Friday, March 13, 2009
Barmore enjoying time again on sideline
By Mechelle Voepel Special to ESPN.com
You have to understand, the winters were the worst. Not that they have any big blizzards in Ruston, La. but there are some days you just can't play golf. And the other stuff to do there that's pretty popular at that time of year is just not very appealing to Leon Barmore.
Leon Barmore missed coaching. But not all the responsibilities and headaches that go along with being a head coach.
"In Ruston, if you don't deer hunt or duck hunt " Barmore said. "Well, I'm not sitting in a duck blind at 5 o'clock in the morning, freezing and waiting for a duck to land.
"My wife saw it: That the winters were so rough on me. So I was so bored, and I do love basketball."
Barmore's wife wasn't the only one who noticed, of course. The past few years, as Big 12 women's hoops became more and more like "one degree of separation" from Barmore, you had to wonder about him.
Several coaches in the league had links to Louisiana Tech, the program Barmore made into a giant. Baylor's Kim Mulkey, of course, had played there and been an assistant coach, spending 19 years in Ruston.
Oklahoma State's Kurt Budke had taken over the Louisiana Tech program in 2002 when Barmore had his second retirement (the first didn't last too long). Texas A&M's Gary Blair had been an assistant at Louisiana Tech from 1980 to '85, and Texas Tech's Kristy Curry had coached there, too, during 1996-99.
It sometimes seemed as if Barmore was actually in the league, too -- his presence, that is. The coaches with links to him would be asked about him a lot, and they all said the same things: I learned so much from that man and he left the game too soon.
And then Mulkey decided to do something about it. She wanted Barmore to be an assistant coach at Baylor. She understood that he still had deep roots in Ruston. She knew he wouldn't necessarily want to commit to anything long term or even short term. But she saw the winters were hard on him, too.
"I just wanted to hang around a gym a little bit," Barmore said. "And Kim gave me that opportunity, and I will be always grateful for that."
As second acts go, this one is as understated as it could be for someone who is considered one of the best ever at his profession. Barmore, who was 576-87 as a head coach, wants it that way. In fact, he pretty much insists on it.
He's not shuffling around in preposterous disguise like Joaquin Phoenix no, Barmore's "disguise" is kind of like hiding in plain sight. He sat down with Texas media folks near the beginning of the season because they kept asking for him. But he's avoided most attempts to pin him down for interviews since.
He didn't come back for any of that. He was willing to sit down recently and chat about basketball and his return to it this season. But more than anything, he wants to blend into the scenery and just work with the players.
"I didn't want the limelight; I wanted to be around the game," he said. "I didn't want all the headaches and worries a head coach has. So it was a good setup for me in that regard -- working with someone who knew me and I knew her. It's her show, her program. I accepted that, and that's why it worked."
Mulkey was an assistant to Barmore for 15 seasons at Louisiana Tech. She was more than ready to ascend to a head-coaching job and then Barmore stepped down, assuming the job would go to her. But things didn't work out, and well, we don't have to get into all of that again. It's just nice to see these two friends on the sidelines together one more time.
Leon Barmore led Louisiana Tech to five NCAA title game appearances.
Mulkey wants him to feel free to talk and teach kids and do what he does best. But he has still measured his words because he thinks that's best.
"I had to figure out how much I say to Kim -- because she trusts what I say, and I didn't want it to be wrong," he said. "But at the same time, I don't say too much. Because it might not be the time to say it. I guess one way to put it is, as an assistant, you don't control the game."
Barmore has never before been an assistant. Not really. Technically, he was listed as an assistant to Sonja Hogg during 1977-80 at Tech, but in truth they had division of powers that had him handling all the game strategy.
Then from 1980 to '82 he was an associate head coach, before ascending to that role alone in 1985.
Barmore had originally taken the Louisiana Tech women's job largely seeing it as a potential stepping-stone to the men's job there. He had been a high school coach.
"We won two national championships (1981, '82) and then when the men's job came open, I applied for it," Barmore said. "And the [school] president told me he was going to keep me with the women.
"Then it came open one more time, in 1988 after we won [the NCAA title] again. And I didn't want it. Because during the time, the women's game had really gotten exciting, I enjoyed what I was doing and the players were so receptive to my coaching. I didn't want to change anymore."
Barmore had watched the effect Louisiana Tech women's basketball had on Ruston.
"I saw the program benefit so many people," he said. "I was hooked on the game."
Barmore still has deep emotional ties to Louisiana Tech, of course, especially now that one of his former players, Teresa Weatherspoon, took over the head-coaching job in February. Her team has won eight games in a row going into the WAC tournament semifinals on Friday.
He has enjoyed being part of the Big 12 and understands how women's basketball programs benefit in a major conference. But he still believes there can be mid-major magic.
"Let's face it: Money got to be a problem, exposure on television, the travel," Barmore said. "I could not have done the things I did for Kim this year if I always had to fight airport traffic and commercial flights. There are so many things that make it easier with the big-time schools.
"But I don't want to put a nail in the coffin of a South Dakota State or a Louisiana Tech or Old Dominion. I'm not saying they are going to be there 10 straight years the way we used to be, but they still have a chance to sneak in there."
He'd especially love to see that happen for Weatherspoon.
"She has that energy, that fire, that 'Why not us?' attitude," Barmore said. "I don't think they could have selected a better person at this moment. I feel good that Teresa Weatherspoon knows what that program should be, how the players should feel and act. I couldn't tell you in words how excited I am for her."
Home for him is still Ruston -- he has an apartment in Waco -- and his wife, Rachel, travels back and forth between Texas and Louisiana. They have twin granddaughters, Sophie and Elllie, in Ruston.
"I have not moved lock, stock and barrel to Waco," he said. "But if had to live somewhere other than Ruston, I wouldn't hesitate to choose Waco. The hardest part of this has been to not see those two red-haired 6-year-olds every day."
What has helped make up for it, though, is the feeling he's getting from being part of a basketball team again. He has worked with great players like Angela Turner, Pam Kelly, Janice Lawrence, Venus Lacy, Erica Westbrooks, T-Spoon and Mulkey.
Next season, if he stays on at Baylor, he'll work with Brittney Griner, the 6-foot-8 prep dunking sensation. And he believes the same principles work now as they always have with talented players.
"Good shot selection is something a coach should stress," Barmore said. "But I think giving a kid some freedom to do some things and build some confidence is important, too.
"There can be too much overcoaching. For me, if you see three or four good athletes on a team and you see a box score and they've maybe shot six times you know, come on."
Barmore sits on Baylor's bench and watches everything. Nothing slips by him, and every moment -- even if you can't tell by his unchanging expression -- is bringing him the simple but profound pleasure of really being part of basketball again.
He's not sure how long he'll continue, but that's not important to figure out right now. It's game by game, practice by practice, and that's more than enough.
"I like what I did this year, I like how I've been treated at Baylor," he said. "I really love the girls, I love the team. They have accepted me. I almost didn't do this. And I can tell you now, that I'm so glad I did."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.