The Dallas Mavericks had nothing to crow about this season and are waiting to find out if they will be awarded a franchise-changing draft pick for their trouble. Meanwhile, the Mavericks from the University of Texas-Arlington have already started their rebuilding process with wholesale changes, starting from the top.
The men’s basketball team from the nearby UT affiliate went 21-13 this season, including 13-2 at home. These Mavericks secured a championship spot in the Sun Belt conference tournament, falling to a hot-shooting Georgia State squad. The mid-major conference has a guaranteed bid to the NCAA tournament for the conference tournament champion, but its humble status means it will almost surely never receive an at-large bid for a second team, so UTA’s hope of a second-ever tourney appearance was dashed.
As the final seconds ticked away on UTA’s season, Head Coach Scott Cross likely knew that his time in Arlington was dwindling also. Cross played for the Mavericks as an undergraduate and served as an assistant coach before his promotion. He was a mere 31 years old when he started as head coach in 2006, and he has earned the title of winningest head coach in the basketball program’s 57-year history. Cross led the team to its only NCAA tournament appearance in school history, and he coached during two of the three National Invitation Tournament appearances the school has had.
Despite Cross’ accolades and success, he’d been job searching the previous year, knowing that UTA athletic director Jim Baker viewed a season without an NCAA tournament appearance as a failure. “Our expectations are to play in March, and we’re not hiding from that,” Baker said.
Cross was officially released from his alma mater on March 26. Less than two weeks later, UTA announced Chris Ogden as the team’s new head coach. Ogden worked as the Texas Tech associate head coach for the past two years and is familiar to Baker when they were both at UT.
Fans and alumni made their anger apparent on social media, sounding off on their disappointment with the firing of Cross. Former University of New Mexico head coach and ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla tweeted that Scott Cross “was 82-33 last 3 years at Texas-Arlington with wins at Ohio State, Texas, St. Mary’s, BYU twice. AD thought they should be better. LAST TIME I will ever step in that arena.”
Baker took the brunt of the criticism, having made it clear that fundraising and the success of the basketball program are what will eventually elevate the commuter campus to national recognition. “We’re going to continue to do it the right way,” he said, “but it’s about March. Look what it did to Loyola. Look what it did for the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. That’s what brings your university notoriety. That’s where we want to strive. They have stories [such as those] every year, so why can’t we? It happens, so why can’t that be UTA?”
Baker’s thirst for program prominence was surely born from his previous 20 years spent as the associate athletic director for events, operations, and sports programs at the University of Texas. He was hired by UTA in 2012, the same day the new 7,000-seat, $78-million College Park Center opened. Baker’s hiring and the opening of a stadium that seats more than double the team’s average attendance most likely led to the dismissal of Cross. Baker doesn’t seem to understand that Arlington is not Austin – if you build it, they still may not come. Attendance per game averaged approximately 700 when Cross took over as head coach. These past two seasons’ attendance has hovered around 2,800. These numbers aren’t staggering, but they’re in the top quarter of statistics for teams in the Sun Belt.
On the court, Cross was no drama, no flash, no infractions, just successful. His team motto, “Take the Stairs,” was emblematic of a lunch-pail leader. His salary of $200,000 annually made him a bargain. Ogden was making $220,000 as the associate head coach at Texas Tech. His salary as UTA’s head coach has not yet been released. Despite making less than a majority of major-conference assistants, Cross’ total budget in 2016-17 was $1.7 million, whereas Longhorn Head Coach Shaka Smart’s personal salary rang up to $3 million that same season and $3.1 million this year. Smart’s Longhorns have never made it past the opening tournament round, and Cross also bested Smart the last time the two tipped off.
Meanwhile, Cross retains a short commute from his residence in Mansfield, signing on as an assistant with TCU under Head Coach Jamie Dixon.
“I sat there for the last two years and watched what Coach Dixon and his staff did at TCU, and I was just in awe at what they accomplished,” Cross said. “I am excited that they believe in me to help them take that next step.”
Ogden is probably not a downgrade as a coach, but he takes over a difficult task. UTA has to battle for recruits with TCU and SMU, which have bigger budgets, better facilities, more name recognition, and football programs to drive revenue and general interest in athletics. The Mavericks had been successful under Cross, but it would be shocking to see the program flying significantly higher.