Inside a celebratory locker room in Des Moines in 1989, after Creighton had clinched a conference title with a comeback win at Drake, the fiery coach loosened his tie and ripped open his dress shirt.
“Missouri Valley Champions.”
The words were printed on a T-shirt that Tony Barone had been wearing under his suit all day. He revealed that to the elated players. The room went nuts. And Barone started chucking championship shirts around to a once-unheralded group of Bluejays, who’d been picked to finish seventh in an eight-team league.
Yet again, Barone proved to his guys what they’d soon appreciate the most about their beloved coach: He knew exactly what they were capable of, even if they themselves did not.
“What he did in my case — and I know it rings true throughout all of us — is he took a kid like me who was very rough around the edges and made me understand how deep I could dig, how hard I could push myself,” said Bob Harstad, who starred on Barone’s best Creighton teams. “He was a master of that, getting the most out of his players.”
Barone, who guided Creighton to two NCAA tournaments and two regular-season conference titles, died Tuesday after a long battle with lung and brain cancer. He was 72.
Barone led CU from 1985 to 1991 — his teams combined for a 102-82 record. The Jays’ NCAA tournament win in 1991 was the program’s first in 17 years.
He coached several of Creighton’s legends, including Harstad (CU’s third-leading all-time scorer), Chad Gallagher (fourth) and Porter Moser, who coached Loyola-Chicago to a Final Four in 2018. Barone was inducted into the CU Hall of Fame in 2015.
“I (went) all over the country scouting and recruiting — and this is a special place,” Barone said of Creighton in his induction speech four years ago.
He often told his former players that.
There was the time when he and some ex-Jays gathered to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the 1989 Missouri Valley title, filling a private room at an Italian restaurant in Chicago to watch game highlights, tell stories and rekindle a bond. Barone sat at the head of a long table with his pupils flanking him on both sides.
“Never forget the look on his face. Just pride,” Moser said.
Those were the guys Barone treated like sons.
He’d relentlessly test their moxie with a series of wind sprints. Then a few hours later, he’d be playing Ping-Pong with them at his house after they’d chowed down dinner together with him and Mrs. B.
Todd Eisner, now the coach at Winona State, credited Barone for helping him find his way.
“That passion and enthusiasm that he had, he instilled in us,” Eisner said. “I remember walking on campus at Creighton at age 18, not having any clue of what was inside of me and what I was capable of doing. I am so grateful and thankful for what he found in me — that I didn’t know I had.”
Eisner was on the 1991 team that set a then-school record for single-season wins (24) — Creighton won 20 or more games in three straight years for the first time in program history.
What’s especially remarkable about those squads? At the time, the Jays had one of the Missouri Valley’s lowest budgets, according to Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen, who was the Creighton women’s hoops coach at the time. Their one-court practice gym had cracks in the windows — no way it was warmer than 40 degrees on some days, Rasmussen said.
Yet Barone’s Jays won.
“Of all the coaches I’ve been around … Tony Barone was the best teacher of the game — in any sport,” Rasmussen said. “He could be their hardest critic, and he could be their best supporter. They knew Tony was all in.”
His players have since tried to emulate that, in their family life or in the business world.
It’s most certainly evident at Loyola-Chicago — Moser said he’s tried to create a culture that reflects his own collegiate experience. Strict accountability, with an abundance of love and passion.
Before the Ramblers made their remarkable run to the 2018 Final Four, they won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season crown. Moser met with the team in the locker room and started unbuttoning his dress shirt.
He had to reveal the special undershirt he’d made. “Missouri Valley Champions.” Just like Barone.
“There’s so much of Coach B in me,” Moser said.
He wouldn’t have it any other way, though.
“Coach had our back. There was never a time when you didn’t know that,” Moser said. “He pushed you to your limits. But it made us better.”