t's been so long since Tony Barbee has stopped to catch his breath and reflect, that he's almost forgotten how to do that.
The 35-year-old former University of Massachusetts star officially begins his career as a head coach tonight when his University of Texas-El Paso squad takes on Penn at the BCA Classic at 5:30 in Syracuse.
"It's been a sprint," said Barbee, who was hired in August after a late turn of the coaching carousel moved Miners' coach Doc Sadler to Nebraska.
"Obviously the time of getting the job isn't the norm for college coaches," he said. "There hasn't been much time to do anything. So I haven't had much time to do anything or think about it. I'm trying to get this team ready for the season, but it's been one thing after another since I got the job. But I wouldn't want it any other way."
Barbee, who is fifth on the UMass career scoring list with 1,643 points, played professionally briefly before serving as a graduate assistant/radio commentator in 1995-96. He was elevated to assistant coach under Bruiser Flint from 1996 to 1998, and worked as the third assistant, back when NCAA rules prohibited that position from recruiting.
He became a recruiting assistant for one year at Wyoming before rejoining Flint for one more season, but when former UMass coach John Calipari returned to college coaching at Memphis, Barbee joined him there. In seven years Barbee established himself as one of the nation's most respected recruiters, bringing an impressive collection of big-name players to the Tigers. A head coaching job seemed inevitable and finally came during the summer.
"When I first got the job, we were a week away from starting school. All the returnees and the nine or 10 signees all wanted out of their commitment," Barbee said. "So we had to re-recruit all the players. That was the biggest job. We got them all to return."
Barbee said his system and his approach to running his program will look a lot like Calipari's.
"It'll be very similar. Obviously my philosophy in coaching has been shaped by Coach Cal. I played for him for four years and worked for him for seven," Barbee said. "We've had a lot of success doing it a certain way. I'm smart enough not to try to reinvent the wheel because we've had so much success. At the same time, it's my program now and there are some things that I might like that he might not like. I'm not going to fall too far from the tree, but I'm going to put my own personality and my own stamp on things."
Calipari now becomes a rival because Memphis and UTEP are both in Conference USA where they will play March 1. Barbee has picked up a new mentor as legendary former UTEP coach Don Haskins, who is enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame in Springield, is still a fixture in El Paso.
Barbee said he and Haskins have already spent considerable time together and he hopes their relationship would be comparable to one that Calipari had at UMass.
"We've had lunch a couple times. You hear about Coach Haskins and his infamous three-hour pickup rides. I got my first one the other day," Barbee said. "He picks you up in his truck and you don't ask any questions. He takes you to some hole in the wall. We went to a Mexican restaurant in the middle of nowhere. It was great.
"He's going to be a tremendous resource for me," Barbee continued. "We spent that whole time and we talked very little basketball. We just got to know each other and talked about different things. It's neat to have him.
"It's almost like how Coach Cal and Coach (Bruiser) Flint had Jack Leaman (at UMass). He's someone that's seen it all and done it all and you can bounce different things off him to help you grow and develop."
UTEP lost most of last year's scoring to graduation, but Barbee still set the bar high for his young team.
"The guys are excited. They know my background," Barbee said. "In my 15 years in Division I basketball I've been to postseason play 15 times. I don't plan on that ending now. So I have to get this team ready. They want to have that same kind of success and they're looking at me to show them the way."
Matt Vautour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more UMass coverage including a frequently updated UMass sports blog, go to www.dailyhampshiregazette.com/umsports.