AUSTIN (KXAN) — Over 9,000 students will earn their degrees from the University of Texas this weekend, including 80 student-athletes.
Of those 80, perhaps none were as emotional about the experience as TJ Ford, who had a special guest in attendance as he walked the stage a Gregory Gym in Rick Barnes.
“[He was like a] father figure for me when I was here,” an emotional Ford said with Barnes’ arm draped over his shoulder.
“He would tell you it wasn’t easy,” Barnes said. “It’s cool, man, but I’m so happy for him. Proud’s an understatement. He deserves it more than anybody.”
Barnes was fired in 2015 as the Longhorns head coach, but returned to campus to watch Ford earn his degree.
“He called me about a month and a half ago, he said, ‘Coach, May 19th I’m walking,'” Barnes recalled. “He said, ‘You better be there,’ and I said I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I love him. I love him.”
Then, Barnes kissed Ford on the cheek, and Ford burred his face in Barnes’ shirt as he broke down and hugged his long-time mentor.
“He had a vision,” Ford said of Barnes. “I trusted his vision, and I’m living it. Him and my mother and my father, they had a vision. A vision I didn’t see, I didn’t understand, I just trusted them. I trust everything and every guidance that they have always given me, even to this day.”
Ford first stepped on campus in 2001, three years after after Barnes took over for the Longhorns. On Friday, Barnes said Ford was the first athlete he visited on a recruiting trip when he was hired. And he proved to be, arguably, the most valuable recruit in his entire Texas tenure.
As a sophomore in 2003, Ford led the Longhorns to their first Final Four since 1947, transforming Texas from a “football school” to a basketball powerhouse. After that, the Longhorns became a staple in the NCAA Tournament and a juggernaut on the recruiting trail, landing the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant.
After earning both the Naismith and Wooden Awards for the best player in college basketball, and consensus All-American honors, Ford left school after his sophomore season to enter the NBA Draft, where he was taken with the eighth overall pick.
A year later, he became the fourth Longhorn to ever have his jersey retired by the University of Texas.
“One thing I told him, I said, you gotta understand something: Your jersey is hanging in that building [the Frank Erwin Center], and you have gotta have a degree from the University of Texas,” Barnes said.
Ford’s 11-year NBA career was cut short in 2012 due to a lingering spinal cord injury while with the Spurs.