Men's Basketball

Q&A: UTA's Jim Baker surprised by extent of backlash after coaching change

UT Arlington athletic director Jim Baker couldn't help but let his emotions show.

Friday's press conference to announce Chris Ogden as UTA's new men's basketball coach concluded the toughest week in Baker's six-year tenure in Arlington.

Baker and UTA president Vistasp Karbhari were lambasted by fans, donors and some high-profile names, including television analyst and former coach Fran Fraschilla, who vowed he'd never again step inside College Park Center after Scott Cross was fired on March 26.

Not only did Baker have to deal with the backlash from the outside of the program, the team's players were also blindsided by the move. Baker didn't shy away from anything after introducing Ogden as UTA's eighth men's basketball coach. Here's an edited portion of his comments from the press conference.

The university president said UTA can be like Gonzaga. Do you have plans to increase the budget? You want to continue to grow your program. You’re not going to do it over night. So you make the steps and we’re doing that with hiring a new coach and surrounding him with the people he needs to be successful. That will grow every year, hopefully, with more revenue coming in.

Where does that revenue come from? It’s on us. We’ve got to go out and raise money, get sponsorships and continue to do those things in the community and grow our attendance. We start on Monday at looking at how we can do those kinds of things. It’s a full-court press from this point on.

What are the expectations for Ogden? We want him to go to the NCAA. We talked about that with all [four of our candidates]; that we want to play in March. It may take a couple of years of work, when you lose eight seniors on the team, you’ve got to rebuild and he has to recruit his kids in here. But our expectations are to play in March and we’re not hiding from that. That’s what you’re remembered for in basketball, what you did in March.

It's hard to consistently make the NCAA tournament coming from the Sun Belt Conference, which has traditionally been a one-bid league? Oh, absolutely. But Georgia Southern has figured it out. They’ve been in two out of the last four. It’s about putting yourself in a place where you can be going to the NCAA. It’s sports, you’re not going every year but it’s something we want to strive for every year and that’s our goal. With this building, with the recruiting around here, and with the energy we hope we can build with a new staff that’s a place we can be.

Wasn’t that the goal in the past? It’s always been a goal but I think it’s a new look at how we want to go. We haven’t been there since ‘08. That’s the bottom line. We want to be there. That’s why we made the change.

In the introduction you referred to the coaching move as a curve ball and the heat directed at you. What has this week been like for you? It has been emotional, obviously. When you make an unpopular decision with some folks … you’re changing the lives of five coaches and five families. That’s never easy and that’s not a fun thing to do. But you have to believe that this is the best step for UTA. For your players, that’s a gut punch to them. They were brought here by that old staff so they have a connection with them. They’re wondering do they still have a scholarship and about their future.

What did you say to the players? We met with them the day after. We had a good talk. I said, ‘Put it on me. Bring it to me. I have your best interest [in mind]. We’re going to take care of you.’ At the end of the day and with all the other noise, it’s about the student-athlete. We’re going to do what’s best for them. We met with them again with the whole staff around them.

When did you know Ogden was your guy? Obviously, I’ve known him for a long time. We had great interviews with four coaches [at the Final Four in San Antonio]. We brought two up here. He just was the right fit.

What do you say to the fans and donors who were upset by the move? UTA should be bigger than one person. It should be bigger than me, it should be bigger than the president. It’s about UTA and your allegiance here. We want to continue to grow. The president wants to continue to grow. Can we get there? Time will tell. But if you don’t try you’re never going to get there.

Were you surprised by the reaction to the firing of Scott Cross and his staff? No … [it was] probably a little more than I expected. I knew there was going to be a backlash. Scott was a very popular coach and he won and there’s no hiding from that. That has never been the issue. Bottom line: we had a different philosophy where we thought this program was going. That is it. There is nothing more than that. I have all the respect for Scott. Scott will be in the Hall of Honor here. Scott will be welcomed back on this campus; he might not want to. I just feel that it’s bigger than one person.

Cross won, graduated his players and ran a clean program. Isn't this a message about winning at all costs? It’s not at all costs. We’re going to continue to do it the right way. But it’s about March. Putting the university [on the map] in March. Look what it did to Loyola? Look what it did for the University of Maryland-Baltimore County? That’s what brings your university notoriety. That’s where we want to strive. They have stories [such as those] every year, so why can’t we? It happens, so why can’t that be UTA?

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