UTA aspires to be Gonzaga, and now has a coach with mid-major in his blood | Opinion

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Mac Engel
·4 min read
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Three years after UT Arlington athletic director Jim Baker fired a popular coach and claimed the plan was to be Gonzaga, he has not wavered from the ambition.

But there are “issues.”

There is no good way to spin a situation when the head coach of your basketball program leaves to be an assistant.

Shortly after Texas Tech coach Chris Beard signed a contract to be the head coach at the University of Texas, he convinced his friend, and UT alum, Chris Ogden to leave UTA to join his staff in Austin.

“I was not expecting it, but I am not surprised,” Baker said Wednesday.

There were plenty of good personal reasons for Ogden to return to Austin, but this is a slap at UTA.

As Baylor University celebrates a national title in men’s basketball with a win over Gonzaga, the program UTA is trying to emulate, Baker must attempt a re-do without completely starting over.

Maybe firing Scott Cross was justified as sometimes an athletic director just wants to bring in his own guy, but Baker’s choice was questionable given that Ogden had never experienced life outside of the Power 5 as either a player or a coach.

Ogden’s replacement will be Greg Young, a guy whose resume sounds, and looks, a lot like Cross’ and nothing like that of Ogden’s.

Young has been at UTA for 12 years. His previous experience was all at the lower levels of college basketball. If anyone is going to understand the realities of this type of job, it’s this guy.

“He’s been the glue of that program,” Baker said. “He loves UTA.”

Ogden may have had the endorsement of NBA star forward Kevin Durant, but Ogden’s entire career was spent in the Big 12 or SEC.

He played for Texas. He was an assistant at Texas, Tennessee and then Texas Tech.

Assistants who are only exposed to the wealthy world of major college basketball have no clue as to the realities of the job at a place like UTA. Or a Gonzaga, long before it became Gonzaga.

In the mid-major world, there are no fancy steak dinners or stacks of $50s dropping from the overhead bins on chartered flights — largely because there are no chartered flights. Instead, you’ll find nickels and pennies between the seat cushions on the long bus rides that make frequent stops at McDonald’s and Wendy’s.

You bang on doors not of 5-star recruits, but maybe a 2-star.

“He came in with his eyes open, for sure,” Baker said. “We were able to increase the budget, and make more of a commitment to basketball. We are better off than we were three years ago, and some of that was his input.

“But when you take a step down from a Power 5 to a mid-major, there is some adjustment and the reality of it is different.”

Statistically speaking, the move didn’t work.

Cross was a UTA lifer, and both he and his wife were loyal to the school. He was coming off three 20-plus win seasons, and at UTA had a .583 winning percentage in 12 years.

Under Cross, the team actually produced its first ever NBA draft pick, Kevin Hervey, who was selected 57th by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2018.

With a new arena, and major investments by the university in Arlington, Baker wanted more.

What he wants are NCAA Tournament appearances, something that Cross achieved once. NCAA Tourney bids for schools in the Sun Belt only come by winning the conference tournament.

In three years under Ogden, UTA was 44-47. His only winning season came in 2018-19, when the Mavs finished 17-16, but Ogden was just one win away from the NCAA Tournament that year.

“I don’t really look at the last three years because this new [transfer portal] has made just completely different for us in ways that we could not anticipated three years ago,” Baker said. “I’m looking to the future again, and we are in a good position. But we have to figure out this transfer thing.

“The Power 5s are going to continue to poach us, and that’s just the way it is.”

So Baker starts anew, without starting over, and the goal remains Gonzaga.

“You can always second-guess, but I just felt at the time it was where I wanted to go with our program,” he said of the Ogden hire. “We want to be consistent with basketball. Like Gonzaga, basketball is our football. We want to get into the NCAA [Tournament]. It’s a lot of work.

“Twenty years ago, Gonzaga wasn’t always Gonzaga.”

That remains the hope for UTA, and maybe this time the head coach won’t leave to be an assistant.