Friday, March 06, 2009

LEON BARMORE: the coach keeps on coaching

Leon Barmore with my daughter Betsy and me after the game.
This is a feature I wrote for the current edition of the Morning Paper of Ruston, La. in exchange for publisher John Hays providing a press pass along with some extra tickets to the game. The target audience live in and around Ruston, the home of La. Tech University, and are familiar with the school's storied womens basketball program, The Lady Techsters, and former head coach, Leon Barmoer, the subject of this piece.

Bayou Bil



by Bill Fullerton

For just a moment, it seemed like old times. With 2:30 left in the game, Leon Barmore’s nationally ranked team had lost its best player and seen the University of Texas Lady Longhorns whittle a 16-point lead down to three. The Texas fans at UT’s Ewing Center were noisy and excited, sensing their team was on the brink of taking the lead. It was time for a time-out.

Trademark scowl in place, Barmore stepped into the huddle and spoke to the tired players with his familiar intensity. The man who had a 7-0 coaching record against the Lady Longhorns in their own gym, did not want to leave town with 7-1 record.

Then the moment passed. Barmore stepped out of the huddle and, Kim Mulkey, no longer his assistant at Louisiana Tech, but now head coach at Baylor University, took his place. Whatever they said must have worked. The fifth-ranked Lady Bears held off the Texas charge to record a hard-earned nine-point victory.

For long-time Lady Techster fans, the sight of Leon Barmore sitting passively on the bench with the other Baylor assistants while Mulkey squats in front of him directing on-court play is disconcerting. It’s as if Jerry Rice had starting throwing passes to Steve Young or Joe (not Hannah) Montana.

It just don’t seem right.

After all, this is THE Leon Barmore, the hall of fame member who served as head women’s basketball coach at Louisiana Tech from 1985 to 2002 -- retired with a .869 winning percentage, the best in women's basketball history -- led Tech to 20 straight winning seasons, including 13 with 30-plus wins -- coached the Lady Techsters to 20 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, nine Final Fours, five national championship games and the 1988 national title.

Now the same man sits on the Baylor bench, seldom standing or gesturing, apparently saying little, and remaining on the fringes of team huddles. That was the pattern Saturday afternoon until a second half scuffle for the ball had him jumping to his feet and yelling at the officials. Nobody picks on Barmore’s players. Then with 2:30 left in the game, he said something to the team during that fateful time-out.

After the game, Kim Mulkey moved through the throng outside the coaches lounge, looking every inch the harried head coach who, with the Big-12 tourney looming, had just lost her best player for the rest of the year. Moments later, Leon Barmore stepped out into the hallway with the relaxed, pleased look of someone who’d just finished an unusually good round of golf.

Barmore, who has been a basketball player or coach all his life, clearly missed the competition, but not the stress. Now he has the best of both worlds. “I’m having fun,” he said, “but I wouldn’t want to do this full-time. (Barmore’s contract runs from October to April).

The job lets him stay around the game he loves while doing sometime he excelled at, coaching, and he gets to socialize. Amid the post-game bustle, he bumped into former Texas head coach, Jody Conradt. The two long-time combatants, both with national titles to their credit, chatted companionably like two former neighbors who’d just met in a busy airport.

The man who dislikes flying has even learned the joys of chartered flights. “We go to the airport in Waco, and 55-minutes later, we’re in Lubbock.”

Talk of basketball and grandchildren stops when the mother of the Lady Bears’ point guard walks past. Barmore introduces her and asks if she’d mind taking a picture. Nothing would please her more. There are smiles, a flash, a round of thank-you’s and congratulations on her daughter’s play.

Leon Barmore has posed for many such photographs over the years. This time, his smile is that of a man who’s having fun, and an old coach who just saw his record against Texas on their home court go to 8-0.

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