There are several college basketball programs that are forever linked to the head coach that built them. It is impossible to think of UCLA basketball without thinking of John Wooden, Indiana without Bob Knight, Duke without Coach K, or North Carolina without Dean Smith. The marriage between these coaches and the programs to which they devoted their lives will remain long after their days on the sidelines are finished.
It is easy to get recognized for your accomplishments when they take place at a powerhouse program where your team plays on national television over 30 times a year. You know the type: rock star coaches who stack their rosters with their pick McDonalds All-Americans every year. We know these coaches, we love these coaches.
Then there are the other guys.
The only time you ever hear about a mid-major coaches success is when they make a Cinderella tournament run and use that to vault themselves to bigger and better jobs.
For mid-major coaches who have not established themselves as perennial bracket busters in March, the spotlight that other coaches enjoy can often feel more like a flashlight. And that is the way that UT Arlington Coach Scott Cross prefers it.
In 2006, Cross inherited a program that recorded just ten winning seasons in its first 46 years of existence. Since then, the Mavericks have put together winning seasons in seven out of the last ten years. Cross' 175 careers wins have already made him the winningest coach in UT Arlington history, and that number shows no signs of stagnating any time soon. His teams have been steadily improving in each of their three seasons since joining the Sun Belt Conference. The Mavericks finished a strong third last season in what is quickly emerging as one of the most competitive mid-major conferences in the nation. The Mavericks' 24 wins last year tied a school record.
Though Cross has not experienced the kind of postseason success or national fanfare that some other mid-major coaches have over the past few seasons, his accomplishments over the past ten years were enough for UT Arlington to offer him a four-year contract extension that runs through the 2019-2020 season earlier this year.
When asked about his extension, Cross said, "I'm not motivated by money, I'm motivated by doing something that's never been done before. I'm motivated by winning championships." The way the forecast looks, this upcoming season may just be the year that his motivation finally comes to fruition.
The 2015-2016 season was highlighted by non-conference wins over Ohio State and Memphis. They pulled off an impressive 72-63 win over Texas State in the first round of the Sun Belt Tournament, before falling to Louisiana-Monroe in the semi-finals.
UL Monroe and Arkansas-Little Rock were the Achilles heal for Cross' team last season, posting a combined 0-5 record against the top two teams in the Sun Belt.
However, Little Rock will have to overcome the departure of head coach Chris Beard, who left the Trojans for Texas Tech following the end of last season, as well as their leading scorer Josh Hagins. UL Monroe also lost a lot of firepower on offense as they will have to face this season without their two leading scorers from last season.
Meanwhile, the Mavericks will return their top six leading scorers from last year's team. UT Arlington's veteran leadership along with a number of key departures elsewhere in the Sun Belt have many labeling the Mavericks as early season favorites to win the conference. If there were ever a year for Cross and company to make a Cinderella run to the tournament, this is the year.
Cross' contract extension is a strong statement of faith from UT Arlington athletic director Jim Baker that he believes Cross when he says he will hang a championship banner in the rafters of College Park Center.
Scott Cross has taken the Mavericks from irrelevant to legitimate over the past decade. While he has already established himself as the greatest coach in UT Arlington history, winning the Sun Belt Conference championship that he claims as his motivation would be his most impressive achievement of his coaching career. This season may be the best chance he ever will ever have to finally accomplish that goal.