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Whoever the Longhorns Hire Next, 'The Eyes of Texas' Controversy Will Follow

Shaka Smart jumped before he was pushed. It’s a familiar move in the college basketball playbook, where coaches are hyper-attuned to their job security and always keeping an eye open for the next gig. And truth be told, going to Marquette from Texas after a disaster of an NCAA tournament loss is a pretty savvy move for Smart.

Now we will see whether “Eyes of Texas” University can attract an elite coach.

It can be a top-shelf job. Texas sits in the middle of fertile recruiting soil, and the athletic department essentially prints money. It is undoubtedly a football school, but it has and will allocate resources to compete with the best in men’s basketball as well. Twenty-seven NCAA tournament appearances since 1989 show that success is sustainable. And Austin is a great place to live.

But Texas has risked setting fire to itself in recruiting with the debate over the school’s alma mater. In the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd last spring, Texas athletes asked for a replacement song for “The Eyes of Texas,” citing its “racist undertones.” That set off a controversy that enveloped the football program, eventually leading to just one player’s (star quarterback Sam Ehlinger) staying on the field after a loss to Oklahoma for the playing of the alma mater—an image that sparked furious backlash from some alums and boosters. The ordeal played a part in Tom Herman’s ouster as football coach (though not as big a part as his win-loss record).

Tom Herman stands for 'The Eyes of Texas'

Former Texas coach Tom Herman stands with players for the signing of 'The Eyes of Texas' after a 2020 game against Iowa State.

The school commissioned a report that came out earlier this month, a thorough examination of the roots of the song and its lyrics. The report found “no racist intent” in the lyrics, but it was performed at minstrel shows in the early 1900s. Whether that good-faith effort at a serious academic study of the song changed anyone’s mind remains to be seen, in part because it was drowned out by a March 1 Texas Tribune story on some of the vile emails school president Jay Hartzell received after players protested the song.

One 1986 alum of the school wrote: “It's time for you to put the foot down and make it perfectly clear that the heritage of Texas will not be lost. It is sad that it is offending the blacks. As I said before the blacks are free and it's time for them to move on to another state where everything is in their favor."

A 1970 alum named Larry Wilkinson wrote: “Less than 6% of our current student body is black. The tail cannot be allowed to wag the dog….. and the dog must instead stand up for what is right. Nothing forces those students to attend UT Austin. Encourage them to select an alternate school ….NOW!”

And this from law school graduate Steven Arnold: “UT needs rich donors who love The Eyes of Texas more than they need one crop of irresponsible and uninformed students or faculty who won't do what they are paid to do.”

“The blacks … “

“The tail cannot be allowed to wag the dog …”

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“UT needs rich donors …”

Just lovely.

Previously, athletic director Chris Del Conte had stated that it is his “expectation” that the school’s athletes would stand together and honor the alma mater. And after Herman was fired and replaced by Steve Sarkisian, the new coach made it clear that he stands in favor of standing for the song. "I know this much, ‘The Eyes of Texas’ is our school song. We’re going to sing that song. We’re going to sing that proudly.”

Even before the school report came out, the athletic department had sided with the angry donors. Scoreboard: Money 1, Players 0. If rival recruiters haven’t weaponized those emails and the stance of the athletic director against Texas, it would be a shock.

The next men’s basketball coach has to deal with that. Some good candidates might not see it as an impediment. Others might. But Del Conte had better be prepared to reassure any of them that the controversy won’t dog them in recruiting.

Who should Del Conte target? He likes to think big, so he might as well take a swing at John Calipari first.

The Kentucky coach is at a low ebb with the fan base, coming off a dismal losing season. Cal has made a ton of hay recruiting Texas, from Julius Randle and the Harrison twins to De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Maxey. This is the time to check in on his commitment level to Kentucky. (Cal did take a knee before one game this winter with his UK players, the kind of thing that might get the rich alums writing emails again.)

After Cal comes Chris Beard of Texas Tech, who took the Red Raiders to their first Final Four in 2019. He was a student manager at Texas under Tom Penders and has a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology from the school. Beard seemingly would jump at the job, although there probably isn’t anything he can do at Texas that he hasn’t already done at Texas Tech. He’s signed five-star recruits and won the Big 12 while in Lubbock.

Perhaps Del Conte checks in on Oregon’s Dana Altman. Or Arkansas’s Eric Musselman. Or Oklahoma State’s Mike Boynton.

Beyond that, the Southwest is rife with up-and-coming coaches, starting with those who have made noise in this men’s NCAA tournament. From Grant McCasland at North Texas to Paul Mills at Oral Roberts to Joe Golding at the school that eliminated Texas, Abilene Christian. But Texas isn’t often a place that sees fit to hire up-and-comers, especially those within the area—that would be admitting to something less than inherent superiority.

Whoever the new coach is, he should be prepared to deal with “The Eyes of Texas” being used as a recruiting cudgel to hammer his program.