Richard Barron is in his sixth year as head coach of the University of Maine Black Bears. The last two seasons, he has guided the team to two consecutive America East regular season titles and two WNIT berths. He agreed to a four-year contract extension a few months ago.
Barron began his coaching career as assistant men’s basketball coach at the University of the South in Tennessee. After four years he took the same job for the women’s team, where he stayed for five seasons. As the school was close to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Barron would often get into pick up games with Volunteer players. When the men’s team wasn’t available, he’d jump into a women’s pick up game. This was how he eventually became friends with legendary Lady Vol coach Pat Summitt.
He was head coach at Princeton for six years before serving as associate head coach at Baylor for two seasons. Barron was assistant coach at North Carolina State for two years before coming to Maine.
The day before Thanksgiving last week, after finishing a tournament, the Black Bears bus was robbed in North Carolina, and many players lost property. The next day, the team and coaches served meals to the homeless in Bangor, Maine.
Barron and his wife have three children.
What is it like to coach in the beautiful state of Maine?
It’s great because it’s a basketball state. People love the game here. There are small high schools that are well-attended, and with the cold winters people are looking for activities to do indoors, and basketball fits the bill. There is great attendance at high school and state games, which carries over to college.
How did your experience before coming to UMaine prepare you for the job?
I had been a head coach before, and I had turned around programs before. I had a level of confidence that I could do it again. I’ve worked with great, high-level coaches and have done a lot of learning on the job no matter where I was. No matter where you go, schools are different, so you have to evolve and adapt.
The geographic location here is a different challenge. At Baylor we had tremendous talent right in our backyard, with Nikki Greene, Brittney Griner and Kelsey Bone all within 15 miles of one another. That’s not the case in Maine.
How did your switch from coaching men’s to women’s basketball occur?
It was opportunistic and somewhat accidental. The women’s coach left and I was planning to go to grad school in Virginia. I had my going away party and the job was offered to me. By the end of the day I had talked myself into thinking it was a pretty good idea.
I coached the women while going to grad school, and after one year we’d had some success – it was the first winning season they’d had in 10 years. Maybe it was arrogance, but I wanted to keep doing it. But then it became an affinity for the players. Every time I thought of leaving and continuing down the career path I’d been going down, I was pulled back because I enjoyed the relationships I’d developed with the players.
How has the game changed since you first began coaching?
There have been a lot of changes. The style of play that started with the European invasion of the NBA and the influence of international basketball on the game has trickled down to the college level. It’s a more open game. In the games of the 1990’s, three-point field goals weren’t that big of an influence. Now we have tons of teams that have three-point shooters, and the three-point line has been moved back even further.
The shot clock has impacted the game. It was 45 seconds when I started, and now it’s 30 seconds. There’s a big difference in coaching lineage. It used to be that you worked camps and you met people. Now we’ve allowed legislation to be passed for recruiting that has effected summer camps. As a result, young coaches don’t work summer camps anymore. That’s where we got a lot of training. Now many coaches come in with the expectation that they’re going to earn six figures, and that’s not realistic. You look at the tenure of coaches like Dean Smith, Sonny Smith – these are coaches that I’ve worked their camps, where I learned a lot.
What is your ultimate goal in coaching?
Just to be a good father and a good husband, and hopefully teach some life lessons to some young women who have a bright future. To serve the University that we represent. To make sure we serve the community and fulfill the mission. To us, academics and athletics are co-curricular, and we’ve got to do well in both.
What are some things you’ve gained or learned in your career that you didn’t necessarily count on when you started?
I have so much of a better understanding of and appreciation of gender differences, and also stereotypes that impact how people feel about each other. Some are true and some are not. How to make the difference work for everybody has been a continuing education for me. I think I’m constantly reminded that there is always more than one way to skin a cat. There are a lot of good people who do things differently, and that doesn’t mean one is right and one is wrong. What’s important is your conviction that you’re doing it the right way for you. You have to believe in your process.
Finish this sentence: coaching basketball is………….
A roller coaster. There are peaks and valleys. There are times when it feels slow, like you’re trudging up hill, and there are times when things seem to go by wickedly fast. Some times are thrilling and some times are exhausting. Then the car comes into the station at the end of the ride and you want to do it again.
What are the most important elements in being successful in coaching?
Being authentic is important. You have to find the line between being consistent and being adaptable. Sometimes you have to stick with it long enough for it to work and for your players to adapt to you and learn your system. On the other hand, you have to adapt to individual needs and personalities. There are sometimes language barriers; we have nine international players.
I try to have a combination of urgency and patience. You have to have a belief that what you’re doing is noble and important; you have to believe in your system and trust in your process. That allows you to be calm. I’m able to trust my players and my staff. We have integrity, and that’s important. We try to do the right things at the right time, and that’s not easy.
How did you feel when we lost Pat Summitt last summer?
She didn’t have toughness without compassion. She was definitely tough, but she was compassionate at the same time. I think she would expect all of us in women’s basketball to continue on and grow the game. How lucky I was to have known her and to be around her for the amount of time that I was. Women who were pioneers in the game taught me a lot about women, coaching and administration
What’s your favorite way to spend a day off?
With my family, and preferably fishing with the dogs.