- Carter Strickland, Reporter, HornsNation
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Chris Plonsky stepped in front of the Texas women's basketball team on Monday night, introduced their new coach Karen Aston, stepped aside and waited for the reaction.
"When the kids left (after listening to Aston), they were amazingly connected," the Texas women's athletic director told the media in a Tuesday news conference. "They were fired up and they were cheery."
There hadn't been much of either around Texas in the past few years. This was a program that, despite having a big-name coach with a top salary, had become moribund, at best. So it came to pass that after five years and one NCAA tournament win, Gail Goestenkors resigned last month. Not missing a moment Plonsky, who said she always keeps a short list of candidates, reached out to Aston.
"Karen isn't scared," Ponsky said. "She has no preconceived notions about where we are and what the challenges are."
Aston, who received a five-year contract with rollover language, knows all about challenges. The former Texas assistant spent one year at North Texas, turning around a team that went 5-26 before her arrival to 15-16 last season. Before her year at UNT, Aston led Charlotte to two 20-win seasons in her four years, including a school-record 27 wins in the 2010-11 season.
Aston left no doubt about her expectations:
"I expect to go to the Final Four," she said. "I'm thrilled to be back. My job is to make Texas proud of the women's basketball program."
But it was her record of recruiting and history at Texas that may have been the most important factor in this hire. Aston spent eight years as an assistant to Jody Conradt and during that time recruited seven high school McDonald's All-Americans and seven Nike All-Americans to campus.
"When I moved back to this state last year, part of that reason was to return to the scene of Texas recruiting because I think Texas basketball is some of the very best out there," Aston said.
Her assistant coaching career allowed her to apprentice with three Hall of Fame coaches: Conradt and Baylor's Kim Mulkey and Sonja Hogg.
Each taught her valuable lessons. Conradt showed her how to run a program and Mulkey how to push players to be their absolute best, Aston said.
"Every time I've made a step, it's been under someone who is in the Hall of Fame. I'd have to be dumb to not have learned something," Aston said.
Goestenkors was long criticized for her failure to lock up the top recruits in the state and maintain relationships with the high school coaches in Texas. Now Aston not only has to rebuild those relationships but she has to build a relationship with the two incoming recruits for 2012 -- 6-foot-7 Imani Stafford, a top-10 player nationally, and 5-7 shooting guard Empress Davenport.
"That has to be addressed immediately," Aston said.
Five years ago, Conradt called Goestenkors a perfect fit for the Longhorns. She issued a statement Tuesday supporting Aston as "the right person for Texas."
"She has a proven record, is a great recruiter and a hard worker. She was a very key member of my staff and I have a tremendous amount of respect for her," Conradt said.
What also has to be addressed is apathy and lethargy surrounding the program. Under Conradt, Texas was a national player, becoming the first women's program to go undefeated in 1986. Now, Baylor, 100 miles up the road, has taken away the spotlight from Texas and is poised to repeat Texas' feat of 26 years ago. Last year it was Texas A&M cutting down the nets after its national championship win.
Both schools' accomplishments only served to highlight the failings at Texas.
"We have got to be really good here," Plonsky said. "We have gone through some tough times. It has got to be right. What we can hope for is you put people in place that you can trust."
That trust now rests with Aston.
Carter Strickland covers University of Texas athletics for HornsNation.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.