‘It’s a great day to be alive': The story of Rodney Terry and his path to the head coaching job at Texas | Zagsblog
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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Sunday / April 21.
  • ‘It’s a great day to be alive’: The story of Rodney Terry and his path to the head coaching job at Texas

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    By SAM LANCE

    KANSAS CITY — Texas senior guard Sir’Jabari Rice sat in front of his locker with his headphones on, sustaining a stone-faced expression while staring straight off in the distance. His college career — four years at New Mexico State, and one at Texas — was over, after an 88-81 Elite Eight loss to Miami. A chance at playing at the Final Four in Houston, Rice’s hometown, was gone.

    Then interim head coach Rodney Terry’s message to the team postgame was to keep their head high. And at first, Rice tried. But, then, he started to talk about Coach Terry and what he has meant to the Texas program this year — a year in which Terry rallied the team to an Elite Eight despite former head coach Chris Beard’s firing for alleged domestic abuse.

    Rice’s demeanor quickly changed. His speech slowed. His words started to break up. Tears flowed down his face.

    “Just having somebody in your corner every day, just having somebody who believes in you as much as you believe in yourself, I couldn’t ask for anything else,” Rice muttered.

    On the podium, Terry had a similar moment.

    “It was all about this team, man,” Terry said. “I’ve enjoyed every single day of this journey with this group, and I’m going to really miss…”

    Terry paused, tapped down on the table a few times, and resumed with broken, high-pitched speech.

    “I’m going to really miss working with this group. It was never about me. It was always about these guys. I love these guys.”

    These types of emotional bonds that Terry has formed with his players make Tuesday’s news ever so sweet. Just 48 hours after Texas’ first Elite Eight appearance since 2008, the Longhorns’ administration held a press conference to officially hand Terry the keys to the program. The Angleton, Texas native signed the 5-year, $15.3 million contract the night prior to the press conference— which just happened to be Terry’s 55th birthday.

    “I want to say thank you to coach Terry for making this decision easy,” University President Jay C. Hartzell said during Terry’s introductory press conference Tuesday. “You had a very long job interview, and I’d say you nailed it. You won with class, dignity and grace. The family spirit, the culture of this team and the way they rallied behind their leader, got us here today.”

    To those around the Texas program, this news wasn’t necessarily shocking. But how exactly did Terry do it? How did he captivate an entire locker room, an entire program, to believe in him?

    This is the story of Rodney Terry, how he forever changed the life of his players, the culture in the Texas locker room and the expectations of the program. This is the story of his path to the head coaching job at Texas.

    * * *

    Day One

    The Longhorns were already nine games into the season when the news came out. On December 12, 2022, Texas officials announced that Chris Beard would be suspended without pay after being arrested for alleged domestic abuse earlier that morning.

    In light of the news, the Longhorns players and coaches still had to do what they would do on any regular game day. They had to wake up, go to the morning team meeting and then proceed with the game day walk through.

    Players admitted there was some uncertainty going in. They had seen the news. They were confused, conflicted. And who could blame them?

    But once the players settled into the coaches office, and Terry, the newly appointed acting head coach, began to address the team, there was suddenly a calming presence.

    “He was just kind of like ‘Okay, things happen,” Texas senior forward Dylan Disu recalled. “‘Adversity strikes, but how are we going to deal with it?’ That was kind of his message to us. He just told us that all of our goals are still ahead of us and we can still accomplish those.”

    “He was so calm with us,” senior forward Timmy Allen said of the moment. “He was so… him. I don’t know. It was just perfect.”

    Terry first jumped into the lives of the Texas players when Beard added him to the staff as associate head coach on April 6, 2021. Most of Texas’ key players on the 2022-23 roster came from the transfer portal, so Terry had a hand in recruiting several players that shaped the Longhorns’ Big 12 Tournament championship squad.

    Before Texas, Terry had spent a decade as the head coach of Fresno State (2011-18) and UTEP (2018-2021). As a player, Terry was a three-year starter for St. Edwards University at point guard and was named team captain his junior and senior season. St. Edward’s is also where Terry began his coaching career as an assistant in 1990. Terry’s other notable stints include assistant-coaching stops at Baylor (1996-98), UNC Wilmington (1998-2002) and Texas under Rick Barnes (2002-2011).

    On Terry’s first day, Texas still had a game to play. Amid the adversity and everything going on that day, Rice University was still in town to play a game.

    The Longhorns didn’t get off to a great start and trailed 33-29 heading into halftime. In the second half, Texas stayed neck-and-neck with Rice, never managing to gain a substantial lead or momentum. It could have been easy given the circumstances for the Longhorns to fold under pressure.

    “But [Terry] led us with a solid voice,” Allen said. “We went to overtime, and he didn’t let us lose that game. He just said ‘Keep working. You guys are going to win, just keep playing.’ That’s just kind of who he’s been all year. Just keep going. Just keep playing. Just stay at it.”

    The 87-81 overtime victory over Rice wasn’t pretty by any stretch. Texas had 16 assists to 15 turnovers and missed nine free throws. But, the Longhorns still got the job done, and the win kicked off the Terry campaign with momentum.

    Terry’s message to push through adversity and keep pursuing the team’s goals that day has obviously carried weight, as Texas ended the year with a historic 29-win season — the Longhorns third-highest win total in program history.

    “No one could understand what was going on in that 24-hour window for all of us,” special assistant to the head coach Steve McLain said. “And yet, R.T. was a calming factor for everybody. We needed that.”

    * * *

    It’s a Great Day to be Alive

    Every head coach has their common sayings and mannerisms. Rick Pitino is known for his proverb “failure is fertilizer.” Legendary coach John Wooden famously preached his players should “be more concerned with their character than your reputation.”

    Terry at Texas, similarly, has established a few sayings of his own. And what Terry has consistently preached to the Longhorns throughout the 2022-23 campaign has certainly stuck with the team. Almost every player mentioned Terry’s daily messages during interviews and said how they will forever change their lives.

    Firstly, Terry starts every morning with the message: “It’s a great day to be alive.

    “I think that’s something we take for granted a lot of times,” Terry said on the podium after Texas’ loss to Miami. “So we want to be very thankful for that opportunity and that we’re alive here today and have a chance to spend time with one another. So that’s what I kind of try to convey and instill in those guys. Attack every day with a great positive attitude and great approach.”

    Players have absorbed this message, and Disu said they’ve started to echo Terry when he says it.

    “I think starting our morning with that, just hearing that message day in and day out, is one of the most important things he does,” Disu said.

    Terry has two other popular sayings the team echoes. The first one is “meat and potatoes.” Simply put, those are days where Texas really has to put in the work. Typically, a “meat and potatoes” practice is a longer, grinded-out practice where Longhorns focus on specific areas of their game.

    “Whenever we have a practice and we’re going to get real physical, we’re going to get really bone-on-bone, coach Terry brings out the meat and the potatoes,” freshman forward Dillon Mitchell said.

    “It’s like a main course meal thing,” sophomore guard Tyrese Hunter said. “Knock out your main course, get done what you gotta get done and just focus on the right goals that day.”

    This term became so popular a “meat and potatoes” shirt was made by Texas’ team managers. Assistant coach Bob Donewald Jr. said you will often see people around the program wearing it, including players.

    But not every day is a meat and potatoes day in practice. When the Longhorns aren’t going hard and getting after it, Terry calls it a “laser focus” day. Typically, these practices take place prior to game days and give the Longhorns an opportunity to focus on the scouting report.

    “I think it’s really important that guys lock into the details and they have a really good understanding of what we’re trying to get done offensively and defensively,” Terry said. “Guys were really bought into understanding, today is a laser focus day. We’ve got to be really sharp with what we’re doing and we have to be really spot on with the details.”

    All of these mannerisms, while they may seem simple, have had a major impact on the program. Donewald Jr. said Terry’s sayings have all become a fun way to create a more connected locker room. And Texas’ players laughing their asses off every time meat and potatoes was brought up certainly shows that.

    * * *

    Love and Pride

    Ahead of Texas’ Friday Sweet 16 matchup against Xavier, Disu knew he couldn’t play. The senior forward had suffered a bone bruise the previous game against Penn State, and while the injury felt better with treatment throughout the week, Disu aggravated the injury again in practice on Thursday.

    Disu was heartbroken. But Terry told him he was still starting the Xavier game anyway. Disu needed to lock-in.

    “I couldn’t play, but he still allowed me to go up and down the court a couple of times,” Disu said.

    Disu played two minutes and was able to grab one rebound. He then subbed out, briefly went to the locker room and reappeared on the bench in a boot. All night while on the bench, Disu was full of energy and consistently smiled.

    “You never know if I’ll ever have an opportunity to play in the Sweet Sixteen or at this stage in college again. Not a lot of people get to play here. So just for him to be able to allow me to start that game, to go up that court a couple of times, it meant the world to me.”

    Gestures like this from Terry are why players and staff have tabbed him as the ultimate players coach.

    “He’s the best coach I’ve played for to date,” said Allen, who played at Utah for three years after transferring to Texas. “You can put that on record. I think the love he showed was bigger for us than the x’s and o’s. I think the confidence and pride he instilled in us is also bigger than the x’s and o’s.”

    Allen is one of several Texas players out of NCAA eligibility. He, along with Rice, Marcus Carr, Christian Bishop and Brock Cunningham will be entering the next chapter of their lives. Disu is a senior as well, but has another year to use if he wants. The forward has yet to make a decision whether he’ll head to the NBA or stay.

    With all these leaders moving on, Terry admitted it made the loss especially heartbreaking.

    “It’s going to be really hard,” Terry said, choking up. “They left their footprints on this program. People will be talking about these guys for years to come.”

    Terry continued.

    “I’ve been doing this for 32 years, 27 years at the Division I level,” Terry said. “I can’t be more proud of a group that I’ve had a chance to work with. On a daily basis, in terms of what they put into it, those guys were invested and locked in to everything we’re doing. We came up short today, but again, they’re winners.”

    * * *

    After the starting lineup and coaches were announced prior to the tip of the Texas-Miami game on Sunday, you could pretty much only hear one thing as the players settled into their spots before the jump ball.

    And that was Texas fans chanting “RT! RT! RT! RT!”

    All weekend, you could see how much the Texas fans who made the trip to Kansas City appreciated Terry. Anytime he was spotted walking by fans, he greeted them with a wave, a smile and a thank you. Most fans just screamed back something along the lines of “we love you RT.”

    It’s obvious that Terry’s character and leadership in one season has captivated the University. But now that Terry is the face of the program, he has to continue to produce. And that’s exactly his plan.

    “We’re going to continue to play very dynamic, try to attract the best student athletes to represent this University in a first-class manner,” Terry said during his introductory press conference. “We’re going to be a Monday night program, and we’re going to get there sooner than you think.”

    And what McClain said when asked to provide a specific story on how Terry has changed the Texas program in 2022-23, says everything you need to know about Terry’s ability to get to championship night in the future.

    “I don’t know that there is a story,” McLain said. “Who he is every day is the story.”

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