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January 8, 2013Baylor assistant Jerome Tang can remember precisely the last time he was a head coach for a basketball game before Saturday's Big 12 opener against Texas.
There were no ESPN cameras panning at him on the bench. Rick Barnes wasn't the opposing coach. There wasn't an elaborate, eardrum-bursting video introduction of the players. There weren't 7,749 fans in the stands.
"Heritage Christian Academy. It was a warmup game for the high school playoffs," Tang said Monday morning before a day that included the Big 12 teleconference, Baylor's own press conference and practice. "We were an independent in the UIL. We played Angleton in Beaumont and we won. We came back from down 15 or 20 at halftime. February 2003."
It was his last high school game. Scott Drew snapped him up to join his new staff at Baylor, and the rest is history. Drew, Tang and the other assistants that have come and gone since have turned Baylor basketball into a national power with two trips to the NCAA Tournament Elite 8 in the last three seasons.
A decade later from that warmup game in Beaumont, there was Tang, on the bench Saturday as a head coach for Baylor - Drew is serving a two-game suspension as part of Baylor's sanctions for NCAA rules violations. Tang also is in charge for Tuesday's first Big 12 road game against Texas Tech in Lubbock (6 p.m., ESPN2).
It's a culture shock for sure. Assistants are asked to coach, recruit and manage the players. Head coaches do all of that, plus run staff meetings, attend press conferences and serve as the face of the program.
Plus there's actually the part about coaching in the games. Forty minutes of high pressure drawn out over two hours.
"The biggest difference is I'm making the final decisions," Tang said. "Everybody as an assistant, you have ideas in games that get used and you feel good when they're right. As a head coach, every decision ends with that dude. What I'm trying to do is be me and that has been setting the tone I want. I'm trying to keep things as normal as possible."
There's no arguing that Tang's first college game as a head coach was a success (yes, this counts on his coaching record). Baylor won a close game against the rival Longhorns, winning in overtime, 86-79, at the Ferrell Center.
It was a game that had a little bit of everything. Baylor didn't shoot the ball well. The Bears made too many turnovers early. Star point guard Pierre Jackson missed significant time in the second half with three fouls. Texas wiped out a nine-point second-half lead. Both teams had possessions to win the game at the end of regulation.
Tang subbed a lot, so much so that former Texas coach Tom Penders, through the magic of twitter, tweeted "No Scott Drew. Ass't coach Tang is subbing like a hockey coach." Tang was making the substitutions in the second half to sub for offense and defense. There was a method to the madness. To keep guys fresh. He liked how the players were buying into it on the bench, so he went with it.
Yes, it was different being in charge. But Tang admits it - he liked it.
"It was a little surreal when you think about it," Tang said. "I had the title, but at the end of the day it was a whole staff working together.
"It was my first time to be a head coach. It's a Big 12 game against the University of the Texas. I've coached junior high, girls high school volleyball, high school basketball. Having been a person that grew up in the state, I understand what the University of Texas means means around here. I understand this rivalry.
"It was a little surreal when I walked out there at first," Tang said. "But it doesn't matter once the game starts. It's coaching in a game."
Tang and his fellow assistant coaches worked well in concert. Grant McCasland. Paul Mills. Tim Maloney. Jared Nuness. Sam Patterson. Everyone played a role in this win. That's the way Drew runs his program.
They were well prepared, Tang said, because of Drew's meticulous planning. Tang has seen over the years, when an assistant gets thrust into being in charge, where it doesn't go as smoothly at other schools.
"Scott is a terrific planner," Tang said. "He's extremely organized and very good at game planning. Coach (Drew) invested a lot time doing everything we needed to be successful, in general and going into this week."
Tang and the coaching staff made a crucial adjustment in overtime, subbing in a fourth guard and putting center Isaiah Austin on Texas guard Julien Lewis, who was limping and clearly hurting. That way the Bears could switch defenders off ball screens set by Texas post Connor Lammert to keep a guard on Longhorns freshman Javan Felix, whose hot shooting in the second half carried Texas into overtime.
Tang knows Felix very well. He had recruited the New Orleans product since he was in the seventh grade (Baylor expected to sign him). Between Felix and Sheldon McClennan, the Horns went cold from outside and Baylor held Texas to 11 points in overtime.
Jackson bounced back from an erratic shooting game to make nine free throws in overtime as Baylor pulled away from Texas for a crucial win to open conference play.
So what was the first thing Tang did after the game?
"We went back into the locker room and hugged each other as a staff," Tang said. "The five other guys on the staff, they're all head coaches. That's why we've been successful as a program. We have guys who have been a head coach. It's a 'we' thing."
Tang, a masterful recruiting, also called a few recruits and touched base with them. He answered a ton of text messages from college and high school coaches, friends, you name it.
"It was great support," Tang said.
He'll do it again Tuesday night in Lubbock. Who knows, maybe with 1:15 left to go, the game will be tied, just like Saturday against Texas.
That was the moment when it really hit home for Tang -- that he was making the biggest decisions, the-game winning decisions against a Final Four coach on the other bench.
"Rick Barnes called a timeout," Tang said. "The game was tied. Their ball. I thought to myself, "Right now this is about coaching.'"
On Saturday, Baylor's bench was better than Texas. The Baylor coaches, without Drew, won a basketball game.
Tang, in his first overtime game as a head coach, didn't questioned himself, just like he didn't when he was subbing in a volleyball player in Cleveland, Tex. for Heritage Christian.
"There was not a doubt in my mind that we were going to win that basketball game," Tang said.