One-on-one with Chris Beard: Texas coach talks recruiting, defense and energizing fans
On Texas’ NCAA struggles, ‘My deal is to embrace the past, to recognize all the greatness and I have zero time for any negativity. Zero.’
Chris Beard believes in the power of positivity. That’s probably why there are Ted Lasso-inspired “Believe” signs taped up inside the Texas men’s basketball coach’s office and around Cooley Pavilion.
“Don’t you just feel better after watching that show?” Beard said with a huge smile. Indeed.
Texas fans, do you feel better about the men’s program after watching Beard for a few months?
The 48-year-old new Longhorns coach sure looked relaxed Wednesday in a 45-minute sit-down interview with the American-Statesman. Instead of meeting in the official basketball office over in the north end of Royal-Memorial Stadium, Beard was found in a leather chair in the gym with workout clothes stacked neatly at his feet.
“This is my desk,” Beard said, motioning to a small coffee table. He reached for some three-ring binders on the floor. “This is my filing cabinet.”
This is not someone who has time to decorate an office.
The night before, Beard had been with thousands of students at the school's Gone to Texas event on the Main Mall. He spent Wednesday morning golf-carting his way around campus to make sure his players had a good first day of class. The Texas ex, Class of 1995, is embracing every moment of coaching at his alma mater.
It feels as if he’s just getting started.
"I was on campus this morning, first day of class, meeting students, telling them our first game is Nov. 9,” Beard said. “Making kids look me in the eyes and commit to being there on Nov. 9. In return, I’m telling kids, how can I help you or your group? Your organization needs some help? Men’s basketball wants to be a player around here.”
Just wait until UT students hear about plans for a regular-season game at Gregory Gym. Nothing’s official yet, and some kinks need ironing out. Athletic director Chris Del Conte signed off on the idea — that’s for sure. It promises to be a sizzling, hot-ticket event that’ll jump-start basketball interest in November.
Metaphorically speaking, this program needs a jump-start. Get a defibrillator from Dell Medical School. Beard is rubbing two paddles together and yelling at everyone to stand back.
After all, men’s basketball is UT's second-most profitable sport, embedded inside an athletic behemoth that generates more than $200 million annually in revenue. Men's basketball is one year away from moving into a new $340 million arena. It’s part of an athletic program soon headed to the Southeastern Conference.
In short, Texas needs men’s basketball to pick it up.
Beard has been on a recruiting blitzkrieg since arriving in April from Texas Tech. Four players from last year’s team stayed, seven transfers joined the Horns, and two more freshmen arrived on campus. Collectively, Texas is a team with seven players who posted double-figure scoring totals last season, be it at UT or somewhere else.
“This first Texas team, experience is our identity, but we’re really inexperienced playing together,” Beard said. “So it’s like you can probably say it’s the most experienced inexperienced team in college basketball.”
Beard has taken an active interest in game scheduling, igniting student interest, reuniting with anyone who’s ever been associated with Texas basketball and getting more fans to actually come to the games. This isn’t about buying tickets; it’s about having an actual human physically show up.
Those who do come to the Erwin Center this season will see a firebrand stalking the sideline. Beard is known for getting himself as pumped as the players — hands on knees at times, working the refs, firing up the crowd, whatever it takes.
Does he think he needs to change his style now that he's at Texas?
“No, I just think I need to be myself,” Beard said. “I think we need to win. I think our teams need to represent the city, the university and the town. We need to do what we’re supposed to do. We need to do our part of the bargain.”
Winning cures everything. During the 2016-17 season — Beard’s first at Texas Tech — the Red Raiders averaged 8,994 fans for home games. Three seasons later, Tech averaged 14,056 fans. An Elite Eight appearance in 2018 and then a trip to the national championship game in 2019 have that effect on people.
But now Beard takes over a program that hasn’t maximized its skill set lately. It’s still the same one associated with NBA champions such as Kevin Durant, Tristan Thompson, Avery Bradley and P.J. Tucker and seven-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. But it’s also the same program that hasn’t won a single NCAA Tournament game since 2014.
It’s one of those stats that sound terrible, but it’s not Beard’s fault, and he can’t do anything about it until March. So he's done the only thing any new coach can do: put your head down and go to work.
“My deal is to embrace the past, to recognize all the greatness, and I have zero time for any negativity. Zero,” Beard said. “I just don't have time. I don't have time or desire for that.”
Or, put another way, believe.
“I don’t feel any different. I wake up every day and understand what I’ve gotten myself into. I understand the responsibility,” Beard said.
Reliance on returning players
When the season begins in November, expect to hear Beard talk a lot about UT’s four returning lettermen — guards Andrew Jones, Courtney Ramey and Jase Febres and versatile forward Brock Cunningham.
All four were recruited by former coach Shaka Smart. And at the moment, these are the only four Horns whom fans really know.
“There’s a familiarity,” Beard said. “But it’s almost like we have to clear our minds, anything we think or not think: we’ve got to make our judgments on what we see.”
Jones played eight career games against Beard’s Red Raiders, averaging 13.5 points. His 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting were a driving force behind UT’s stunning 68-58 win in Lubbock on Feb. 29, 2020. Cunningham had eight points and five boards that afternoon.
Ramey played seven games against Beard’s teams. Febres hit five 3-pointers in a win that knocked Tech out of last season's Big 12 Tournament.
“Just proud to have these four guys,” Beard said. “Have a lot of respect for them, what they’ve done in the past in this league. My respect for Shaka is well documented, and it’s real. It’s not like we inherited four players. We feel like we recruited four players.”
Finding the right transfers
Beard compared the transfer process to NBA free agency. It’s not about being selfish, although that association might have a negative connotation. This is merely a business decision.
“I could grow up being a Laker fan,” Beard said. “I want to go; I’m finally a free agent. But if the Lakers don’t have cap room or if the Lakers don’t have the opportunity I’m looking for, it’s not going to work. So the first thing is we’re trying to figure out what do you want?
“We love these guys have done everything individually; all-conference players, scoring, minutes, they’ve done all that,” he added. “But what we were looking for was guys who wanted to win.”
Beard and his staff can only pick from the names in the transfer portal. Maybe it’s coincidence or by design, but Texas went after mostly older players, athletes who will probably exhaust their NCAA eligibility before going pro. There’s a huge difference in talking to a 20- or 21-year-old instead of a 17- or 18-year-old thinking he’s the next great one-and-done.
Timmy Allen was a four-star recruit and the top-ranked prospect in Arizona. He averaged 12.2 points as a freshman at Utah, then 17.3 as a sophomore and earned second team All-Pac-12 honors. Allen averaged 17.2 points last season and was first team All-Pac-12.
Utah hasn’t made the NCAAs since 2016. Allen’s teams barely finished over .500 his first two years, and the Utes were 12-13 last season. Allen, now 21, came to Texas simply to win.
But there are younger players such as Devin Askew. He left high school early to play at Kentucky in what would have been his high school senior season. Texas got a 6-foot-3 guard with four years of eligibility remaining who just logged 25 games for Kentucky coach John Calipari.
“I’m also very open and kind of receptive to listening to what guys say,” Beard said. “And it was a really powerful thing. Not one of these transfers said anything negative about their previous experience. A couple were more about coaching changes and a couple of them were style changes. But it wasn’t like they were running from something.”
If you’re expecting Beard’s Texas teams to score 70, 80, 90 points consistently, you might be disappointed. At Tech, his calling card was defensive tenacity.
The Red Raiders finished in the top 10 in Kenpom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings in 2018 (fourth), 2019 (first) and 2020 (ninth) and dipped to 18th last season. The statistic measures points allowed per 100 possessions. Essentially, the Raiders made it hard as hell to score.
Texas finished 12th, 26th, 24th and 31st the past four seasons, by comparison.
If Texas truly can ever become a “Monday night program,” as Beard said at his introductory press conference, the Horns will have to become lockdown defenders. And that takes real, honest-to-goodness work.
“I don’t have any grand illusion that our offense will be the best offense in college basketball in November and December. It takes time,” Beard said. “So we’re really going to have to hang our hat on defense.
“What happens in college basketball, in my opinion, the whole thing ends with that, too,” he continued. “To win six games in three weekends, you’ve got to have a defense. No one’s ever won that tournament — Baylor and Virginia included — that didn’t have the best defense. To rely on an offense for six straight games, to rely on great officiating, those things just don’t happen. But if you guard for six straight games you have a chance.”
Bringing back Texas exes, lost fans
Beard is serious about wanting to unite the Texas basketball family. It’s not just lip service. If you played for Texas, or served as a trainer or student manager, Beard wants to hear from you.
“We’re not perfect. We’re trying,” he said. “Make sure all the former players know I’ll look them in the eyes and say nothing is more important than our relationship with you. Sometimes I miss a phone call; sometimes I miss a text — I’m human. But it’s not because I’m trying to. No one is more important than our former players.”
Beard said the Horns should be proud of their NBA players and their foreign players, too. Isaiah Taylor and Dylan Osetkowki have been playing overseas. Javan Felix just got a job coaching at Loyola. Former walk-on Joe Schwartz was just hired for Kim Mulkey’s staff at LSU.
“There’s no question that KD is the face of this program, but there’s so many more faces, too,” Beard said.
That extends to former season ticket-holders.
“We had some great season ticket-holders that were here during the (Tom) Penders days that aren't season ticket-holders now. Why?” Beard said. “OK, I’ll listen to you for a few minutes. Tell me what happened and whatever. But eventually it's time to move on. Right? Are we good? It's time to move on.”
Direct marketing to students
At Tech, Beard filmed YouTube segments known as the “Fireside Chat.” It was quirky, off-beat, and Beard spoke directly to Tech students.
He plans to have some kind of direct marketing appeal to Texas students, too. The program has even hired a new director of basketball marketing to get things moving.
Getting students involved is not only important this season. When the men’s and women’s teams move into the new Moody Center in 2022, Texas students will be much closer to the court and more involved with the game action.
“I’d love to sit down with you for as much time as you listen to me about this because there is a plan,” Beard said. “There’s a philosophy, and there is a way we’re doing it.”
But in the here and now, Beard knows Texas has a problem getting people to physically come to the games. Blame traffic, ticket prices, COVID-19 or whatever you’d like. It’s an issue the Horns can address with ticket swaps — or just sustained winning.
“The first thing that has to be asked to the fan base in a respectful way is it's pretty simple,” Beard said. “Please, on the nights where you can’t come to the game, please take the time and effort to give your tickets to somebody and make sure somebody is in your seat. That's the key to the whole thing.”