Greg Byrne has crawled right back out on that limb again, the one that gave way on him last year.
The University of Arizona athletic director announced earlier this week that he has hired former UofA standout and WNBA player, Adia Barnes, to take over his floundering women’s basketball program.
Her predecessor, Niya Butts, was in the process of running the program into the ground after posting just one winning season in seven years when Byrne decided to let her play out the last year of her contract. He could have fired Butts after the 2014-15 season when the Wildcats went 5-24 and won just one conference game. No one would have questioned the move. Instead he opted to see what she could do with a top-25 recruiting class and newly-renovated and expanded facilities.
The gamble didn’t pay off. Butts took her eighth, and final, squad to a 13-19 finish to the 2015-16 season and won three Pac-12 contests. For a third of their home conference games, they drew fewer than 1,000 fans.
Byrne didn’t hire Butts. His predecessor, Jim Livengood, did. But you would expect Byrne would be a little gun-shy about jumping back into the same kind of hiring decision.
Butts played college ball at national powerhouse Tennessee and was part of two national championship teams. So she knew what it takes to win at an elite level. At the time of her hire by Arizona, her head coach, the legendary Pat Summit, said this about her former player: “I see her taking the same qualities I saw in her as a player en route to two NCAA Championships – doing all the little things right and applying them as a head coach.”
Butts was an assistant coach at Michigan State and then spent five years as an assistant at Kentucky. She was the recruiting coordinator for three years at Kentucky.
But she had never been a head coach.
Compare that with Barnes, who also played college ball – granted, on a much different level than Butts, who played in 11 games at Tennessee and had just three starts. Barnes was a three-time All-Conference selection, Pac-10 Player of the Year, and left the program with 2,237 career points to make her the leading scorer in program history.
Barnes, who had a 12-year career in the WNBA (and won a championship with Seattle), was also a college assistant coach. She joined the University of Washington staff in 2011 and three years later was promoted to recruiting coordinator, helping the Huskies to five straight 20-win seasons and a trip to the Final Four this year.
But she has never been a head coach.
The similarities between the two hires are obvious. But the glaring point is that neither was a head coach before attempting the monumental challenge that comes with trying to rebuild a program in one of the most competitive conferences in the country.
At her press conference she pointed to her most valuable asset as she begins her first gig in the boss’s seat. “A lot of my coaching philosophy goes from first-hand experiences,” she said. “I’ve been there. I’ve done that.”
The program she is stepping into right now, however, does not resemble the one in which she played two decades ago. This program has won just 14 conference games over the past five years and its teams spent so much time in the Pac-12 cellar that they outgrew their fear of the dark.
This job will be a challenge unlike anything Barnes has likely experienced before. She will be the fifth women’s head coach to take on that challenge and, if past tendencies are any indicator, Byrne will give her enough time to lay the groundwork and then begin reaping the rewards.
It would be a mistake to make performance judgements too early. Butts actually won 20 games (21-12) in her third season in charge.
And we all know how long that parade lasted.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)