Richard Justice: Rodney Terry was the right choice to lead the Longhorns in December, and he’s the right choice today

Mar 16, 2023; Des Moines, IA, USA; Texas Longhorns interim head coach Rodney Terry instructs his team against the Colgate Raiders during the second half at Wells Fargo Arena. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Justice: Rodney Terry was the right choice to lead the Longhorns in December, and he’s the right choice today

   No athletics director ever had an easier decision than the one Chris Del Conte just had. He’d known for weeks that Rodney Terry was the right man for the job.

   Had Del Conte even thought of hiring anyone else to be the University of Texas men’s basketball coach, he would have had a rebellion on his hands.

   The thing to know about Rodney Terry is that he’s so instantly likable, one of those people everyone likes and respects. There’s also a calmness to him that was just what the Longhorns needed in those first chaotic hours of December 12 after Chris Beard was suspended.

“In that moment, he wasn’t unprepared,” forward Timmy Allen said. “He looked ready. He looked excited for the opportunity, as he should be. And we had the goal, and we had the plan, and we came here. It’s not going to change because bro fell down. R.T.’s stepping up, and he’s done it.”

  From the beginning, Terry handled everything perfectly. He got the interim gig in the hours between Beard’s arrest that morning and a game against Rice that evening.

   When he hurriedly gathered his players, he did not know if Beard would be gone for one day or forever. He was honest with his players and assistant coaches about that. Indeed, it would be 24 days before Beard was fired by Texas.

   Terry also understood what he had in this special team. His roster included six players who were either super seniors, seniors, or graduate students. He knew those six leaders had been texting one another since early that morning. 

   Terry also knew he had an experienced coaching staff, and that he would lead on those coaches as much as he leaned on his most experienced players. He’d telephoned his friend and mentor Rick Barnes to seek advice.

   Barnes told him to be himself, but also to rule with a soft hand in the beginning. Gradually, Barnes told him, this team will become your team. Don’t rush it.

   “Control what you can control,” Terry told his players that first day.  “In life you’re going to always have to adapt and adjust. Nobody controls your own destiny but you.”

   If he ever felt overwhelmed, he never showed it. In that way, he was the perfect man for the job. He also told his players that regardless of what happened with Beard or anyone else, this was their team.

   Within weeks, both his players and assistant coaches were sold on Rodney Terry being the right man to lead the Longhorns. Texas was 22-8 under Terry and rallied to win from deficits of 18, 14, and 12 points. Until the Miami loss in the Elite Eight, the Longhorns had limited five postseason opponents to 58.0 points per game and 38% shooting.

   “His level of calmness and communication and trust in him gives us a sense of confidence,” Allen said, “and it lets us go out and play free.”

   When the Longhorns trailed Penn State by three points with less than five minutes remaining in the second round, Terry told his players: “Guys, we’ve been here before, it’s nothing we haven’t faced this year. We’ve played the toughest league in the country. Let’s go out right now.”

   After Texas finally ran out of magic against Miami, Terry wept as he attempted to describe what this season had meant to him. As his players effusively expressed their admiration for him, it was impossible not to be touched by the depth of Terry’s emotions.

   “These guys more than any group I’ve worked with in 32 years of coaching have really embodied in terms of staying the course and being a team,” he said. “These guys were incredible teammates all year. They were so unselfish as a team, and they gave us everything they had. They really did. It’s a testament to these guys and their chemistry that they had all season long and playing for one another. They were truly a team. It wasn’t about one guy trying to be a one-man show. Any given night we could have had a guy lead us in scoring.”

   Perhaps most telling is that two five-star recruits who had committed to Beard never wavered in their commitment to Texas. For one thing, Terry had been one of the point men in recruiting them. For another, they clearly want to play for Rodney Terry.

   Terry left the head coaching gig at UTEP to join Beard in Austin. He’d already spent so many years there, having attended St. Edward’s and then working for Barnes and Beard for a decade. He spoke of buying a retirement home when his coaching days were done.

   Now, that day is way down the road after Texas announced Terry’s five-year, $15.3 million contract on Monday. Del Conte had nicknamed Terry “Preacher” for his enthusiasm and positivity. Way back on December 12, he couldn’t have known that Terry would be his hire, not just because the Longhorns got to the Elite Eight, but because of the man he saw emerge as a leader along the way.

   “He gave us reassurance of our plan,” Allen said. “He gave us a clear view. He gave us a voice. He gave us a steady voice. And I don’t think you could overlook that. I think a lot of guys on this team were looking for guidance, looking for someone to follow, looking for someone to lead by example, and he’s done that flawlessly.”

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