Ford helped revive Texas as national power

By Conrad Brunner | April 1, 2009
For T.J. Ford, the most indelible memory of leading Texas to its first Final Four in more than 50 years in 2003 wasn't a game-winning shot, breakout performance or other individual snapshot.

It was more of a feeling.

That team changed the culture of Longhorns basketball, re-establishing the program as a national power after decades toiling in the shadow of football.

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"I remember how much passion we had for one another, how much passion we had for the game," Ford said. "We held each individual on the team accountable for doing the right things on and off the court. We were just one unit and that's how we carried ourselves on the court. We defended one another, we protected one another, I think we loved one another and we all had the ultimate goal and we knew what we were trying to accomplish.

"We understood that Texas basketball was something nobody followed for many, many years and we had the ability to change the atmosphere and change the mentality of Texas basketball as a state. It was something big and we knew this was our opportunity. We had the following. We had the whole state by our side. The ultimate goal was to win it all and we had the team, we had the talent to do that but we ended up coming up short."

In 2002, the Longhorns were beaten 72-70 in the Sweet 16 on a layup by Fred Jones, but the next season proved historic for the program.

A sophomore who would win two of the five major college player of the year awards after averaging 15.0 points, 7.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 2.0 steals, Ford led the Longhorns to the No. 1 seed in the South Regional.

After dispatching UNC-Asheville 82-61 in the first round, Texas knocked off Purdue 77-67 in the second and a young but talented Connecticut team led by Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor 82-78. With Ford producing 19 points and 10 assists, they then beat Michigan State 85-76 in the regional final (despite 14 points and nine rebounds from future Pacers second-round pick Erazem Lorbek).

"We made so many fans that weren't even UT alumni around the world," Ford said. "We were just known as a hard-fighting team. We had a lot of different guys, different characters that made our team unique and very fun to watch. Every game we played was just unbelievable – sold out, packed. Everybody was looking forward to watching us play either in the building or on TV. It was a great experience."

It was Texas' first trip to the Final Four since 1947, but it ended in the national semifinal when Ford and the Longhorns ran into a hot Syracuse team. Carmelo Anthony scored 33 as the Orangemen won 95-84 in the New Orleans Superdome despite Ford's third double-double of the tournament (12 points, 13 assists). Syracuse would go on to win the national championship.

"I don't think I ever played in front of that many people at one time," Ford said. "It's just an experience getting there. I'm sure it's a great experience winning the national championship and being the No. 1 team but at the end of the day just reaching the Final Four was definitely still a great accomplishment."

Texas basketball has remained a force, reaching the elite eight twice and Sweet 16 once in the years since.

"We had guys winning individual awards and from the attention we were getting, after that run we were able to land a lot of NBA players that are playing now – LaMarcus Aldridge, Daniel Gibson, Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin, Royal Ivey," Ford said. "We're getting the best guys and we're putting guys into the pros so we're going to continue to have success and hopefully we can continue to get guys to go to the University of Texas because we're all a family."