When Karen Aston took over at North Texas a year ago, she heard the same questions over and over: Could a program that had been down for several years ever become successful? Was there a commitment to women’s basketball at the school?
On Monday night, just hours before she was introduced as the new coach at Texas, Aston was certain she helped answer those questions while bolstering a program that has played an integral part in her rapid rise in the coaching profession.
“I so enjoyed the opportunity at North Texas,” Aston said. “When I went there people didn’t know if there was a commitment or that women’s basketball could be successful. It can be successful and there is a commitment. We proved that.”
If Aston has a legacy from her short stay at UNT, it is she helped establish that the program has potential.
UNT finished 15-16 in her only season at the school, which might not sound that impressive, but a series of milestone wins and the fact the Mean Green nearly ended what is now a streak of six consecutive losing seasons showed Aston’s impact.
“Karen did a lot for us,” UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal said. “She proved that we are committed to women’s basketball and that you can bring talented players here.”
Aston, 47, only stayed at UNT long enough to bring in a handful of players to Denton. Despite that fact, having coached here is something she will remember.
“They have a lot of pride in what they are doing and believed in what we were doing,” Aston said. “They have grown. That is my fondest memory. It’s all about the players with me. I want them to grow, and I can see that they have grown. That is my fondest memory. It’s all about the players with me. I want them to grow, and I can see that they have grown.”
Aston named returning to the state of Texas as one of the reasons she left her first head coaching job at Charlotte to take over at UNT last year. Aston was an assistant at UNT from 1996-98 and also was an assistant at Baylor before leaving for Charlotte.
On Tuesday, Aston acknowledged that getting back to the University of Texas, where she was an assistant coach under Jody Conradt for eight seasons —1998 to 2006 — after leaving UNT the first time was something she had thought about.
“I dreamed about this. I would be lying if I said ‘no,’” Aston said when asked about if she had thought about coaching the Longhorns.
Aston agreed to a five-year deal with Texas. The terms of the contract were not immediately available.
The way Aston handled her time at UNT and developed the program was part of the reason Texas was interested in bringing her back to Austin. UNT won only five games the year before Aston took and led the Mean Green to a 10-game turnaround that tied for the second largest in school history.
UNT beat Oregon State, Alabama and SMU, not to mention going to Austin and running out to a 13-point lead in the second half of a game the Longhorns eventually came back to win.
“The little Mean Green came down and were mean and green all over us,” Texas women’s athletic director Christine Plonsky said. “It was like the mighty mites had chewed our socks up to our knees. I remember watching those players and seeing how hard they fought and how fundamentally sound they were.”
The challenge for UNT now is to find another coach who can build on the foundation Aston laid in a time of constant change for the program.
UNT is looking for a new head coach for the second straight year and will have its fourth coach in six seasons next year. Tina Slinker, for whom Aston worked at UNT, finished her 19-year run as the Mean Green’s head coach after the 2007-08 season.
Shanice Stephens lasted three years before being fired, and Aston stayed only one year.
“We thought it would happen, but not this fast,” Villarreal said of Aston leaving UNT for another school. “It’s an unfortunate part of the business.”
Aston has a buyout in her contract, requiring her to pay $114,375 — nine months of her base salary — to UNT for breaking her five-year contract.
Villarreal said that he keeps a list of potential coaching candidates for all of the school’s programs and will have a place to begin his search.
“It’s an attractive job with a lot of opportunities and good players coming in,” Aston said. “It’s very clear that Rick and his staff will give you the chance to be successful. There will be a lot of people beating the door down to get that job.”
Aston said she is confident that all five members of UNT’s incoming recruiting class will honor their commitments to play for the Mean Green.
“They can make an immediate impact,” Aston said of the players she signed. “Kids want to make a difference and those girls can.”
Villarreal said Aston made a difference for UNT.
Now Aston will try to make a similar impact at Texas, which finished 18-14 overall and 8-10 in Big 12 play last season.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity, one I feel privileged to have,” Aston said. “I want to get the program back to where it belongs.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com .
The following is a list of potential candidates to succeed Karen Aston as North Texas women’s basketball coach:
Donna Capps, former UT-Arlington coach
Was a candidate when UNT hired Aston, highly successful at UTA.
Krista Gerlich, West Texas A&M
Fastest coach in storied history of Division II WTAM to reach 100 and 125 wins.
Beth Jillson, Texas Woman’s University
Another successful coach at a Division II school that has struggled historically
Bill Brock, Baylor
Built a national power as the head coach at Grayson County College in Denison; currently an assistant coach at Baylor