Jun 10, 2022

Former UT Hoops Walk-on Hopes Graduate Assistant Gig Leads to Coaching Career

Reporting Texas

The University of Texas faces off with Iowa State during a basketball game. Photo by Lawrence G. Miller / Flickr

On a sweltering July day at the Cooley Center on the University of Texas at Austin campus, about a dozen UT students were playing pickup basketball, as they do most summer days. 

Most of the players on the court were members of the UT men’s team, but the player who played the best was not.

That player was Tristen Licon. Licon eventually walked onto the team and earned a scholarship during the 2021-22 season. Licon, who hopes to coach one day, will rejoin the team as a graduate assistant for the 2022-23 season. Licon sees his graduate assistant role as an important stepping stone on the path to becoming a coach.

“I am excited to take every step,” Licon said. “Being a player has opened up network opportunities and now through this I can put in a lot of hours and build my resumé.”

Many college coaches start their careers as graduate assistants. UT men’s basketball Chris Beard worked as a graduate assistant before eventually becoming head coach at Texas Tech University and now UT. Former Texas football coach Tom Herman also worked as a graduate assistant before becoming head coach at the University of Houston and then head coach of the Longhorns.

In the summer of 2021, Licon, who had recently graduated from Sul Ross State University in Alpine, was set to attend UT as a graduate student studying sports management. One of Licon’s goals at UT was to work for Beard as a graduate assistant.

“I got in contact with Beard through my coach at my previous college and told him I would do anything to work for him,” Licon said. “I literally said cleaning toilets, driving him around, making food runs or anything.”

Beard didn’t make any promises, but he invited Licon to come to campus and meet the team. Licon moved to Austin, crashed on a friend’s couch and started attending Beard’s summer practices.

“He was just there unsure of what he was doing,” Darius Barksdale, a  graduate assistant for the basketball team, said of Licon. “He found a role with a camera for a while, but then we found out he actually was able to play.”

After playing pickup games with the team, players were impressed, and several told Beard that he should invite Licon to play for the Longhorns.

At the time, Licon believed his career as a player was over. And it was a good career. Licon starred at Americas High School in El Paso and became a Division III all-American guard at Sul Ross. The opportunity to play for UT was a surprise.

“Of course, I really had no intention of playing,” Licon said. “Coach Beard knew about my previous career stats, but he never really saw me play.”

Now that the season is over, Licon is ready to hang up his jersey for good and complete his initial goal of being a graduate assistant.

Graduate assistants for an athletic team are similar to university teaching assistants. The position is designed for students pursuing a master’s degree, many of whom want to pursue a coaching career. 

“You need to go somewhere where you can learn the business,” said Drew Valentine, current head coach of Loyola-Chicago who first started out his career as a graduate assistant at Michigan State University. “The graduate assistant experience was great for me because I got to see firsthand how a program was run at the highest level.”

In exchange for working with a team, universities often pay tuition for graduate assistants.

“Our main duty is to help the players,” Barksdale said. “Whatever they need, we are there for them in terms of working them out in the gym and helping them stay organized.”

Additionally, coaches rely on graduate assistants to alleviate the day-to-day workload of full-time staff members.

“During the season, we are involved with scouting other teams,” Barksdale said. “But keeping an eye on the players is what Coach Beard is big on. We must know what they are always doing to make sure there are not any surprises”

Next season Beard may have another successful coach-in-training within his program.

“Coaching has always been the goal,” Licon said about his experience. “A lot of my family consists of educators and coaches. My dad coaches high school football and track and field, so coaching is definitely something I have always wanted to do.”

Shifting into a new role for the Longhorns men’s basketball program, Licon is excited in learning from Beard — a coach he hopes to emulate.

“I am interested in continuing to learn different philosophies from Coach Beard,” Licon said “He started off coaching at a small college basketball level that I am familiar with to now being a high major Division I coach at Texas. He is an example of a man I want to follow and be like as I continue to grow.”

Barksdale enjoyed working as a graduate assistant for Beard. After a year of being a graduate assistant, he thinks Licon is primed for success next season in his new role.

“Tristen is a grinder for sure,” Barksdale said. “He is very level-headed and will take criticism and instruction. Coach Beard loves him because he works. Coach Beard also loves a good story.”

With a job solely focused on taking care of the players, Barksdale noted that Licon has a key advantage over others on Beard’s staff. “He is a good basketball player and we all have seen it this season,” Barksdale said. “That experience gives him a different perspective toward the game.”

With the offseason in full swing, Licon has his mind focused on one goal as he moves forward with his new position.

“I would love to be a division one basketball coach at a high major program,” Licon said. “I am excited to take every step to become that, whether I have to start small or am lucky enough to follow my current coaches to build my resumé.”