Tuesday, March 11, 2014

When you're a winner, life is good

        Sophie and Ellie are cute, red-haired 11-year-old twins, and they see their grandparents in Ruston, La., almost every day.
        That's the best it can be for Leon Barmore these days. Being a grandfather is what most motivates him now. Basketball, other than on television and the local games he attends, is a secondary interest.
        Life is good for the Barmores -- Leon and his wife since 1967, Rachel (one of my favorite names).
        "We've been to Disney World six years in a row with them," he says. "They're our lives."
         Daughter Shannon gave birth to the twins shortly before Coach Barmore was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn., and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame ... yes, the big one in Springfield, Mass.
          That two of the six Hall of Fame honors for Leon, plus among many other honors is the Tower Medallion as one of the distinguished alumni of Louisiana Tech University.
          And, of course, it is as the women's basketball coach at Louisiana Tech that most people will remember Leon Barmore.
          For those of us in school at the time, we knew him first as a terrific and willing-to-shoot guard -- a leader on state championship teams at Ruston High School and conference championship team at Tech. 
          Before his college coaching career, which spanned more than three decades and which can only be described as "legendary," sportswriters, players and coaches knew him as a winning boys basketball coach at Bastrop and then back at Ruston High.
          We also know him as a terrific friend, as a person who has led an exemplary life, who has been a winner -- a big winner -- at every stage. If that sounds like I'm pouring it on, well, maybe. But I wouldn't write it if I didn't mean it.
           It's a good time to write this piece because these are championship weeks in women's basketball, March Madness in full bloom. This was always the month for which Leon Barmore prepared his teams.
          And he prepared them as well as anyone ever has. When I think of women's basketball, two coaches come to mind first -- Pat Summitt of Tennessee (http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2012/02/just-call-her-pat.html) and Leon. 
          Perhaps some people will include the brash Gene Auriemma of Connecticut -- the current king of the game -- in the group, and someone tied closely to Leon as a player/assistant coach and then head coach who enticed him to come out of retirement and serve as her assistant coach at Baylor, Kim Mulkey.
           In my view, Leon was as demanding, as intense, as much of a perfectionist, and a brilliant teacher of every phase of the game as any of them.
Was Leon Barmore an intense coach? Take a look.
(photo by Bill Haber/The Associated Press)
          Mostly because of his influence -- but he will tell you also because of other people, too -- Louisiana Tech was at or near the top of the women's game for a quarter-century.
           I could fill a page with all of the Tech achievements with Barmore on the coaching staff (first as an assistant coach to program founder Sonja Hogg starting in the 1977-78 season, then as associate head coach in 1980, as co-head coach in 1982 and finally as the head coach in 1985).
           But here is a quick summary: Three national championships (it could've been for, except for a last-second 3-pointer by North Carolina in 1994), five national runner-ups, 13 Final Four trips in 21 years, 36 conference titles (20 regular season, 16 tournaments), 321-48 conference record, 19 conference Player of the Year awards, 16 Kodak All-Americans, Barmore was the first Division I women's coach with six consecutive 30-win seasons.
          Tech remains second only to Tennessee in all-time victories and is third in best winning percentage (behind Tennessee and Connecticut).
           Two significant facts:
           (1) Summitt's 1,098 wins are out of sight, but the top winning percentage in the game belongs to Barmore (86.9) ... although Auriemma, with UConn's 34-0 record this season, is at 86.8, and he'll still be slight behind Leon with a 6-0 NCAA Tournament run.
           (It should be noted, too, that Barmore did not receive credit for coaching records in his first five years at Tech; that went on Sonja Hogg's record. The record for those seasons: an amazing 163-18 (90.1 percent). Add that in to Barmore's "official" record, and you have 739-105 (87.6). Chase that, Geno.
           (2) Few coaches ever got the best of Summitt in games matching their teams; Aurieumma is one. In games with Barmore on the coaching staff, Tech was 17-17 against Summitt and the Lady Vols. Tech won 11 of the first 12 meetings.
            And that's a noteworthy point because Tech, with its president Dr. F. Jay Taylor, was among the nation's first schools to put financial resources -- for salaries, recruiting, travel, etc. -- into women's basketball ... before many of the major universities. Perhaps that happened at the expense of other sports, but doing so -- and hiring Barmore to handle on-the-floor coaching while Hogg ran the overall program and headed up recruiting -- paid off big-time in national exposure.
            At the old Shreveport Journal in the 1980s -- and The Shreveport Times did this, too -- we had several stories/columns on the unique Hogg/Barmore coaching combo. In those stories, and any time I heard Leon talk about the program (publicly or privately), he was always -- always -- complimentary of "Miss Hogg," as he politely called her.
           Because Sonja handled much of the recruiting, and the counseling of the young women in the program. And as Leon always pointed out, when he became part of the program, there were assistant coaches who were tireless and effective recruiters, several of whom became prominent head coaches -- among them, national-championship winners such as Mulkey and Gary Blair, plus Nell Fortner and  Kristi Curry.
            In the past few years, Tech's program has slipped; the current team is the No. 14 seed in the 16-team Conference USA tournament. This is painful for all involved, and it must be especially so for Barmore to see the program falter, especially because one of his greatest and most favorite players (and then longtime WNBA star guard), Teresa Weatherspoon, is the head coach.
           Meanwhile, at Baylor -- where Leon came out of retirement and helped coach for a couple of years at the start of the Brittney Griner era, commuting often and making the 300-mile trip from Waco to Ruston and vice versa -- Mulkey has one of the nation's best programs. Reminds one of the good days at Louisiana Tech.
            Unlike Summitt and Auriemma, whose relationship was dicey at times, Barmore and Summitt always got along. They had a ton of mutual respect and were friends to the point of visiting each others' homes and Pat giving Leon and family access to a time share in Florida.
            Maybe it's because they were a lot alike; as coaches, they drove hard bargains. Pat had her infamous stare; Leon had his infamous scowl.
            Anyone who has been around Barmore for a time knows this: He could be difficult. Yes, he had his moments when he ran hot. He had a temper.
            He was the kid who, if things didn't go right, took his basketball and went home. He was the player who could be aloof and moody. I've heard the coaching stories of him kicking players out of practice, sending assistant coaches home, booting balls into the bleachers, throwing objects, drawing technicals (he was ejected a couple of times), dressing down players, demanding attention for his program with a tunnel-vision approach, even being point-blank critical of media people.
Naismith Hall of
Fame induction photo,
2003: That's Leon
 Barmore in front of
Robert Parish.
              Personal experience: A game at Tech's old Memorial Gym in the early 1980s, and the Lady Techsters -- in a rarity -- being pushed in a tight, tough game. Of course, they won. But Leon didn't like the way his team played. Being interviewed by a Journal reporter afterward -- I was a bystander -- he was short and snappy with a couple of answers. Then he turned, said "good night" and walked out of the gym.
              But he was upset with his team, not us.
             (And please understand, I am not one to be critical of anyone with a temper or acting out. I am among the world record-setters.)
              I have a friend who, during a round of golf, teased Leon about the NCAA title loss to North Carolina and the last-second shot. Suffice to say, it was not a teasing matter.
              Here's what I knew, what I know, here's what his friends and certainly his players and assistant coaches and opposing coaches know: He is one of the great competitors. The games, the striving for excellence, mattered -- a lot. It was a big part of his life, always.
              Here's what else: He is a good friend to have. He is loyal, kind and considerate, and compassionate, asking about family and friends. He is such a sports fan with a knowledge of sports history, an superb golfer for an amateur whose game is much improved since retirement. Sure, he can be outspoken, but I've found him to be diplomatic even when criticism is warranted.
              Our longtime friend O.K. "Buddy" Davis -- the Ruston Daily Leader sports editor/legend who has covered and written about Leon for 50 years -- has been battling with after-effects of a stroke since last July. Buddy was a couple of years behind Leon at Ruston High and Tech.
              Leon has been one of his frequent visitors at the rehab facility where Buddy is housed, making weekly stops and always bring him a malt to enjoy during the visit. Last week Buddy began talking about his favorite scene in his favorite movie, Blazing Saddles -- the campfire scene in which the cast members frequently and loudly ...uh, pass gas. Buddy knows the whole scene and was reciting it for Leon.
              "He was doubled over laughing," Buddy told me.
               Can you imagine that, Leon Barmore doubled over laughing ... in March, at tournament time? No pressure, no scowling. Basketball isn't consuming anymore; Sophie and Ellie, Rachel and Shannon and Karl are what it's about. Life is good for the Barmore family in Ruston.    


  1. From Leon Barmore: Thank you, Nico. You put great effort into this nice article as you always do. My family and I appreciate it very much. Thank you, my friend.

  2. From Thomas Aswell: In my mind's eye, I can still see Ruston High School sophomore Leon Barmore in the closing seconds of a razor-thin victory over Ringgold and its star player (I believe his name was Barrie Haynie) in the Ruston gym. Leon was ecstatic. He was in the backcourt waiting for Ruston to inbound the ball with only seconds left and holding onto a two-or three-point lead. He was bouncing all over the court. I will never forget that image.

  3. From Jimmy Russell: Nice piece on a fine friend and coach. I have seen Leon laugh many times. He has never gotten his due, such as coaching the U.S. Olympic team. I guess being a man hurt him with that. Geno is the man (he thinks). He could not walk in Leon’s shoes.

  4. From Sid Huff: Leon may not miss basketball too much, but basketball sure misses him.

  5. From Jim McLain: Excellent piece on Leon. Your opinion of him and mine are the same.
    Leon could go a little loopy sometimes, though. I remember one home game in the 1990s. Tech had won, but it had been a lackluster performance. I think I had been banished to the wire desk at the time and Katherine and I were attending as spectators. We were leaving TAC when we heard Leon on the PA system. I walked back into the arena and Leon was dressing down the fans for not being supportive. Only time I ever saw a coach do that.
    The old Tech AD, Bob Vanatta, used to get Leon and Gary Blair's names mixed up, calling Leon "Coach Blairmore."

  6. From Liz Sachs Piker: Great article on Leon, Nico. He was a great friend of my brother's in high school and mine, although he was two years behind me. But Ruston High was a small enough school in the 1950's that everyone knew everyone and Leon was just coming on as one of RHS's new stars. MY highlight was the team of several years before with Dupey Cobb and the rest winning state -- I was at every game, even that rickety old gym in South Louisiana for the semifinal.