Women's Basketball: Karen Aston
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Karen Aston has been through this before. She's a veteran coach who has taken over programs and experienced both the pains and joys of fresh starts. She acknowledges, though, that she really didn't expect her first season as Texas' head coach to be this relentlessly difficult.
Right now, life on the “Forty Acres” is far from bucolic. Watching "Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D" probably seems a more pleasant experience than watching Texas women's basketball for the Longhorns' fans.
Texas is 7-11 overall and 0-7 in the Big 12 after Wednesday's 76-38 loss at Kansas. Texas' top two scorers this season -- junior guard Chassidy Fussell and sophomore forward Nneka Enemkpali -- were left home in Austin, suspended one game for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Another starter, junior guard Ashley Roberts, was injured and didn't suit up.
Last week, senior Cokie Reed and junior Chelsea Bass both retired from basketball due to health reasons. Since last fall, in fact, it has been a steady drumbeat of downbeat occurrences at Texas: injuries, players dealing with deaths in their families, attitude issues, adjustment problems.
“It's been difficult for the team, because there's been no way we could have a level of consistency with what's gone on,” Aston said. “Everything about success is consistency.
"But if we're in this for the long haul, you have to look at it from a long-term perspective. You have to teach some life lessons. And when you're trying to change a mindset and take things in a different direction, then there are rough times before you see the light and get to the other side."
Of course, you could almost joke that with the bad luck the Longhorns have had, the next "light" in the darkness could be a locomotive steaming right at them. But don't get the impression that Aston is feeling sorry for herself or her team. Far from it.
She was with Texas during some its highest moments in the past decade-plus, including a trip to the 2003 Women's Final Four. A former assistant to Jody Conradt, Aston has paid her dues in working her way back to Texas. She was an assistant at Baylor, then head coach at Charlotte and North Texas before taking over the Longhorns last spring after Gail Goestenkors resigned.
Aston was candid in describing how her experiences moving in as a new head coach at Charlotte and North Texas were different.
"At Charlotte, the players loved Amanda Butler, and they really didn't want to hear anything I said," Aston said of the former 49ers and current Florida coach who preceded her there. "So that first year, there was a clash all the time. But the second year was amazing; it was a complete buy-in. That's when I felt it was my team.
"At North Texas, those kids were so hungry for change and something different, they grabbed on to everything right away and were sponges. Now that I look back on it, that was the more rare experience -- it doesn't happen very often."
Currently at Texas, it's fair to say the scenario is more what Aston faced initially in Charlotte. Texas certainly had its tough times under Goestenkors, but some players did forge close bonds with her.
The new coaching staff has to overcome the resistance that is rather common when people are put into changed circumstances: They fight against that, even when it's not logical or productive.
"We have to roll up our sleeves and dig in together," Aston said.
Kansas has three experienced seniors in its starting lineup, so this game would have been challenging for Texas even with the missing players. Without them, a mostly young group of Longhorns were no match for the Jayhawks.
What bothered Aston, though, was not the loss as much as the lackluster effort, especially in the first half.
Said Aston: "I told them at halftime: 'You didn’t compete. It didn’t matter what defense I put you in or what I told you to run, you weren't competing. We didn't have some starters here, so we had a pity party.'
"I really don't want to say that these kids are not trying to buy in, because I think they are. But the adversity has been overwhelming for them. We're young, trying to compete in the Big 12 and playing three and four freshmen in games."
Aston has former Texas men's star Travis Mays, plus former Longhorn women's standouts Amie Smith Bradley and Stacy Stephens on her staff. As the saying goes, these are folks who bleed burnt orange. At some point, their collective experiences should be a big aid to the Longhorns regaining their footing in elite collegiate women's basketball.
But Aston knows this team is nowhere near ready to even think about embracing Texas' proud past as a helpful guidepost for the future.
"Right now, they're in the moment, and all they care about is, 'This is really hard,'" Aston said. "And they have to find a way to overcome 'really hard.'"