Former Texas A&M men’s basketball coach Tony Barone accomplished great things at Creighton and with the Memphis Grizzlies. Sandwiched between that was his tenure with the Aggies, part of the program’s leanest of times.
It’s a shame because Aggieland missed out on what could’ve been a fun run. Instead, Barone struggled to a record of 76-120 (.388) with only one postseason appearance. The program's troubles started well before Barone hit Aggieland.
The 72-year-old Barone, who lost his battle with lung and brain cancer Tuesday, took over at A&M in 1991 to pick up the pieces left by Kermit Davis Jr., who failed miserably in the impossible job of replacing Shelby Metcalf, the program’s winningest coach who some wanted gone but not others. The highly touted and eager Davis managed to push Metcalf to the back burner in one season, unfortunately in a negative way. Davis went 8-21, the program’s worst record since 1966-67, and committed enough NCAA violations along the way to get A&M slapped with a two-year probation.
Because of that, A&M needed a big-time hire in the worst way and desperately turned to the brash Barone, who checked all the boxes. The former Duke player and assistant knew the importance of academics and had a squeaky clean record. The 44-year-old Chicago native was coming off three straight 20-win seasons at Creighton, where he led the team to its first NCAA tournament victory since 1971, feats that eventually landed him in the school’s Hall of Fame in 2015. Along with all that experience, Barone had the energy needed to restart a troubled program, which is why A&M offered him more than double his Creighton salary.
Barone poured every ounce of energy into reviving A&M with his in-your-face approach.
“Coach Barone was just so passionate about the way he coached,” former player Joe Wilbert said. “He just gave it his all.”
Some players were concerned he gave too much, Wilbert said.
Forward Roy Wills and guard Jimmy Smith once told Wilbert they thought Barone might have a heart attack right there in front of them. Wilbert said that’s probably the way Barone would want to go.
Barone put loads of energy into the program, but it didn’t lead to enough victories. The Aggies seemingly turned the corner in his third season when they went 10-4 in the Southwest Conference to tie for second place, earning a bid to the National Invitation Tournament. After getting the invitation, a bubbly Barone invited the media to his house to talk about the matchup with New Orleans over a Chicago-style spaghetti dinner made by his wife, Kathy. Unfortunately, the Aggies lost at New Orleans in overtime, settling for a 19-11 record. That was the apex of the Barone era.
The Aggies fell to 7-7 in the SWC the following season and kept spiraling. The end was a 7-20 season in 1997-98 that included a 1-15 record in the Big 12 Conference. Barone led A&M past Baylor in his last game to avoid the 0-16 record that is still haunting his replacement, Melvin Watkins, who had less success than Barone at A&M with a 60-112 record (.349) and no postseason appearances.
Former athletic director Wally Groff had no choice but to fire Barone, who didn’t get to play in Reed Arena as promised because a construction accident delayed the facility’s opening by a season.
To his credit, Barone cleaned up A&M’s off-the-court mess and recruited quality individuals who improved the program’s image and academic standing, but he didn’t develop enough top-notch talent. Guard David Edwards (1992-94) and Wilbert (1994-95) were his only players to earn first-team, all-conference honors with Wilbert, the former Bryan all-state performer, doing it twice.
It doesn’t take long to sum up Barone’s accomplishments at A&M, but his career didn’t implode along with G. Rollie White Coliseum. He found his niche in the NBA, spending 11 years with the Memphis Grizzlies (2001-2012) starting and ending as director of player personnel. He served as the interim head coach for 52 games during the 2006-07 season and as an assistant coach for five seasons. He was a huge cog in helping the franchise settle into the south after moving to Memphis from Vancouver for the 2001-02 season.
“Tony was a consummate pro, a sharp basketball mind and a great family man,” the Grizzlies said in a statement after his passing. “Whether as a front office executive or on the sidelines as our head coach, Tony’s determination, passion for Grizzlies’ basketball and love for Memphis was a true embodiment of All-Heart, Grit & Grind. Our deepest sympathies are with the entire Barone family at this time as we mourn the passing of our friend and coach, Tony Barone Sr.”
The Memphis Commercial Appeal referred to Barone as a “living, breathing scouting computer” who was “disguised in the package of a short, jolly Italian man.”
When Creighton beat Drake in 1989 to win its first Missouri Valley Conference title, Barone loosened up his tie in the locker room and ripped off his dress shirt to reveal a T-shirt that had “Missouri Valley Champions” emblazoned on it. The players, who had been picked to finish seventh in the eight-team conference, went berserk.
Barone probably had those kind of dreams for A&M, and though he never came close to accomplishing them, he had his players’ respect.
“Coach Barone, he was as tough as nails 90 by 50 [the size of court],” Wilbert said. “But off the court, man, he was a teddy bear.”
Barone’s passion that worked so well with the players often rubbed others wrong. Barone had run-ins with the media, including yours truly. But a few years after he left here, I ran into a much more lovable Barone at the Big 12 basketball tournament and had a good conversation with one of the NBA’s best scouts. As I walked away, I thought, you’ve got to give him credit: He did the best he could at A&M. It just wasn’t meant to be.
One silver living from Barone’s time at A&M was current A&M head coach Buzz Williams worked Barone’s camp in the summer of 1991.
“When I was a manager at a junior college in Texas, my first two years in college, my junior college coach said, ‘If you ever want to learn how to coach, you should work camps during the summer,’” Williams said. “I wrote a letter to every college, Division I or Division II — I didn’t know the difference at the time — asking if I could work their camps.”
A&M was one of 12 camps that Williams worked that summer. He reminded Barone for the last two decades that he worked that camp.
“He was always off-the-chart good to me,” Williams said Thursday on the Southeastern Conference coaches’ teleconference. “He was someone that I tried to emulate, not that I understood what was going on. [He] always had great energy. [He] was always overly kind to me. He was such a quick thinker. I always thought he was funny, and sometimes I don’t think he was trying to be funny. It just came across as funny because he had such a quick wit about him.”