Low Tech Coach : Despite a Successful Career, Louisiana Tech's Barmore Is Still Blaming Himself for Championship Game Loss

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a campus carved out of northern Louisiana's rolling green woodlands a century ago, the pain of 1994 has ebbed. But only a bit.

In the NCAA women's basketball title game at Richmond, Va., last spring, Louisiana Tech came within seven-tenths of a second of the national championship. The most prominent male in the sport, Leon Barmore, is still blaming himself.

At an emotional postgame news conference at the time, Barmore, the head coach, took the rap.

"It was my fault, totally," he said.

"It was a coaching mistake. I take full responsibility."

With 14 seconds remaining, Louisiana Tech's All-American guard, Pam Thomas, made an 18-foot jump shot, good for a 59-57 lead over North Carolina.

But when North Carolina inbounded the ball at the other end with seven-tenths of a second to play, Barmore called his defender off the inbounds passer.

The Tar Heels ran a decoy drive play down the middle of the lane, lobbed the ball to Charlotte Smith at the three-point arc, and she drilled her shot as the buzzer sounded.

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The Blue Light is a small soul food restaurant located in a low-income neighborhood, five minutes from the Louisiana Tech campus.

Barmore walks in for lunch and is recognized by everyone. There are greetings and handshakes all around.

He walks to the counter and fills out his ticket: fried chicken, turnip greens, corn, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, hush puppies and iced tea. His guest orders the same. The tab will be $10.50.

At the rear table, the nightmare returns again.

"If we had won that game, I'd probably have retired," says Barmore, 50, who has taken his Techsters to seven Final Fours in 12 years.

Lunch is delivered, but it will have to wait. Barmore, who even when happy looks like a man who has just been given bad news, is reliving it.

"We definitely should have pressured that inbounds pass," he says. "That's a coaching mistake I'll live with forever. I got worried about the short lob to their post people, so I backed off the inbounds. What really hurts is those girls of mine played so courageously to get back in that game."

He talks of his roots, which are deep in Ruston and Louisiana Tech.

The son of a state highway worker who raised his family in a tiny community called Pea Ridge, six miles from Ruston, Barmore was a major basketball name here long before he became a coach.

In the early 1960s, the 5-foot-10 Barmore was an all-state guard at Ruston High (located across the street from Louisiana Tech), driven to earn a basketball scholarship.

"Leon's folks couldn't afford to send him to college, he really needed that scholarship," recalls Louisiana Tech assistant dean of students Jack Thigpen, a Ruston High teammate of Barmore's.

"He didn't even have a car in those days. He's still the same; he sets goals for these teams of his, and he puts just as much of himself into the season as he did when he played.

"His goal every year is to take his team one step farther than it should probably go.

"By the end of the season, he's so worn out, he starts talking about retiring. Then he gets rejuvenated on the golf course and the tennis course, and he doesn't mention it much.

"I personally hope he keeps coaching. I really think he'd miss working with those girls."

Barmore, who lives three minutes from his office in the Thomas Assembly Center, shrugs that off.

"I won't do this but a couple more seasons," he insists.

"The Louisiana state teacher retirement plan is a good one. My wife (Rachel) teaches fifth-graders and her school is two blocks from our house. Next year, we'll both have 30 years in the system."

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Barmore, awarded a scholarship by Louisiana Tech, coached high school boys (including Ruston High) for 10 years and wanted to coach college men.

When an opening occurred on the Louisiana Tech women's staff, he took it, figuring he would be positioned to move onto the men's staff.

In 1980, he became the women's team's associate head coach with Sonja Hogg, a situation that bordered on the bizarre.

Hogg, now coaching at Baylor, was a physical education teacher with no coaching experience when she was assigned to start a women's basketball program.

She recruited well but needed a floor coach. Enter Barmore.

"Sonja did the recruiting and Leon did the coaching," recalled Kim Mulkey-Robertson, now in her 10th year as a Barmore assistant and a former Tech All-American.

With both sharing the credit, Tech won two national championships.

"I hit the home runs and she (Hogg) circles the bases," he once groused to the Baltimore Sun.

In the three years he was the co-head coach, Tech was 90-9.

Hogg departed in 1985 and Barmore has since won a national title on his own (1988) and gone 248-47 before this season.

"We've done well, but we'll never get the respect here we should," he says.

Barmore was in a funk. The previous night, visiting No. 1-ranked Tennessee had beaten his No. 3-ranked team, 62-56.

And that morning, Lynn Swann and ABC had come to Ruston to interview the Tennessee coach, Pat Summitt, whose team was knocked out of the NCAA tournament last year by Barmore's and who hasn't reached the Final Four since 1991.

"See what I mean? They (ABC) don't even know who we are," Barmore says. "They come to our own gym and interview her."

In the late 1980s, after he had won a national title, Tech's head men's job became available and Barmore applied, But he quickly learned he had created a monster that had to be fed.

"The Tech president called me in and said 'Nothing doing,' " Barmore says.

"He said they were so happy with the women's program he wanted me to stay put. That job has come up since, but I didn't bother to apply."

Small wonder. Tech women's teams outdraw the Tech men in the 8,600-seat Thomas Assembly Center.

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Barmore is as entertaining as his teams.

He wears well-fitting dark suits to games and has the look of a small-town mortician. He battles referees continually, and at least once a game rips off his coat and throws it. Sometimes buttons must be swept up.

Mulkey-Robertson and his other assistants are always poised, ready to grab him and haul him to his chair, protecting him from technical fouls.

USC Coach Cheryl Miller says of Barmore: "Leon has the greatest glare in basketball. I've tried his glare at officials a couple of times, but it just doesn't work."

Barmore said he feels a special kinship with Miller, whose 1982 USC team beat Tech in the first game played in Thomas Assembly Center. The two are trying to launch a home-and-home series, beginning next season.

Miller was caught in the cross-fire in a heated women's coaching debate when she accepted the USC job in 1993, after former coach Marianne Stanley refused to sign a contract extension offer.

She has been ostracized ever since by many female coaches.

Barmore knows the feeling.

When asked about being a male coach in a women's sport, he says: "It's lonely. People are polite. No one is rude to my face. But you hear things.

"That's why I identify with Cheryl; we have that in common."

And maybe it's why his players identify with him.

It turns out that the coach with the loud bark has a soft heart.

He talks about Pam Thomas, the 5-3 senior point guard of last season who took command of a comeback that almost overcame North Carolina. The Techsters were seven points down with 11 minutes remaining.

Thomas grew up in a poor neighborhood in Shreveport, 60 miles from Ruston, where her mother, Hazel, today owns a restaurant called The Soul Bowl.

"I loved that kid from the first time I saw her play," Barmore says.

"She was a gym rat, like I was. She was the quickest high school player I ever saw. I used to see her guard her player closely . . . and get a steal from someone else."

Barmore signed Thomas, but there was conflict in their future. Thomas was an indifferent student. "She cut a few classes her first year, and we had problems over it," he says.

"Then, in her sophomore year, they told me she hadn't been to a class in three days. I'd had a good relationship with Hazel, so I called her.

"I said to her: 'Hazel, come get her. I'm through with her. I'm sick of this.'

"I told her Pam wasn't going to class. Hazel was in my office in 60 minutes, dragging Pam behind her, in tears. Hazel's volume was up there pretty good.

"She made Pam promise it'd never happen again."

"Now, here's the best part of the story: Pam Thomas is still in school here and will get her degree this summer."

And Hazel Thomas is still around, too.

After Barmore's team lost to Tennessee on Monday night, Hazel was there with two boxes of turkey wings and dressing, direct from The Soul Bowl.

Pam Thomas talked of Barmore the motivator, and of Tech's two games against Tennessee last season. Early, Tennessee routed Tech, 94-60, and the player Thomas guarded, Tiffany Woosley, scored 18 points.

Then Tech drew Tennessee in the Mideast Regional and beat the Volunteers. Woosley had three points.

"Coach Barmore got a Woosley poster from Tennessee, about three feet high," Thomas said.

"For three days, he made me carry it everywhere, even to class. I had to have it in my bag when we went to the regional.

"That was probably the best game I ever played."

On the long plane ride home from Richmond last April, Thomas wrote a letter to her coach.

"I never saw anyone take a loss as hard as that," she said.

"He blamed it all on himself, and we tried to cheer him up by saying it was our fault. So I wrote him a letter."

An excerpt:

"Coach Barmore, you've really touched my life in a special way. When I came out of high school, I didn't believe in myself and I wasn't responsible . . . . "When we win or lose, we do it as a team. So this loss sticks with us as one. It's not your fault . . . . You've taught us to hold our heads high, so you do the same."

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