'Better times are ahead': Tony Barbee charged with getting CMU back to winning ways

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

They talked about all the right things. The relationships. The student-athlete experience. The community. The grades.

But make no mistake: Tony Barbee was brought to Central Michigan to win. That theme was stressed throughout a Friday of introductions for the new men's head basketball coach, first in a campus gala, then in his press conference.

"It's been a while. It's been long overdue," Barbee said. "But better times are ahead."

New Central Michigan head men's basketball coach Tony Barbee.

Barbee, 49, a longtime assistant under mentor John Calipari at Kentucky and formerly head coach at UTEP and Auburn, was officially named the 21st head coach in Central Michigan history Friday.

He replaces Keno Davis, who was fired this month after nine seasons and no NCAA Tournament appearances.

Specific contract details weren't released Friday, but athletic director Amy Folan said the framework is similar to Davis' last deal which was for five years and worth a base salary of more than $400,000.

Barbee takes over a program that hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 2003, the second-longest Division I drought in the state. It trails only Eastern Michigan (1998), which also changed coaches this month, moving from Rob Murphy to Stan Heath. With one season under his belt, Western Michigan's Clayton Bates is now the longest-tenured Mid-American Conference men's basketball coach in the state.

"He's championship-caliber," Folan said, trumpeting her first major hire on the job. "He's an elite recruiter.

"I'm confident he's the person that can make us the leader in the MAC."

While both have a Texas pedigree — Barbee was head coach at UTEP from 2006-10, taking the program to one NCAA Tournament, while Folan was working at the University of Texas — their paths hadn't crossed before this search. ("Texas is a big state," Barbee said.) But he came highly recommended from a number of big names in the industry. 

Folan said she got valuable counsel from former Texas head coaches Rick Barnes and Shaka Smart, as well as Michigan royalty in Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and past Michigan coach John Beilein.

"You'll not get far in this process without calling the greats and getting their insights," Folan said. "They're icons in the state."

For Izzo, it was the third consecutive Michigan MAC search he was heavily involved in, having talked to Western Michigan last offseason and Eastern Michigan this offseason.

Central Michigan great Dan Majerle, who many alums had hoped would be a candidate for the job, also gave Folan advice during the search.

When Central Michigan went looking for its next coach, it sought three criteria, president Bob Davies said: The student-athletic experience, integrity and respect (CMU has never had a major NCAA violation; its athletes are at 44 months and counting with a GPA better than 3.0) and, of course, winning.

The diminutive Davies then had some light-hearted advice for Barbee.

"If I can look them straight in the eye," said Davies, "don't recruit that kid."

Barbee, a Midwest native (Indianapolis) and former standout player at UMass, got his first head-coaching break at UTEP, going 82-52 with an NCAA Tournament appearance and two CBI appearances, including once as runner-up. He had three winning seasons out of four.

That earned him the Auburn job, where things were tougher. He was 49-75 in four seasons, all losing seasons.

That cost him his job, and sent him back his mentor, Calipari. Barbee played under Calipari at UMass, and coached under him at UMass, Memphis and Kentucky.

Tony Barbee becomes the 21st head coach in Central Michigan men's basketball history.

"There's no success, there's no failure, there's only learning and continual growth in any aspect of life, even if you're coaching," said Barbee, who cited CMU women's coach Heather Oesterle for helping set a high bar that he hopes to raise. He added that on-court success will start with defense, but also promised an exciting offense that will be founded, in large part, on analytics. "I take so many things away from both (head-coaching) experiences that have made me a better coach today."

Central Michigan was 7-16 this past season, one rocked late by injuries and COVID-19 issues, including positive tests and contact tracing. The Chippewas were 14-18 the season before. They haven't won the MAC West, not overly competitive, since 2016.

Central Michigan has multiple players currently in the transfer portal, most notably guard Meikkel Murray (15.6 points, 6.1 rebounds). Guard Caleb Huffman and forward Ralph Bissainthe have withdrawn their names from the portal.

Barbee met with the players collectively Friday, and plans on one-on-one meetings in the coming days, including with players in the portal.

"That's the beginning of the personal connection that you need to have," said Barbee, whose family couldn't attend because 16-year-old son Drew had an AAU tournament.

"I wanted to express my vision to them of where I want to take CMU basketball. I wanted them to know that their goals and dreams will become my goals and dreams.

"I don't necessarily want to go into expectations. But nobody's expectations will be higher than mine."

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984