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'He doesn't quit': From adversity to glory, Joe Golding brings history of winning, grit to UTEP

Bret Bloomquist
El Paso Times

Before Joe Golding was introduced as UTEP's 20th head coach, before he led Abilene Christian to national darling status with its epic upset of Texas in the NCAA tournament, before his first trip to the NCAA tournament in 2019 with a famous hole in his pants, there was a mountain to climb.

Much of the story is known, about how he arrived in Abilene in 2011 when they were "the worst Division II program in the country," one that had to collect checks and whippings from power conference schools just to keep the lights on.

Those were soul-trying times filled with moments of despair, questioning and staring at the ceiling when glory at the NCAA tournament was in the far unforeseeable future.

UTEP men's head basketball coach Joe Golding Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso.

'A nice house, then nothing'

That's when Golding looked far into a past that's still vivid in his mind. That's when he looked back to sixth grade when his life and his family went sideways.

That's when his father's once-successful men's clothing store in downtown Midland was sucked down in 1987 by the oil bust and went under.

"A Volvo, a nice house, then nothing," Golding recalls.

Starting back from scratch, his father Joe Jr., at the urging of his wife, decided to go back into the other family business, high school coaching. That meant driving five-hour round trips from Midland to Sul Ross State in Alpine on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to get a teaching certificate, working at what he could find Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, while his wife held down three jobs.

"That was a tough year," father Joe Jr. recalled.

"At 1 o'clock in the morning we'd clean office buildings and scrub them, clean toilets just to make enough money to make ends meet," UTEP coach Joe Golding recalled from what is now his own office in the Foster-Stevens Center.

"I learned life, I learned adversity, I learned how to get through things. It was one of the best life lessons I ever learned."

More:UTEP kicks off Joe Golding era with first official practice

That sixth-grade year is never far from Golding's thoughts, it stirs deep emotions to this day and always will. That adversity, and the reaction to it, defines the man who on April 14 was introduced as UTEP's 20th head men's basketball coach.

"He is tenacious, he's tough, he has grit, he doesn't quit," said Abilene Christian president Phil Schubert, who witnessed Golding's miraculous 10-year tenure at ACU. "He's so driven, so locked in.

"He's a guy who's willing to stay in the ring and keep fighting."

UTEP's head basketball coach Joe Golding during the first official practice Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the Foster Stevens Center at UTEP in El Paso.

Origins for UTEP basketball coach Joe Golding

That's served Golding well throughout his life. He jokes about his athletic struggles: "I just wasn't any good," he said at his introductory press conference. "True story. I averaged four points and three assists. When you do that you live in six or seven cities and nine different houses."

What Golding always did was achieve and win. He was never fleet of foot, or tall or big or endowed with the obvious physical star traits. What he was was all-state his senior year at Wichita Falls High (1993-94) in football, basketball and baseball.

That was expected of him given his lineage. His grandfather Joe coached Wichita Falls High to four state football championships, went 153-25-2 from 1947-61 and has the field at Wichita Falls' Memorial Stadium named after him.

Read:UTEP finalizes contract with Golding, extends Baker and Senter

A bit intimated by that legacy, Joe Jr. initially resisted the coaching bug, moving to Midland and opening his clothing store before the oil bust derailed that dream.

"My wife said, 'Why don't you do what you've always wanted to do: coach,'" Joe Jr. recalls.

After that brutal year when (for clarity's sake) Joseph was in sixth grade, Joe Jr. got that coaching certificate and a job at Midland High working for legendary high school basketball coach Jack Stephenson.

"I probably got a job because (Joseph) was so good in sports," Joe Jr. said.

From that point, Joseph's life path was set.

UTEP basketball coach Joe Golding a 'natural-born athlete'

"He was a natural-born athlete, God-given ability," Joe Jr. said. "And he had a desire very few have. He was such a great leader."

While Joseph Golding downplays how good an athlete he was, he'll concede that last point.

"I was a leader," he said. "I was a team-first guy, a guy who would help others, I was a guy who wanted to bring people together. I was an unselfish guy, a pass-first point guard. I'd always give credit to other people.

"That's how I am as a coach. I wasn't as good as everybody else but I would out-tough you and out-work you. That's my philosophy as a coach."

Landing at Abilene Christian University

The family moved back to Wichita Falls when he was in high school and he began to learn the legacy of his grandfather, who died when Joseph was young. Joe Jr., meanwhile, became a legend in his own right, retiring at Wichita Falls last year after 30 seasons there, the last 20 of that as the school's all-time winningest head girls basketball coach where he won 321 games.

Joseph, who averaged 8.6 assists per game as a senior point guard at Wichita Falls, got a scholarship to Abilene Christian in 1994, a traditionally mediocre or worse Division II program.

"I always wanted to go to the NCAA tournament," Golding said. "When I couldn't do that at Abilene Christian, I had to do it as a coach."

UTEP men's head basketball coach Joe Golding Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso.

Up the ladder

After four years as the point guard for the ACU Wildcats, Golding was hired for his first coaching job at South Garland High in the Metroplex. That started a string of short stays and quick moves where he coached at six schools in the first decade of the millennium. At his introductory press conference at UTEP he said he was shopping for his 10th home, which he bought earlier this year on the west side of El Paso.

He was at South Garland a year before moving to Seminole Junior College as an assistant, the season after his good friend Chris Beard left as head coach.

Beard, who coached Golding for two years as an assistant at ACU, continued the coaching carousel that led Golding to UTEP when Beard left Texas Tech for Texas this offseason and hired UTEP coach Rodney Terry to be an assistant. (This string of tumbling dominoes can be a bit confusing.)

Golding was hired for his first head coaching job at the Garland ISD school of Sache in 2002 and he quips that he still considers himself a high school basketball coach.

His two successful years at Sache were most notable for a run-in with the cheerleading sponsor, whose team had just won a big event and wanted a banner in the gym.

"Hell no we're not hanging a cheerleading banner in our basketball gym," Golding said. "We ended up hanging the cheerleading banner in our basketball gym."

Presumably, it wasn't the last time he lost a little dispute to the cheerleading sponsor who later became Amanda Golding, the mother to their two children Carson and Chase. Carson will be a freshman basketball player at Coronado this year.

After assistant stops at Collin County Community college and his alma mater, ACU, Golding finally got a chance to pursue his NCAA tournament dream as an assistant at Arkansas-Little Rock for coach Steve Shields.

Indeed, in 2011 the Trojans won the Sun Belt tournament and Golding checked that dream off the list.

UTEP's head basketball coach Joe Golding during the first official practice Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the Foster Stevens Center at UTEP in El Paso.

Leading Abilene Christian to the NCAA Tournament

Now Golding was ready to be a head coach at the NCAA tournament, and to chase that end, he applied for the job at Abilene Christian in the 2011 offseason.

He didn't get it.

Grant McCasland accepted the job, only to back out shortly after when he was offered an assistant job at his alma mater Baylor. McCasland is now the head coach at North Texas.

At this point, Abilene Christian, which had gone 9-17 in 2010-11, went to Plan B: Joe Golding.

Once the excitement of being a college head coach at his alma mater wore off, Golding looked around and wondered what he had done.

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"It was a horrible job, the worst Division II school in the country as far as athletic performance," Golding said, and while he's exaggerating a bit, the Wildcats had one winning season in Division II in the 12 years prior to his arrival. "Bad, bad job.

"We were Division II for two years, all the sudden we have a press conference out of nowhere and we're going Division I."

That was 2013-14, when the program began a four-year transition where it wasn't eligible for a conference or NCAA tournament. The program raised funds by beginning the season with five road contests, including money-game losses at Maryland, Iowa, TCU and later Xavier.

At this point, Golding was recruiting players who knew ACU wouldn't be eligible to play in even a Southland Conference tournament.

"I had never lost in my life, I had always won," Golding said of what became an 11-20 season in 2013-14 that was ACU's 14th losing season in a 15-year stretch. "Elementary, junior high, field days in elementary school, whatever. We won.

"It was tough. I challenged myself as a coach, I questioned myself as a coach. 'Is this the right thing to do, should I go sell insurance, should I do something else?' But I revert back to my 6th grade year with my dad.

"Adversity."

UTEP men's head basketball coach Joe Golding Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso.

Important decision

The most important decision Golding made that first year in Division I was hiring Brette Tanner to be his assistant and to coordinate the defense that became ACU's trademark.

"There were times when each one of us questioned if we were going to get it done, but never at the same time," said Tanner, who was promoted to head coach at ACU after Golding left. "One of us was always there to talk the other off the ledge.

"But we built relationships knowing it would pay off and it did. Each year we recruited a little better players."

That's hard to do under any circumstances at ACU, where students begin every morning at chapel and adhere to a strict Christian code of conduct that make the experience different for 20-year-olds than at most schools.

Golding, Tanner and the staff made that work for them.

"He said everyone is treated like family," current ACU senior Coryon Mason said of his recruiting process. "When you leave, you'll have family and a degree. He's a father figure, he's someone who believes in you and will let you be you on and off the court.

"You want to believe in what you're doing. We all came together and accomplished a goal. It happened how it was supposed to."

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Said Schubert: "His players loved him, they'd go to the mat for him. The experience here is different than anywhere in the country and Joe knew that. He experienced it as a player — the culture, the people, the faith that binds us. He understood how that brings people together."

Golding said the task at ACU was figuring out who they would be.

"We couldn't get the talent SFA (Stephen F. Austin) and Sam (Houston) got, ACU is a different school," he said of his Southland rivals. "We couldn't recruit a roster of transfers and JUCO kids who didn't fit the university. We had to find an identity. Our identity became on the defensive end of the floor.

"Aggressive teams win, teams that attack, teams that throw punches first and that all starts on the defensive end."

Other aspects of Golding's personality came to the forefront in those years.

"He literally has no ego," Tanner said. "He gives credit to other people when he deserves it, he takes the blame when other people deserve it. He gets people to believe in him because he has no ego. No. 2, he's a ton of fun. He's a ball of energy, he just loves basketball."

Schubert put it this way: "He's a character, people love being around him. He's not the most polished guy, but people know he's the real deal. He's authentic. He has a squirrely, crazy sense of humor, that will come out over time, he'll do crazy things, but it's all innocent, all Joe Golding."

As to the "squirrely, crazy sense of humor," Schubert cited the hole-in-the-pants episode in the 2019 NCAA tournament. That was the year everything came together for ACU, the year they went 27-7 and won the Southland Conference tournament to get a date with Kentucky in the NCAA tournament.

Texas vs. Abilene Christian game 'a dream come true'

In the process, Golding ripped his pants in the SLC championship game and wore those pants in the NCAA tournament loss to Kentucky.

"I'm coaching tomorrow in my baby blue suit, and I'm gonna have a hole in my butt," Golding told reporters before that game. "It is what it is, we're going to be who we are and go out and embrace it."

He also had an alternate story about there only being one tailor in Abilene and only having one pair of dress pants, though the true story is he was taking the pressure off his players.

Last season, Abilene Christian went into the NCAA tournament with a 23-4 record, then used that trademark defense to pull a defining 53-52 upset of the University of Texas.

"We knew we were going to beat Texas, we did," Golding said. "Three years ago we did not think we were going to beat Kentucky. We were there for the lobster, the steak, the chartered plane, the police escorts. We were there for the experience. Our eyes were big, mine included.

"This year was different. Think about this: Six years ago you have a university in Abilene, Texas with 4,000 students that's the worst team in the country and decides to go Division I. And it's now playing the flagship university in our state with 50,000 students and power and money the image of the University of Texas.

"And we just beat them. This little school in the middle of nowhere that had this vision of going Division I, and six years later it beat the University of Texas in the NCAA tournament."

Said Mason: "It was a dream come true. I went to a Division I school hoping to make it to March Madness. Now I can take that off the list."

The newest Miner

Golding had turned down opportunities at bigger schools, and when UTEP came courting after Terry left to join Beard at Texas, ACU made a big offer to keep him. Golding's West Texas roots, especially from that time in Midland, led him further west still to El Paso.

"I wanted it, that was it," Golding said. "When coach Beard called me and said he was going to take Rodney, I knew this was the job. Going through the interview process it was easy, it wasn't hard. They saw the passion I had for this program. I didn't have to be fake."

After getting the job, Golding went on a tour of the city, getting out in the community, shaking every hand he could. He's still on that tour. He naturally found words to endear him to El Paso.

"We're out here, in the middle of nowhere, and there is so much pride in this place," Golding said. "I've really appreciated how much the city and the community has taken myself and my family and our staff in and welcomed us immediately. I shouldn't say I'm shocked, but I'm very thankful for it."

UTEP basketball something Joe Golding 'wanted to be a part of'

His father knows what UTEP is about to witness. He's seen it before.

"By the end of his second year, no team in the conference will take more charges," Joe Jr. said. "No one will have more players on the floor every night diving for balls. It's unbelievable to watch a bunch of kids playing harder than they thought they could play."

Golding knows much of that hard work is his to do.

"We have to return this program back to what it was," Golding said. "In a joking way, we're looking for a hashtag. Like any program you go through ups and downs and right now we're not (up), that's the honest truth. We're not putting people in the Don Haskins Center. Our attendance is going down, wins and losses are going down. You look at a line, it's all straight down.

Golding knows about stepping into bad situations and turning them to gold. That's been with Joseph the alchemist, with his family, since sixth grade. It's something he can't wait to bring to El Paso.

"A lot of people are asking, Why would you leave (ACU)? You've been to the NCAA tournament twice, you're building a $48 million arena, you have job security for the rest of your life, why would you take a job going down?

"Because I remember the UTEP of the early 2000s. That's what I remember growing up in Midland, it was something I wanted to be a part of. I wanted to play for coach (Don) Haskins. I look at it as an incredible opportunity."

Bret Bloomquist can be reached at 915-546-6359; bbloomquist@elpasotimes.com; @Bretbloomquist on Twitter.