It was sunrise this past Thursday morning that told Richard Barron he’d been lying awake most of the night. For a college basketball coach whose team is 2-15 and has just lost at home, 73-49, losing sleep is hardly surprising. But for Barron, losing sleep because of basketball is almost cause for celebration.
Barron, who will turn 50 next month, is in his first season as the men’s basketball coach at Maine. The word “men’s” is worth noting: His distinction of having been head coach of both a men’s and women’s Division I basketball program is rare; the circumstances that led him to it are extraordinary. Less than two years ago, he was unable to work and thought he was dying.
He was in his sixth season as the women’s coach at Maine and had won back-to-back America East regular season championships when he woke up on the morning of Dec. 4, 2016, feeling as if he had water in his right ear.
“I couldn’t hear out of it,” Barron recalled Thursday. “Then I got up and something was wrong with my equilibrium. I felt as if I was falling to my left. Everything looked slanted. I had no idea what was going on.”
Neither did the doctors he went to see. They put him on a protocol of heavy-duty steroids, injecting them through his ear. The results weren’t good. “I had ‘roid rage, I was eating constantly and I didn’t feel any better,” he said. “I tried to coach through it, but, ultimately, I couldn’t do it.”
He took a leave of absence in early 2017 and began searching for answers. By then, he could barely function because almost any sound ricocheted through his head so loudly he couldn’t stand being in a room with more than one person.
“If someone rattled a coffee cup, it felt to me like it had been dropped from the ceiling,” he said. “When I was alone, if I wiggled my toes I heard it. I could hear my eyes blinking. My three kids had to come see me one at a time at night to tell me about their day. It was torture.”
Worst of all, no one could figure out what was wrong. He went to Mayo Clinic locations in Minnesota and Jacksonville, Fla. Nothing. His last appointment was with an ear doctor, which he thought would be a waste of time. By then, it was April and he had thought often about dying.
“I was wracked with guilt,” he said. “I wasn’t prepared to die. We had no relatives in Maine. My family would be left all alone without enough insurance to carry them through the long haul. I felt so helpless. Being sick was bad, not knowing why I was sick or what was wrong with me was worse.”
The next morning he went back to see the ear doctor. “She said she had it,” he remembered. “I had superior semicircular canal dehiscence. In English that means I had a hole in my head.”
It was a tiny hole, just above his right ear. The hole was the reason he had become so sensitive to sound and why he was having equilibrium problems. He had corrective surgery in Los Angeles in July. The hole was literally spackled shut.
“The minute I woke up, it was as if my life started all over again,” he said. “I didn’t have much hearing left in my right ear, but I wasn’t hypersensitive to noises anymore. I could stand up like a normal person. The joy I felt that day is almost indescribable.”
Barron had always planned to eventually turn over the coaching job to his assistant, Amy Vachon, who had taken over for him when he got sick. And when he was ready to return to work in December 2017, he didn’t think it was fair to take back his coaching job, so he and Maine Athletic Director Karlton Creech agreed he would return as a fundraiser and then figure out what might come next.
That echoed how his career started. After playing Division III basketball at Kenyon, Barron took a job in 1992 as an assistant coach for the men’s basketball team at Sewanee as “a way to give myself a year to decide” between entering medical school or seminary.
He found he enjoyed it so much he stayed for four years. When he finally decided it was time to move on, he was accepted at Virginia’s law school. At his going-away party, Sewanee’s newly appointed athletic director half-jokingly suggested he should stay and take over the vacant women’s coaching job.
Barron did. And he liked it.
“To say I learned a lot is an understatement,” he said. “Was I naive going in? Of course I was. Coaching women is different. . . . I’m generalizing, but women tend to be more team-oriented than men, less worried about the totem pole, the pecking order, the idea of being the alpha male.
“Plus, the vanity of being a head coach kicked in. I liked winning. We beat a top-five team, had our first winning season in 10 years. I felt I was where I belonged.”
Success at Sewanee led to being hired at Princeton. From there he became an assistant at Baylor and at N.C. State before being hired at Maine in 2011.
There, he learned he had to recruit differently than at Princeton or Baylor or N.C. State. “You aren’t going to win a lot of recruiting battles at Maine,” he said. “ . . . We have to find the kids who have been overlooked and will come and stay four years and get better every year.”
The approach worked — the Maine women had 23- and 26-win seasons back-to-back before Barron got sick.
After last season, when Bob Walsh decided not to seek a new contract after four years coaching the men’s team, the athletic director offered the job to Barron.
“By then, I was healthy, I wanted to coach and I didn’t want to leave Maine,” Barron said. “So I was thrilled to get the chance.”
The NCAA doesn’t keep records on women’s basketball coaches who became men’s coaches, but it’s almost unheard of at the Division I level. Speedy Morris came out of the Philadelphia high school ranks to coach the La Salle women for two seasons, advancing to the NCAA tournament in 1986, before 15 seasons and four NCAA tournament bids leading the men’s program. Pat Harris was women’s interim head coach at Army, his alma mater, for 16 games in the 1996-97 season before leading the men’s team for five years.
“Best thing I ever did was taking the women’s job,” Morris said. “I loved doing it and I learned one thing: Coaching is coaching.”
This season, Barron’s Black Bears have been competitive in most games — the loss to Vermont was only the second by more than 20 points; they’ve lost three times in overtime and have a win over Fordham. But Barron’s goal isn’t to be competitive. It’s to win. Maine has never been to the NCAA tournament and hasn’t won a conference tournament game in 15 years. It won’t be easy.
Which is why he was up until sunrise Thursday morning. Even so, watching dawn break that day, knowing the most difficult challenge he would face in the next three was getting ready to play Albany, was reason for a coach with a 2-15 record to feel nothing but joy as he got out of bed to face the morning.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.