John Fe­in­stein:

For Maine coach, reach­ing side­line is a jour­ney.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - [email protected]­ For more by John Fe­in­stein, visit wash­ing­ton­­in­stein.

Thurs­day morn­ing’s sun­rise told Richard Bar­ron that he had been ly­ing awake most of the night. For a col­lege bas­ket­ball coach whose team was 2-15 and had lost at home, 73-49, the night be­fore, 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 a 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. Nearly ev­ery 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 al­ways had planned to turn over the coach­ing job at some point to his as­sis­tant, Amy Va­chon, who took 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.

He learned he had to re­cruit dif­fer­ently with the Black Bears 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 26win 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 in­terim women’s 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 have 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.


Richard Bar­ron re­cov­ered from a ma­jor scare when he coached the Univer­sity of Maine women’s team, then went on to coach the men.

John Fe­in­stein

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