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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Mentors say SIUE's Barone "born to be a head coach"

The Telegraph, Alton, Ill. — Greg Shashack The Telegraph, Alton, Ill.

April 15-- Apr. 15--EDWARDSVILLE -- Brian Barone gets it.

He gets that much of the fan base for SIUE Cougars men's basketball hoped for patience and staying the course. Keep Jon Harris.

He gets that much of the fan base for SIUE Cougars men's basketball hoped for a new direction, new energy, a new face. Fire Jon Harris.

He gets that neither option would make everyone happy. "Two factions," Barone assessed, "stay or go."

Harris would go. Barone would stay.

And with that whirlwind move, SIUE pulled off the improbable by managing to tick off both factions. Harris is gone, but his entire staff remains.

So new Cougars head coach Brian Barone begins the task of reuniting the divide for SIUE basketball. The first step in selling SIUE's decision is selling himself.

"Be who I am, let people know who I am," Barone said of his plan to earn the trust and allegiance of Cougar fans. "What I am is going to be reflected through this team with our energy, our effort, our sincerity in what we do, our passion."

Still, Barone knows he was not the people's choice. In fact, the people did not even know he was a candidate.

"I'm aware. I get it," he said. "And I understand that people are passionate and that's something that is a great asset for this community. They were two sides of the fence and I'm kind of in the middle."

Harris, 38 and an Edwardsville native, was dismissed on March 11 with an announcement that his contract would not be extended beyond the four-year deal that brought him home in 2015. He leaves with a 31-88 record that included a 15-53 mark in the Ohio Valley Conference.

The Cougars qualified for the OVC Tourney -- eight of the league's 12-team make the field -- as the No. 8 seed in each of the past two seasons. But first-round tourney exits and season victory totals of six, six, nine and 10 was progress too close to flat line to save Harris.

"Our hiring goal will be to identify an individual who relates well to our student-athletes," SIUE AD Brad Hewitt said in the March 11 press release. "We will look for extensive Division I experience under high-quality mentors. We expect to hire an individual who has led a program and demonstrated the strategic skills necessary to compete for championships."

That search took less than a day and never ventured beyond the halls of the SIUE's Lukas Athletic Annex. On March 12, the 41-year-old Barone was announced as the Cougars' new head coach after spending two seasons as an assistant under Harris.

"Whirlwind to say the least," Barone said of the ride from unemployed assistant to new head coach before he could update his LinkedIn. "A few minutes of moving forward and then changing your mindset drastically."

Barone knows the routine for breakups in college basketball. He grew up in the environment as the son of Hall of Fame coach Tony Barone. He met SIUE's "high-quality mentors" criteria by working under Porter Moser at Illinois State, Tom Crean at Marquette and Indiana, and Brian Wardle at Green Bay.

His father's recommendation may be compulsory, but high praise from Moser, Crean and Wardle boost Barone's credentials.

"SIUE is getting a leader with vision, knowledge and passion to make it happen." Moser said.

"A phenomenal person ... mindset and bloodlines of a pure winner," Crean said.

"Born to be a head coach," Wardle said.

Using that birthright to breathe life into a SIUE program that has labored since moving up to Division I and joining the OVC in 2008 will be Barone's challenge. It devoured Harris.

"I knew how the season had gone, I knew the potential of not getting a contract renewal," Barone said. "I was comfortable with the work that I had put in and the relationships I had built. But you just never know. For it to happen the way it all happened, it was a blessing, but it was also, take a deep breath moment. The gravity of it didn't escape me. There was a lot going on."

That his career opportunity came at Harris' expense, Barone also gets.

"There are mixed feelings," Barone conceded. "There are emotions involved, there's history involved. I pride myself on every day working in a loyal, hard-working, big-picture manner for my boss, who was Jon. I know I did that. But there's also the emotions of our history. That was a whirlwind as well, obviously."

Now more than a month into his new job, Barone is working to make the program his own and promote his vision for the brand of Cougars basketball. His impact as an assistant clearly impressed SIUE athletics administrators that made the unexpected call to promote Barone.

"That was obviously viewed as a positive within our administration," Barone said. "I just want people to get to know what I'm about. That starts with me. I've got to be out there. I've got to build those relationships. We've got to build our brand every single day. I will do that through my energy and effort and enthusiasm."

That foundation was built from years coaching with Crean, Moser, Wardle and playing at Marquette under Mike Deane and Crean. And, always, his dad.

"I'm prepared to find a way to get the job done," Barone said. "That's our team mantra, that's what we believe in. That's what's gotten me to where I am today. That mentality of finding a way to get the job done."

He will do it with Harris' staff. Assistant coaches Mike Waldo and Bubba Wells remain, along with director of operations Casey Wyllie.

Waldo is back for his second season at SIUE after 35 years and 727 career wins as a hall of fame prep coach at Marquette Catholic (five years) and Edwardsville. Barone was quick to embrace Waldo's presence.

"His passion for people," Barone said of Waldo. "I recruited his teams over the years and he was always a hard-nosed coach. A coach's coach, an old-school coach. But his passion for people is something I want everyone to get to know. I know his relationship with our players is probably the biggest thing he brings to the table.

"He's a phenomenal basketball mind. That speaks a lot to his relationship with the players because he is so genuine every single day, in his conversations, his thought about putting our team in successful situations. That is a big asset for our program right now."

Barone still has one paid assistant's position to fill and that announcement could come soon.

"I'm popular now," Barone said of his switch from job seeker to job creator. "Going through this and the track record of people I've been around, I'm very comfortable with recommendations and suggestions of people. I'm not rushing into it. We're seeing what we need most, but I'm moving faster."

Barone will wear the interim tag, though that is mostly a procedural move SIUE has become fond of implementing. Tony Stoecklin (baseball), Kendall Paulus (volleyball) and Jessica Jones (softball) all were interim head coaches and Stoecklin and Paulus remained as head coach when hiring guidelines were met. Jones, in her first year since moving up from assistant, still has the interim title.

"I am comfortable with it," Barone said of the interim label.

He said he was given no mandate for a wins total and does not feel the pressure of a one-year audition. His two-year contract affirms that belief.

"It was never indicated that it would be like that," Barone said. "Now, I'm very aware of the coaching profession and how it works. But I'm building a team to establish a culture."

He must also rebuild a roster that graduates seniors Daniel Kinchen, Jaylen McCoy and David McFarland. There could be more roster churn with transfers possible.

"A few guys have put their names in the portal," Barone said of the NCAA database for players seeking a transfer. "The guys that are here, I'm very positive about,"

The 2019 recruiting class generally regarded as the Cougars' best in the Division I era took a hit with Harris leaving. JUCO guard Kenyon Duling, a Chicago Morgan Park product from Cowley County Community College, has kept his pledge to SIUE.

But top prep prospects Micah Thomas of Putnam City, Oklahoma, and Jake LaRavia of Indianapolis Lawrence Central both requested and were granted their release after signing with SIUE in November. "You always want people who want to be here," Barone said.

Thomas, the Oklahoma player of the year after averaging 30 points a game as a senior, is back on the market after choosing SIUE over Tulsa, Oral Roberts and Missouri State. The 6-foot-8 LaRavia made a visit and committed to Indiana State over the weekend, after considering re-committing to SIUE.

The Cougars added some immediate help over the weekend with the commitment of 6-foot-7 twins Shamar and Lamar Wright, from Riverside, California, via a year in a prep school at Branson, Missouri. And Barone is looking for more.

"Always recruiting," he said. "Absolutely."

Barone sees no reason why SIUE cannot be a contender in the OVC. The campus and the community sells itself.

"Every time someone comes to campus and you show them everything we have -- our facilities, our weight room, our locker rooms, the MUC (Morris University Center), the quad, campus life," Barone said. "It's about educating everybody. And then, everybody walks away with, wow, that is a great situation. There is no excuse to not have success here. ... I am very confident of this setup here, to have success, move forward and win our league."

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