ORONO, Maine — Just a year ago, coaching was the furthest thing from Richard Barron’s mind.
Hearing loss, balance issues, migraines and even temporary amnesia all conspired to leave the then-University of Maine women’s basketball coach wondering if he had any future at all.
“I was lying in bed thinking that I was dying,” the 49-year-old Barron recalled Monday afternoon after being introduced as the new UMaine men’s basketball coach to replace Bob Walsh, who opted not to seek a contract extension after four years on the job.
“The idea of coaching the men’s basketball team was not even an inkling,” Barron added. “It was more just about whether I would make it to the next month.”
Barron’s medical status remained a mystery into the spring of 2017, when finally he was diagnosed with a small skull fracture above his right inner ear.
“That whole time my family stood by and supported me,” said Barron, citing wife Maureen, twin daughters Lane and Rae and son Billy. “It was a rough time but they were troopers through it all.”
Barron underwent surgery on July 13 at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, and it wasn’t long before he had the urge to coach again.
“When I woke up from surgery I felt amazing,” he recalled. “I had to spend two days in intensive care, but the next day when I got out of the hospital my wife and I walked eight miles around the campus at UCLA and I immediately felt better.
“But obviously there was an adjustment period, I had to see how the surgery took and just getting back into the groove of things, but there was an immediate sort of response.”
Barron, who went on medical leave in January 2017 to be replaced initially on an interim basis by former UMaine star and assistant coach Amy Vachon, was ready to return to UMaine by December and was named a special assistant to athletic director Karlton Creech.
In the meantime, the UMaine women’s basketball team that Barron had rebuilt over six years — from four wins during the 2012-13 campaign to a 26-9 record in 2016 — was resurgent again this winter under Vachon’s leadership and went on to win the America East regular-season title as well as the right to host the conference championship game against Hartford at 4 p.m. Friday at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
“My contract allowed me to come back and coach the women’s team at any point,” Barron said, “but I was very happy with the transition that we had made so being able to serve as the assistant to the AD was a way for the university not to incur any more salary than what they already had so I wasn’t hurting the university by coming back and I wasn’t firing somebody.
“When Karlton and I first started talking I said I didn’t want my successful surgery to be a burden on anybody. I don’t want someone to look back and say, ‘I wish the doctors had screwed up.’ I just wanted everybody to make this a win-win story. I wanted everyone to feel good about this.”
Yet the urge to coach remained.
“Karlton and I had talked about it in thinking about my future and what I needed to do and where I would be most useful, and also in the context of women’s basketball and how well that staff was doing,” he said. “It was something that we discussed but obviously it was hypothetical at the time wondering what that possibility might be.”
That possibility became a reality Monday, albeit in a slightly different setting as he embarks on coaching a men’s team for the first time since his first job after graduating with a biology degree from Kenyon College in 1991 at the University of the South-Sewanee in Tennessee.
“Obviously if I thought it was an issue I wouldn’t have taken the job, but I’m excited about it,” said Barron of coaching a men’s team for the first time since 1995. “I don’t think it will do anything but help that l’ve been through being a head coach of rebuilding programs (at Princeton and with the UMaine women). I think those experiences translate regardless of gender so I’m going to rely on those experiences and what I’ve learned from being here.”
Barron thinks he’s more prepared than ever to sell the UMaine brand to potential recruits — another positive outcome from his extreme medical scare.
“There are a lot of great things about Maine, and the student-athlete experience specifically is one of them,” he said. “That happens because you have a lot of really good people here who pour themselves into these student-athletes every day, and I have gotten to see that from a different perspective over the last year.”
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