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.”

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