Mac Engel

UT Arlington’s Cross an attractive coaching commodity

UTA coach Scott Cross, right, and the Mavericks took down Texas coach Shaka Smart and the Longhorns on Nov. 29. “I had that on my bucket list,” Cross said of the program’s first victory over Texas.
UTA coach Scott Cross, right, and the Mavericks took down Texas coach Shaka Smart and the Longhorns on Nov. 29. “I had that on my bucket list,” Cross said of the program’s first victory over Texas. AP

If a certain local academic institution isn’t careful it’s going to lose one of the best things it has going for it ... if it even cares.

UT Arlington has not sponsored football since 1985, which leaves men’s basketball coach Scott Cross’ team as the school’s lone revenue sport. Not that UTA basketball makes any money, but Cross has built himself a real team at UTA and if ever he was going to cash in, now is the time.

This is the one Mavs team worth watching.

Because so many good players, good coaches and good teams are often lost in our over-crowded sports back yard, you should know that Cross has a real NCAA tournament team. Men like Cross and teams like his merit recognition.

He should know that barring an unforeseen shift in ideology at his school, this may be as good as it’s going to get.

And potential employers should know that UTA is not a place where making the NCAA tournament is easy. The program has existed since 1968 and qualified for the NCAA tourney once — in 2008.

“I think all of this is great for the program and everybody likes to be recognized for having success,” Cross said. “I do love it here. I get fired up about having the opportunity to do something that has not been done here before. There are still stepping stones to accomplish here.”

The one you know already, or should, is UTA’s 11-point win at Texas — that Texas — in Austin on Nov. 29. This was not some fluky, 3-point shooting barrage win. UTA was better.

“I had that on my bucket list — the baseball here had done that many times but we never had,” Cross said. “We used to get thrashed by them. We’d lose by 20 points and it was a moral victory. On that night, we were the better team.”

They were again on Dec. 8 when they defeated No. 12 Saint Mary’s by 14 points. Again, this was not some fluky, college win where a bunch of little guards hit 3-pointers all day. UTA was better.

UTA was doing this last year when it won at Ohio State and at Memphis in consecutive games, and narrowly lost at Texas in OT.

The return of forward Kevin Hervey from his torn ACL that he suffered in January has UTA as NCAA tourney good. He has double-double potential, and is one of those special college players who can dominate a game. He’s one of those guys who is genuinely worth the price of a ticket.

“I don’t think he’s 100 percent yet,” Cross said. “I don’t think I realized how much we missed him last season. When we was out we were doing all of the same things, but he’s just one of these guys who can just take over a game.”

None of this makes UTA the next Duke, to which no one in or around the pretty new College Park Center in Arlington expects.

In fact, I am not sure if anybody at UTA expects much of anything from this program despite the new arena, which is why Cross should seriously consider leaving if he has the chance.

Cross is no different than every other men’s basketball coach in Texas — they all enjoy a protection plan of relative indifference because their sport is not football.

Division I schools that fund athletic programs tend to drift in one or two directions when it comes to sports — they either are all-in and want the revenue sports to succeed as a means to increased donations and applications, or they merely have the teams because they must.

Historically, UTA has preferred to have the teams because it’s a necessity. If athletics was a real priority at the school, it would have football. It is bizarre to have a large school without football in Texas, and the school has no plans to bring it back.

That leaves the basketball team as the school’s highest profile sport, which in Cross’ 11th season he has built into a team that is good enough to reach the NCAA tournament.

If UTA can win the Sun Belt conference tournament — it is highly doubtful the NCAA tournament selection committee will take two teams from that league — Cross will be a hot name who is attached to bigger jobs. This will be the first time in school history the team wins 20 games in consecutive seasons.

Now, Cross has been a real Mavs Man since seemingly birth. He played basketball there. He was an assistant coach for eight seasons at UTA. His wife was a UTA volleyball player. The only surprise is that none of the couple’s three sons are named Maverick.

If anybody would want to see this through at UTA, it’s Scott Cross.

If that happens, then he will likely have a decision to make.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram