How Richard Barron is flipping the coaching script at Maine

ORONO, Maine — On March 5, 2018, the University of Maine men’s basketball team gathered in its locker room to say goodbye to head coach Bob Walsh, out after winning just 24 games in four seasons. Emotional players had only a few minutes before their reality changed again.

Somewhat unexpectedly, their new head coach walked into the room. Players sat still, stunned.

Not only did they already have a new coach — inconceivable only moments earlier — but also many recognized him from their very own gym.

Richard Barron, who once led the resurgent Maine women’s basketball program, met their eyes. He had that day become just the third women’s basketball coach in Division I history to take over a men’s basketball program and the first to do so in more than 20 years.

Barron spoke for only a few minutes, telling the players that he understood how they felt about losing their coach. Making bold proclamations about the future in their first meeting would do nothing to ease the awkwardness they all felt envelope them in that moment.

“My initial reaction was shock and skepticism a bit because I never heard of anything like that before,” guard Isaiah White said, recalling the moment.

That skepticism among some players and others in the basketball community lingered, understandable considering the gulf that still exists between how the men’s and women’s games are perceived.

A few weeks later, Barron tabbed Edniesha Curry as the only woman to currently serve as a men’s assistant coach in Division I, making Maine’s program the most progressive in men’s college basketball when it comes to erasing the gender divide that so clearly delineates the sport.

“My motivation wasn’t to be a crusader for a cause,” Barron says. “My motivation was: This is a program that I care about, a place that I care about, and I was asked and felt like I could help and do the job.”

But there is no doubt what is happening at Maine could move the needle closer to a time when that gender divide no longer exists.

You have to go back more than 30 years to find the first women’s basketball coach to take over a men’s program.

Bill “Speedy” Morris did it first, in the 1980s with La Salle. Morris was a highly successful boys’ high school coach in Philadelphia, and when La Salle first approached about taking over the women’s program, he balked.

“I thought it would be boring,” Morris says in a phone interview. “Right away, I said no.”

Eventually, La Salle convinced him to take the job. Morris thought he had to treat his players differently because they were women. A fiery, in-your-face, emotional coach, Morris toned himself down. Two weeks into practice, team captain Gina Tobin confronted him.

“She said, ‘You’re pissing us off,'” Morris recalls. “‘You don’t have any faith in us? You don’t think you can coach us like you coached your kids at Roman [Catholic High]? You’re disappointing us. We can take it. Try it. We can take it.’

“She was right.”

Morris coached the women’s team for two years, winning a league championship and making the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. Just before the league championship game, La Salle’s athletic director offered him the vacant men’s job.

“I always wanted to coach the men,” Morris admits. “The girls know: They got me the job.”

Pat Harris did it next in the 1990s. Harris played at Army under Mike Krzyzewski and began his career coaching men. When he got the opportunity to become an assistant on the women’s team, he went for it, and that led him to become the women’s interim coach in 1996-97. He was subsequently hired to coach the Army men’s team for five seasons.

“Coach K never turned around to me and said, ‘Oh, you’re going to coach women. It’s going to ruin you,'” Harris says.

“Coaches didn’t look at it that way. They looked at it as: Once you’re in the house, it’s easy to move around.'”

That might be true, but only to an extent. It is easier for men to move as assistants between the men’s and women’s game, and there are examples scattered across the basketball landscape. Barron himself did it. There is virtually no entry, however, for a woman to move into the men’s game in the same way.

Curry is just the fourth woman to serve as a Division I men’s basketball assistant coach. Her path to becoming a head coach for a Division I men’s basketball program is far different than the one Barron took, even though what Barron is doing is exceedingly rare. Women have never done what Curry wants to do on a full-time basis at the collegiate level. It is then impossible to overlook what Morris, Harris and Barron all have in common: All three made the transition at the same school, and all three are men.

Morris and Harris might have done what was previously unthinkable, but their hires did not cause a seismic shift in the women’s or men’s game. Twenty-two years passed between the Harris and Barron hires, hardly a national trend.

“It’s a comfort level,” Curry says, noting the perceived risks in making an out-of-the-box coaching hire. “When it comes to hiring, everyone thinks about all the things that could go bad. They think about everything that has nothing to do with the fact that we could be kick-ass at our job. That’s the reason why. They can see we’re qualified, but they’re conditioned to think about everything that could go bad or will go bad, so they’ll call everybody, and everybody’s going to feed into that condition that’s already in society.

“It’s not even about basketball. It’s about all the ‘what-ifs’ in the universe that could happen.”

Curry has made it clear that she wants to become a head coach for a men’s basketball team, and she understands all the barriers and double standards she has to overcome to get there. But how much desire is there among women’s head coaches to take over men’s programs?

There is no definitive answer. When the late Pat Summit was in her prime, winning championships at Tennessee, people asked whether she would want to coach the men. UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s name came up last year when the men’s job at the school was open. He also received overtures from Oklahoma to coach its men’s team at one point in his career.

Although Auriemma was unavailable for this story, despite repeated requests for comment, he has maintained in the past that he always believed he could coach a men’s team but never felt an overwhelming desire to leave his job.

Many women’s coaches say the same. In spite of the generally higher compensation and visibility of the men’s game, they balk at the characterization of a men’s job as a “step up” or “promotion.” In fact, Barron took over a men’s program with less tradition than the women’s. A look inside their home arena in Bangor says it all: Multiple banners hang honoring the women’s basketball team. Just one hangs for the men’s.

“We have so many great coaches in the women’s game, but so many of our top coaches have established themselves at programs,” said former Tennessee player Kara Lawson, now an ESPN commentator. “Why would Geno Auriemma go coach the men’s side? He’s created this historic program, and why would he leave that, or why would he feel the urge that he needs to leave that? Or Muffet McGraw [at Notre Dame] or Kim Mulkey [at Baylor]? So I don’t know that I’d see a top coach or coaches of the top programs going over to the men’s side.”

“[Spurs assistant] Becky Hammon is one, but how many women actually aspire to coach men?” asked Southeast Missouri State coach Kellie Harper, who hired Barron as an assistant at NC State. “I personally do not. I have no aspirations to coach a men’s basketball team. I’m very happy coaching a women’s basketball team. I don’t know how much of it is the opportunities aren’t there or how much of it is the desire isn’t there. It may be a little bit of both.”

There could be other factors at play, too.

“How many athletics administrators are females?” asks Courtney England, who played for Barron and now serves as an assistant on the Maine women’s basketball team. “How many athletic directors hire males in female coaching roles versus vice versa? So what it took for Coach Barron to be able to do that here is him to believe he can do it and also someone administratively and a community and a university to believe that he could do it, too. If it was a female going into a male coaching role, it would be interesting because the amount of people that would have to believe in that is vast. It can’t just be you.”

Even though Barron was well-known, there were questions about what Maine was doing. Assistant Kevin Reed heard it in his own high-school coaching circles, when some approached him and asked, “Your girls coach is now coaching the men?”

“When you have a non-traditional approach to the head coach position, there’s always going to be some naysayers out there,” current Maine athletic director Ken Ralph says. “The risk was more reputational than anything because if it doesn’t work, people will then criticize it. Richard being a known quantity in this department, there was less risk because of that.”

Barron never set out to switch to coaching men. It simply happened, and truthfully, it happened only because Barron got sick. In fact, he thought he was going to die.

At the time, Barron was in the midst of restoring a proud tradition to a Maine women’s basketball team that sunk to a 4-25 record the season before he arrived in 2011. In 2014-15 and 2015-16, Maine won the America East regular-season championship and secured spots in the WNIT, posting consecutive 20-win seasons for the first time in a decade.

In December 2016, Barron started to hear amplified sounds in his head, sounds that grew louder and louder as time went on.

A door closing would be enough to send him toppling from his chair, believing he had just heard an explosion. He could hear his own eyelashes when he blinked. Coaching games became an excruciating exercise given all the noise: the crowd, the band, the cheerleaders, the bouncing ball, the buzzer, the whistles, the squeaking sound of sneakers making contact with the hardwood.

Barron grew agitated and paranoid, often asking, “Did you hear that noise?!” to which his assistants and players would quietly respond, “No.” He would get the shakes or become disoriented and forgetful. Trips to the doctor proved useless. Nobody knew what was wrong with him.

In January 2017, he decided to step away, not only for himself but also for the good of the program. Barron turned the program over to former Maine standout Amy Vachon, whom he’d hired as an assistant and who had been instrumental in changing the program’s fortunes. Meanwhile, Barron spent his days at home, mostly in his room, searching the internet and chat rooms to figure out what was happening to him. Any day, Barron thought, would be the day he would die.

“It’s so debilitating,” Barron says. “I was really depressed. I felt a lot of guilt. I felt like I had tried to coach through it too long, I felt like I had hurt the team, I felt like I let my family down with not being prepared with enough life insurance. There was a point where that depression turned more into not quite anger but resentment, resistance: I’m going to figure this out. I’m going to fight, and so I’m not going to let you win. I just didn’t know who my opponent was.”

It was later that summer that he finally got the diagnosis he longed for: Barron had a small hole in his skull just above his ear, known as superior semicircular canal dehiscence (SSCD). He went to UCLA for a craniotomy — surgery to fill the hole.

Vachon agreed to stay on as interim women’s coach, giving Barron time to undergo the surgery, heal and figure out whether he wanted to resume coaching.

By the time a new basketball season was set to start, Barron decided he could not take his job back. He believed it would be terribly unfair to Vachon and the players — the Maine women’s basketball team had thrived under her leadership. So Barron stayed in the athletic department as a special assistant to then-athletic director Karlton Creech, trying to decide his next move.

Creech ended up playing a role in that decision. He asked Barron whether he had any desire to coach the men’s basketball team. The last time Barron had coached men was as an assistant at Division III Sewanee in 1995, until a job as women’s head coach at the school led him to the women’s game. He turned around Sewanee’s program before eventually doing the same at Princeton and later Maine.

Barron considered the challenge. While the Maine women’s basketball program had earned eight NCAA tournament appearances and recorded 20 seasons with 20 or more wins in its history, the men’s program had never made the NCAA tournament. The men had reached the 20-win mark just twice (most recently in 2004). They’d won just 53 games in the preceding seven seasons while losing 159.

Barron felt he owed it to the administration and to the state of Maine itself, especially with the way the community stood behind him and supported his family through his illness. Because he had been on campus since 2011, he felt he understood the culture, the state, how to recruit and what needed to be done better than anyone else. Plus, his family loved living there.

“The fact that he’s willing to go through the rebuilding process again at Maine on the men’s side, I said to him, ‘I don’t know how you’re doing it.’ It’s hard. It’s so hard. But it is a remarkable thing. He’s a great coach. He’s brilliant.”

Maine women’s basketball coach Amy Vachon

Barron felt like he fit. But he also understood the risk. Creech must have too, considering how rare it is for a women’s head coach to take over a men’s program. Creech left a short time later to become athletic director at Denver, and he declined a request for comment about his decision-making process.

“There’s a risk in taking any job,” Barron says. “There’s a risk coming to Maine in the first place. There’s a risk not taking other jobs. There’s a risk in staying too long. So I have enough confidence in my abilities, and our abilities collectively, to do this job that it’s worth the risk that we’re taking.

“This is not something I planned. And I don’t know if 20 years from now I’m still living in Maine or retiring as the basketball coach here. But right now, I see this as a job that needs to be done for a group of people that I care about and that I’m capable of doing the job.”

Four days after Barron was introduced as the men’s basketball coach, the women’s team won the America East Conference championship and clinched its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2004.

Vachon made sure to give Barron a championship ring.

“The reality is if he wanted this job back, he could have come back and got it,” says Vachon, who led Maine to another America East regular-season title this season. “I was here for a year, and I was filling in, but he built this. We won a championship last year — he built it. Our success right now, he built it. I owe Coach Barron everything as far as my career in coaching. The fact that he’s willing to go through the rebuilding process again at Maine on the men’s side, I said to him, ‘I don’t know how you’re doing it.’ It’s hard. It’s so hard. But it is a remarkable thing. He’s a great coach. He’s brilliant.”

In the same way the women’s team struggled in Barron’s first season, so too have the men.

Barron is using the exact same playbook for the men’s team that he used for the women’s. He’s also using the same recruiting approach — heavy on international while mining under-recruited talent in the area.

Although the Black Bears have been more competitive, they will end up losing more games than they did last season. Barron has a hard time getting past the overall record — it’s 5-26 as Maine enters America East tournament play on Saturday — because he knows that’s all outsiders will see, without any context about how far his group has come.

For example, the team has recorded its highest GPA since it started tracking the stat two decades ago.

“He changed the culture, and it didn’t have anything to do with male or female,” says Andrew Fleming, the team’s leading scorer. “It’s that simple. It’s hard to get people to believe that right now because we haven’t won yet, but everyone involved in the program knows we’ve gotten better this year, and our culture’s started to change. We’re going to get there.”

“He’s done a great job of getting them to play exactly the way he wants them to play from an identity standpoint. They have a clear identity to how they’re going to play both offensively and defensively.”

UMBC coach Ryan Odom, on Maine

But they are not there yet, and one of the biggest adjustments has been playing within Barron’s offensive system.

“It’s not second nature yet to a lot of us,” White said. “I always have to be mindful of the different expectations, so in the heat of games or when we get comfortable and not as focused mentally, we regress to old habits. A lot of coaches I’ve had previously always preached dribble-drive offense, create your own off the dribble, where this is let the offense create for you. There’s a lot more movement off the ball, a lot more cognitive than I’m used to, so it’s different and the details — inside foot pivoting and learning how to seal your man with proper footwork — these are things that are not typically taught for guards but used in this offense a lot, especially for guards with size.”

“He’s done a great job of getting them to play exactly the way he wants them to play from an identity standpoint,” says UMBC coach Ryan Odom, who has faced Barron and Maine twice this season. “They have a clear identity to how they’re going to play both offensively and defensively. They bought into the system right away.”

Barron is optimistic about the future at Maine. The Black Bears expect to return every major contributor from this season, plus several freshmen Barron redshirted. They signed a full recruiting class as well. Getting that first NCAA tournament bid remains, as always, the dream for not only the team but also an entire state eager to see history made.

But Barron is also careful to note that he does not want what happens at Maine to serve as a barometer for women’s coaches switching to the men’s side.

“I don’t think it’s fair to all those other coaches for me to be the one that determines whether or not this a good practice,” he says. “There are plenty of great coaches out there. Hiring coaches has more to do with fit than it has anything to do with gender. It’s philosophy, understanding the job and what goes into it. That’s why I’m saying I don’t want that pressure — not because I don’t think it’s important they have that chance. I think they can be successful regardless of what I do.”

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