- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 7, 2002

As if recruiting and winning and all the other items on a college basketball coach's to-do list aren't enough, Rick Barnes and Mike Brey faced another challenge when they took over at Texas and Notre Dame, respectively: How to find light among the shadows specifically, the shadows cast by 80,000 pairs of raised fingers ("Hook 'em Horns") at Darrell Royal Memorial Stadium, and by a single pair of arms held aloft (Touchdown Jesus) overlooking Notre Dame Stadium's south end zone?
Some basketball coaches might dislike the term, "football school," but that's what they are, places like Texas and Notre Dame and Oklahoma and Nebraska, whose athletic identity is largely (but certainly not solely) perpetuated by their football programs.
Rival schools, mostly the ones who play bad football, even use that as a negative recruiting tool. But the secure, smart and successful basketball coach understands that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Or, why even try to beat 'em in the first place?
"I can only tell you that football is a huge plus to us," said Barnes, whose Longhorns play George Washington in the first game of the BB&T; Classic today at MCI Center. "People who say it's not are only using that as an excuse."
In the second game, Notre Dame plays Maryland. Is there another university whose football tradition runs as deep and wide as Notre Dame's, whose football following can accurately be characterized as global? The Fighting Irish reawakened the echoes this fall by going 10-2 with a nice bowl game to follow, and Brey thinks that's terrific.
"I've always looked at football as a huge advantage," he said. "We have such an enthusiastic following in football, but I think it's an enthusiastic athletic following. If you put a good product out there, which I think our product has been, people into football will start sliding over to the Joyce Center and follow basketball."
Last season, as Notre Dame was winning 22 games and then scaring Duke in the NCAA tournament (its second straight appearance), the average attendance was a reported 11,020. The Joyce Center capacity is listed at 11,418. This season, with football madness at its peak and speculation rampant over which bowl game will pick the Irish, two basketball games already have been sell-outs.
"To put your own stamp on a program, you have to be part of the NCAA tournament almost annually," said Brey, a former Duke assistant and Delaware head coach in his third season at Notre Dame. "Being back two years in a row after a drought of 11 years has restored that credibility. It's the stamp of a program being for real and being a national player."
But the football presence is constant, and Brey even tries to schedule a game to coincide with a pep rally. Is there a better recruiting tool (a better legal one, anyway) than letting Harry Hotshot, the prep All-American point guard, soak in the atmosphere of a big football game? And it's even better when the team is winning. Normally, anyone bleeding burnt orange would require medical attention; in Texas, it is practically a requirement. "You've got to embrace it," Barnes said.
Barnes, who came to Texas in 1998 after Tom Penders' controversial departure in the wake of a player revolt, was in a similar situation at his previous job. Clemson is one of the few football schools in the basketball-crazy ACC (Florida State is another). But Barnes, who was an assistant at Ohio State and Alabama, where they also like their football a little, embraced that to the point of doing a radio show from the parking lot of Clemson's Memorial Stadium on football game day.
"I wanted people to think about basketball during football season and carry over that enthusiasm," he said. "I've always told people there isn't a university in the country that plays a high level of football where the football stadium isn't bigger than the basketball arena. It's a different sport."
In Barnes' first year at Texas, the Longhorns won the Big 12 championship for the first time. During his four seasons in Austin, Barnes' teams have averaged more than 22 wins and gone to the NCAA tournament every year. Last season, the Longhorns reached the Sweet 16 before losing to Oregon. Today, Texas is ranked second nationally.
According to Brey's definition, that's credibility. And yet, Texas' average attendance at the Erwin Center last year was 10,015 capacity is listed at 16,079. The crowds at the two home games this season have averaged about 9,000. "You've got to get to a point where you expect a full house every night," conceded Barnes, who also was coach at George Mason and Providence. "Even though, if you look around the country, you're seeing a lot of empty seats.
"What I have to do is keep going and worry about what I have to worry about and hope I keep building on it. And I think we will. I can sense the excitement long before November. I can tell you that people are talking more about basketball."
Texas is doing more about it, too. Barnes helped get the administration to put $50 million into renovating the Erwin Center. Students are now seated closer to the court, and one day there will be luxury suites and an adjoining, 40,000-foot practice facility that also will house new basketball offices.
But Barnes can't help commiserating with fellow coaches in the same situation, coaches like Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson, who led the Sooners to the Final Four last season. "I think both of us realize what we have to do is our job, and if we build it, they will come," Barnes said.
Sampson, in his ninth season, rebuilt a program that was successful under Billy Tubbs but which later fell into disrepair. Attendance fell off dramatically. When Tubbs, who took the Sooners to the Final Four in 1988, left for Texas Christian, he complained that all Oklahomans cared about was football.
That's not entirely true, Sampson said, as long as they have something else to care about. Oklahoma sold more than 11,000 season tickets this season and last. Then again, only four games were sold out last year, and Sampson acknowledged that attendance during football season is "sporadic," even though his teams have averaged 28 wins the last three seasons. He said he learned that February is a big month in Norman, not because that's when the Big 12 basketball season heats up, but because it is when prep football players sign their national letters of intent.
"I've always felt that schools should have one heartbeat," Sampson said. "But I kind of rationalize that by saying, 'one heartbeat at a time.' These people live and die with their football program. But we've created our own niche here. Going to the Final Four really elevated things.
"I never tried to fight it. Early on, I was envious of the football program's support. The longer you're at a place, the more you understand it. It's kind of like chasing two rabbits. You chase two, you won't catch either one. Fans chase one during football season, and basketball's on the back burner."
After he was fired at Nebraska a few years ago, Danny Nee cited the state-wide obsession with football as detrimental to building a strong program. Pat Kennedy, who coached at Florida State for 11 years, was quoted as saying he ultimately did all he could do at a "football school" and resigned (Kennedy went to DePaul, a basketball school, and quit after five years. He is now at Montana, where football is huge).
Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien, who says he fully accepts the overwhelming interest of Buckeyes football, once told a reporter about another coach, a friend, who complained that "everything is football" where he was working. That place was Boston College. The coach, said O'Brien, was Gary Williams, who has since rebuilt Maryland into the basketball school it once was.
But most coaches know better than to complain, at least not publicly. Leonard Hamilton, who went from one football school (the University of Miami) to another (Florida State), stopping briefly with the Wizards in-between, recently was quoted as saying, "I don't know whether that label is a valid authorization to put on any school. Do you say Ohio State is a football school or a basketball school? Do you say Michigan is a football school or a basketball school? Do you say Texas is a football school or a basketball school?"
You can say Nebraska is a football school, but only because it is. Does that bother coach Barry Collier? Not in the least, apparently. "I think our football program is a huge plus to us because of all the attention it brings to the school," said Collier. "A lot of things are made possible for all our athletes because of football."
Collier, previously the coach at Butler, where basketball is the No.1 sport, agrees with Hamilton. He said he has trouble buying into the "football school" label in the first place. "You go down the line, there's a relatively large amount of success in one program unrelated to the other," Collier said. "I don't think anybody's holding anybody else back."
Once, this wasn't true. Basketball coaches used to have a much bigger beef, when their sport played the little brother to football on many campuses. When he replaced Johnny Orr as Michigan's coach in 1981, Bill Frieder said he was well aware that basketball was a distant second.
"You could see it in the facilities," he said. "You could see it in the pay raises for your staff. You could see in a lot of different ways that Michigan football was king. If there was money, football was gonna take it."
Before he left Montana for Stanford in 1986, Mike Montgomery once attended a game at Stanford's Maples Pavilion. Not only did he have trouble finding the arena because it was so poorly lit, no one on campus seemed to know where it was. And then, after he arrived, "It took me about seven years to get the place painted," he said. "The lighting wasn't very good. I told them if we could just brighten the place up, it would make a big difference. It was just a dismal environment."
Times have changed. The impact of television and the billions of dollars generated have elevated basketball's stature and importance. Many athletic directors used to be retired football coaches whose biases showed accordingly. Now, ADs are more like CEOs. They are professional fundraisers and business people who know a nice, fat golden goose, shaped like a basketball, when they see one.
"The key to the whole thing is your athletic director," said Sampson. "You're only as good as your administration. Having resources doesn't guarantee anything, but not having them means you're not going to be successful."

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