP and took a pay cut to return to Austin as Beard’s top assistant.
Terry is 182-163 overall as a head coach and 19-7 with the Longhorns this season. The Longhorns haven’t lost more than two in a row since he took over.
“You can be coming off a bad loss or a great win, but he’s still gonna appreciate the day and have a great attitude going into that day,” said forward Brock Cunningham who has played for Smart, Beard and now Terry at Texas. “And that’s huge.”
Terry has been asked many times about taking over a program in distress. He often talks of telling his players they must be able to handle the surprise struggles life will sometimes deliver.
And he notes his own emotional struggle of the past year. His father, Calvin Phillips, the man who shaped his love of basketball, died last August at age 77. Terry mentions him so often it’s clear he carries memories of his dad with him to every game.
“It’s a great day to be alive, that’s what I tell our guys every day,” Terry said “I really tried to dedicate this season to my dad … He would be really excited right now.”
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