UTSA basketball job ‘a dream come true’ for Austin Claunch

By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay

The University of Alabama men’s basketball program has made a new fan in San Antonio. It’s Lisa Campos, the athletic director at UTSA.

As Campos on Sunday announced the hiring of 34-year-old Alabama assistant Austin Claunch as the next head coach of the Roadrunners, the plan for the coming weeks came into sharper focus.

Claunch will continue to work with the Crimson Tide for as long as they can stay alive in the NCAA tournament. Afterward, he will report to work in San Antonio.

Fourth-seeded Alabama opens play on Friday against No. 13 Charleston in an NCAA West Regional Round of 64 game at Spokane, Wash.

“There’s some positive pressure,” Campos said in a Zoom news conference. “We want him to go as far as he can with Alabama because that’s great for UTSA, as well. So we’ll be rooting. We’ll be Roll Tide fans here in the tournament.

“But, really, can’t wait for him to be in San Antonio, for ya’ll to meet him and feel his energy in person.”

Claunch, who talked to reporters on Zoom from Alabama, laid out some of his plans for the Roadrunners and admitted to feeling a rush of gratification.

“Honestly, what an incredible few days it’s been for me,” he said. “It truly is a dream come true.”

The whirlwind started last Thursday when it was announced that Steve Henson would not return as coach. That his contract, which expires on March 31, would not be renewed. That his eight-year tenure with a 110-144 record was over.

Campos said she started work on the search for the new coach almost immediately. In fact, she called Claunch later that day. It took basically 72 hours for the two sides to agree on a five-year deal worth $550,000 annually.

“Real excited for Austin,” Campos said. “He checks all the boxes that we’re looking for. He’s got Division I head coaching experience. He’s had success and has been around successful programs. He knows what (success) looks like.”

As evidenced by his first meeting with the San Antonio media, Claunch also showed off a personal touch that likely will go a long way in South Texas.

After each reporter announced their name and affiliation and then asked questions, the new UTSA coach addressed each one of them by their first names.

Claunch also revealed a disarming sense of humor.

In one give-and-take, the coach was asked what he most wanted to do after the tournament, after he arrived in San Antonio and settled into his new role. Claunch said he just wanted to meet his players, the athletic staff, the school administration.

Also, the students.

“I’m a big believer in being a team player,” he said. “You will see me at every other sporting event (on campus). You’ll see me just walking around campus, talking to people. You know, sometimes it’s hard for me to shut up. I love just getting to know people.”

Claunch, who was born in Argentina, grew up in Houston and attended Strake Jesuit College Preparatory. After playing basketball in high school, he moved on to play four years for Division III Emory University in Atlanta.

Almost immediately after he left school, his star started to rise in college basketball coaching circles. He worked at George Mason and at Clemson and then took an assistant’s job at Nicholls State in tiny Thibodaux, La., south and west of New Orleans.

At Nicholls, Claunch initially worked two years as Richie Riley’s assistant, once helping the Colonels win the 2018 Southland Conference regular-season title.

When Riley left for South Alabama after the season, the young assistant moved up and, at age 28, took over the Colonels’ program as head coach. He would win back-to-back Southland Conference regular-season titles (2021 and 2022) and would post a 90-61 record in five seasons.

Claunch traced his Nicholls teams’ success to relationships he built with his players, a task that may have been easier to accomplish because of his age.

“I really just want to get to know these guys and build authentic relationships with them, which is sort of my strength, building relationships,” he said. “As a young head coach, when I took the job (at Nicholls), I didn’t have a ton of experience. I believe we won because we built those true, trustworthy relationships.”

Claunch left Nicholls last spring to join Nate Oats’ staff at Alabama.

“Austin is one of the hardest working guys in the business,” Oats said in a statement. “His work as a head coach at Nicholls was unbelievable, with one of the lowest budgets in the country.”

Clemson coach Brad Brownell, also in a statement, emphasized his former staffer’s communication skills and personal touch.

“People enjoy being around Austin,” Brownell said. “He’s a fun guy. He’s also very bright and knows how to get his message across if there’s work to be done. He can handle his business, but he’s also one of those guys that relates to people and enjoys people.”

Claunch’s interpersonal skills may be put to the test pretty soon.

Jordan Ivy-Curry and Christian Tucker, the Roadrunners’ top two guards, have already announced that they will enter the transfer portal. For the fans, it’s an eerie feeling after 10 players left the team last fall.

Claunch said he only hopes the players with eligibility stay long enough to talk to him because he thinks they can become part of a championship foundation.

“I want to get down there and talk to our guys face to face,” he said. “Because, they committed to UTSA for a reason, and I still believe that they can be big parts of winning a championship in the American. So, I would tell them just to hang tight. I’ll be down there soon and look forward to talking to them in person.”

UTSA opens search for a new basketball coach; Henson’s contract not renewed

UTSA announced Thursday that a national search for the next head coach of the men’s basketball program is underway.

Steve Henson. Temple beat UTSA 84-82 in the Roadrunners' final home game of the men's basketball season on Sunday, March 10, 2024 at the Convocation Center. - Photo by Joe Alexander

Steve Henson is out as head coach of the UTSA men’s basketball program after eight seasons. Henson brought Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace to UTSA in the early years, but his last three teams lost 20 or more games. – File photo by Joe Alexander

The announcement came in a news release saying that eighth-year head coach Steve Henson would not return.

Henson’s contract expires on March 31 and Lisa Campos, vice president of intercollegiate athletics, said it would not be renewed.

Henson’s teams posted a record of 110-144.

“I want to thank Coach Henson for his commitment to UTSA basketball and to this university,” Campos said in the news release.

Campos described Henson as “a first-class representative” of the university.

“We wish coach Henson and his family the very best in the future,” Campos said.

Henson’s best year came in 2017-18 when the Roadrunners finished 20-15. Despite the loss of leading scorer Jhivvan Jackson to a knee injury at the end of the regular season, the Roadrunners reached the quarterfinals of both the Conference USA and CollegeInsider.com tournaments.

He was named C-USA Coach of the Year.

Henson will be known as the coach who brought Jackson and Keaton Wallace to UTSA. Both joined the team as freshmen in the fall of 2017. When they departed after the spring of 2021, Jackson ranked as the No. 1 scorer in school history, with Wallace No. 2.

The Roadrunners struggled after Jackson and Wallace turned pro. Henson’s last three teams finished 10-22, 10-22 and 11-21.


Campos says Henson will return next season to coach the UTSA men’s basketball team

By Jerry Briggs
Special to The JB Replay

Steve Henson will return to coach the UTSA Roadrunners men’s basketball program next season, said Lisa Campos, the university’s Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics.

Campos released a statement to the media in the wake of back-to-back 10-22 seasons under Henson.

“After careful evaluation of our men’s basketball program, including candid and open discussions with Coach Henson on the team’s performance and his leadership, he will remain as head coach for the 2023-24 season,” Campos said in a statement.

“Coach recognizes that we have high expectations at UTSA for all of our athletic teams and that this year’s men’s basketball season did not meet those expectations,” Campos added. “He is committed to substantive improvement, has already begun a complete evaluation of the program and will make the changes necessary to enable success next season.”

After being hired in the spring of 2016, Henson, a former assistant coach at Oklahoma, has served as head coach of the Roadrunners for seven seasons.

In 2018, UTSA extended his original contract by three seasons through 2023-24, raising his base salary from $280,000 to $325,000 per year.

UTSA men’s basketball, in its 42-year history, has never enjoyed sustained success. The program has qualified for the NCAA tournament only four times. The Roadrunners haven’t been to the NCAA since 2011.

Prior to Henson’s arrival, the program had suffered four straight losing seasons. The Roadrunners were 10-22, 8-22, 14-16 and 5-27 through 2015-16, the last of Brooks Thompson’s 10 years as the school.

Henson’s chief accomplishment to this point has been his recruitment and development of guards Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace.

Both joined the team in 2017 and, by the time they departed in 2021, both had became the top two scorers in school history. UTSA had winning seasons overall and in conference play in three of their four seasons.

The Roadrunners have struggled the past two seasons without the two high-scoring guards. Especially in conference play. This year, they finished in last place in Conference USA at 4-16. UTSA will move into the American Athletic Conference next season.

Steve Henson’s record

2016-17 — 14-19 and 8-10 in Conference USA
2017-18 — 20-15 and 11-7 C-USA
2018-19 — 17-15 and 11-7 C-USA
2019-20 — 13-19 and 7-11 C-USA
2020-21 — 15-11 and 9-7 C-USA
2021-22 — 10-22 and 3-15 C-USA
2022-23 — 10-22 and 4-16 C-USA
Overall: 99-123
x-UTSA played in the CIT postseason tournament in 2018

Eighmy says UTSA is planning a new basketball arena

From time to time, it gets pretty wild at the UTSA Convocation Center.

If you need evidence, check out a video taken at the end of a comeback victory for the Roadrunners over the Old Dominion Monarchs (see above) from the 2018-19 season.

UTSA president Dr. Taylor Eighmy addresses the media Thursday, explaining the school’s move to the American Athletic Conference. — Photo by Jerry Briggs

Alas, the nights of passion in the ‘Bird Cage’ may be numbered.

UTSA president Dr. Taylor Eighmy on Thursday acknowledged the school’s long-range plans to build a new, 10,000-seat competition arena on campus for basketball and volleyball.

“That is a downstream project that we want to develop, using a public-private partnership,” Eighmy said.

The president made his comments after a campus news conference, during which he announced that UTSA would move all of its 17 NCAA Division I athletics programs to the American Athletic Conference.

The school’s move from Conference USA to the AAC is expected to be made after the next two or three years.

The arena is part of a bold facilities push for UTSA, which first fielded intercollegiate athletics teams in 1981-82.

Since then, both men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball have played their games at the Convocation Center on campus.

Over the years, officials in past UTSA administrations have talked about the need for a new arena to replace the aging ‘Bird Cage,’ but nothing of substance has been discussed until now.

The arena report came nestled in a Thursday morning AAC news release that announced UTSA as one of its six new members.

A paragraph in the release started off by saying that the school in August opened the Roadrunner Center of Excellence, a 95,000-square foot facility that houses offices and training areas and is considered as the home for the school’s 24th-ranked football program.

In addition, the AAC release said, UTSA “is embarking on an expansive” capital campaign to develop several other projects, including:

*A new 10,000-seat arena for basketball and volleyball;
*New baseball and softball stadiums;
*A dedicated basketball/volleyball training facility;
*Also, a “standalone” facility for track and field and soccer.

Estimated cost for all of the above could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The administrative wheels are already moving on one of the projects.

Eighmy said UTSA has submitted a request to the City of San Antonio in an effort to gain assistance in funding the basketball/volleyball training facility.

The request is tied to the next city’s next bond project. Eighmy said it would be built adjacent to the RACE building.

“So,’ he added, “we’re already starting on systematic approaches to find resources, or mechanisms, to proceed with adding additional facilities.”

Eighmy declined to estimate what it would cost to build the basketball/volleyball competition arena or when he would like to see the teams move in.

“It’s obviously on our plans to get going,” the president said. “We have a bunch of things we have to tackle. We have to finish Park West (where the track and soccer teams compete).

“We really want to get this practice facility built, for men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball, but (the arena) is on our horizon. In my lifetime. How about that?”

UTSA men’s basketball coach Steve Henson said he’s excited about the pending move to the new conference and also about the talk of a new arena.

In regard to the challenge of playing in the revamped AAC, and competing against the likes of Memphis, Wichita State and SMU, he admitted that UTSA would be embarking on a league filled with teams that play “high level” basketball.

“The challenge will be great, but the excitement behind it will be great, as well,” he said.

Memphis, under coach Penny Hardaway, has been ranked 12th nationally in the preseason Associated Press poll. Moreover, teams in the AAC play in high-caliber arenas.

Memphis plays in the FedEx Forum. Wichita State plays in the sparkling Charles Koch Arena.

Told after practice that the AAC had sent out information on UTSA’s proposed 10,000-seat arena, Henson smiled and said, “Awesome. I look forward to seeing those plans.”

Henson said he knew about the proposed training facility but acknowledged that he had not heard specifics on UTSA’s arena project.

“I know our people are working like crazy to put us in this position (to change conferences),” he said. “I assumed we had to have some other things in the works to make it happen.

“But, no, I had not heard (about the arena).”

Henson admitted that an arena for his program would supply a boost for a program that has posted winning records in three of the last four seasons but has yet to break through with an NCAA tournament appearance.

An arena, he said, “would do wonders.”

UTSA athletic director Lisa Campos said a combined cost for the basketball/volleyball training center and the baseball and softball stadiums could range from $70 million to $80 million.

Campos added that the arena could cost “a couple of hundred million” dollars to complete.

Clearly, it will be a tall order for UTSA to raise that kind of money.

It could take years to do it, considering the magnitude of the investment and the current economic climate locally coming out of the pandemic.

“We’re going to be strategic about how we could find revenue sources,” she said. “Of course, we’re going to capitalize on the momentum for our philanthropic endeavors, and, winning breeds winning, and folks want to be involved in that.

“Someone had asked me earlier about fundraising, and really, our fan-base, our donor-base has continued to give to UTSA athletics.”

A UTSA master plan published in 2019 pinpoints the location of the proposed arena on the west end of campus. Eighmy said he wants it to be used for “multiple” purposes.

Asked if such a building of that scope could host NCAA tournament games, Eighmy didn’t rule it out.

“Those are the things we have to consider as we develop this public-private partnership,” he said. “We’re advocating all the time why our athletics programs benefit the entire city.”

Eighmy said he wants to invest in programs led by the likes of Henson, Karen Aston (women’s basketball) and Laura Neugebauer-Groff (volleyball) who work in the Convocation Center on a daily basis.

“Our Convocation Center is not a suitable facility for either practice or intercollegiate competition,” Eighmy said. “I mean, it served its purpose in its day, but we need to move on.”