Texas’ next women’s basketball coach must figure out how to compete with Baylor. Not being able to do so cost Karen Aston her job.
In eight seasons in Austin, Aston was 184-83, took Texas to the NCAA tournament six times and had one Elite Eight and three Sweet 16 appearances. In women’s basketball — which has fewer big-money, loud-voice boosters driving super-high expectations than the men’s game does — Aston’s resume was enough to keep her in place at most schools.
But not at Texas, and most especially not when juxtaposed with the program 100 miles up the interstate in Waco. Some expressed surprise at the announcement Friday that Aston’s contract would not be renewed. I’m surprised they’re surprised. Texas’ administration was faced with doing more of the same to counteract the dominance of Baylor — the Big 12 regular-season champion for 10 consecutive years — or doing something different.
After eight years and Aston’s 1-18 record against the Lady Bears, it was time to do something different. But letting Aston go is just part of that. The harder part is finding someone who will do better against the beast of the Big 12.
Baylor has taken the air out of the rest of the conference for the past decade, but that’s particularly irksome at Texas. A rivalry the Longhorns once dominated has been completely reversed.
When coach Kim Mulkey took over at Baylor for the 2000-2001 season, the Lady Bears had never been to the NCAA tournament and had a 9-47 series record against Texas. Under Mulkey, Baylor has won three NCAA titles and been to one other Final Four, won 11 Big 12 regular-season titles, 10 Big 12 tournament titles and has a 34-11 record against Texas, including 22-1 in the past 10 seasons.
Texas’ legendary coach Jody Conradt, who led the Longhorns to a perfect 1986 season, retired in 2007 after going 5-10 against Mulkey-led Baylor. Texas hired Gail Goestenkors, one of the most successful coaches in the country, to replace Conradt. The former Duke coach went 5-6 against Mulkey at Baylor but never advanced past the second round of the NCAA tournament in five tries and resigned in 2012, citing weariness and burnout.
Enter Aston, a former assistant to Conradt who’d been on the staff when Texas had made its last Women’s Final Four appearance in 2003. Aston went 12-18 her first season in 2013, was back in the NCAA tournament in 2014, in the Sweet 16 in 2015 and in the Elite Eight in 2016. But even at 31-5 that 2016 season, the Longhorns lost three times to Baylor, by 13, 26 and 16 points.
Aston’s lone win in the series came Feb. 6, 2017: 85-79 at Baylor. The Lady Bears then paid that back two weeks later with a 70-67 win in Austin.
Aston is far from alone in struggling with Baylor; in the past 10 seasons, Baylor is 340-25 overall and 170-8 in the Big 12. But the proximity of the schools, and Texas being relegated to also-ran status in its conference, made Baylor’s success a scorching pain for the Longhorns.
At any other school in the Big 12, Aston would still have her job. That’s what her successor has to understand. So whom will that be?
This is one of the biggest job openings in all of women’s college athletics. Texas has had just four women’s basketball coaches since the program began in 1974-75, with Conradt’s 31 seasons taking up much of that. The first coach was Rod Paige; is there a chance Texas would consider hiring a male coach again?
Goestenkors resigned March 19, 2012; just six days earlier, Texas A&M assistant Vic Schaefer had been hired at Mississippi State after helping lead the Aggies to the 2011 NCAA title. Schaefer has gone 221-62 in his eight seasons with the Bulldogs, including two appearances in the national championship game. Will the Longhorns consider trying to lure someone like Schaefer, a Texas native, to Austin? Or perhaps another established Power 5 head coach?
That wasn’t the route taken for the two biggest openings last year, as Tennessee hired alum Kellie Harper, who’d been at Missouri State, and North Carolina hired Courtney Banghart away from Princeton.
Considering the coronavirus pandemic and the economic impact on universities, even ones as wealthy as Texas, will the Longhorns be willing to pay as much for a women’s basketball coach as they otherwise might have?
That’s what we’ll be watching to find out. Aston will land on her feet somewhere; she’s a good coach. But Baylor was simply too big of an obstacle to her continued career at Texas. Whoever replaces her has to be ready for that, because as long as Mulkey is at Baylor, it’s not going away.