Before every game, Neill Berry finds the third chair on the Texas bench and takes his seat. The 36-year-old assistant coach is close enough to advise head coach Shaka Smart during the game and only a few seats away from his players so he can share his wisdom if he needs to.
Berry arrived in Austin less than 10 months ago, but his voice already carries weight. Hired in May of last year, the Madison, Mississippi native serves as the Longhorns’ second assistant coach and is tasked with the usual expectations — recruit well, help in game preparation and maintain good relationships with players.
But most importantly, Berry serves as a fresh voice for an offense that has struggled mightily in Smart’s first three seasons.
“When (Smart) was looking for someone for this position, he wanted someone who could help on that side of the ball, but also someone who was well-rounded,” Berry said. “I think the biggest thing that I’ve been able to bring is a fresh voice, just a little different perspective on things.”
According to KenPom.com, the Longhorns ranked 49th, 177th and 89th in adjusted offensive rating in seasons before Berry was hired. He’s been called upon to fix the problem.
He built a close relationship with Texas’ guards to better understand what they see on the court and provides new ideas on how to space the floor and what the offense can do differently.
While the Longhorns’ 2018-19 season has mostly consisted of battling mediocrity, the offense has made great strides. In the same KenPom ratings, Texas offense currently sits at 19th in the nation, the highest rank in Smart’s tenure.
Berry has been a big factor in that.
“He’s constantly evaluating what we’re doing on that end of the floor and giving me feedback, and he’s very passionate about it,” Smart said. “He’s got a fire inside about playing the game of basketball the right way. Sharing the basketball, moving the ball. He’s given me a lot of good stuff.”
The move to Texas wasn’t an easy decision. Like most college basketball coaches, Berry bounced around to find jobs with stops at Western Kentucky, South Carolina and High Point University.
In 2015, however, Berry and his wife found a place they loved at Iowa State. He and his family loved Ames, and Berry himself admits that he had no plans to pursue a different position.
That changed when Texas called last spring with an opportunity he didn’t think he could pass up.
“I always thought Texas is one of the 10 best jobs in the country,” Berry said. “It was going to take a special opportunity to leave and we felt that was here.”
What pushed the job over the top was Berry’s close relationship with associate head coach Darrin Horn.
When Berry was just a clean-cut aspiring young coach living in Hammond, Louisiana, Horn gave him his first job as a graduate assistant, and later assistant coach when Horn was head coach at Western Kentucky. The two later worked at South Carolina, but split up after they were both fired.
Horn personally called Berry when the Texas position opened up last year and thought he would be a good fit. And after seeing him work with the team this season, Horn firmly believes his protégé and friend has what it takes to become a college head coach.
“He’s very positive at all times, really good work ethic, brings great energy to others,” Horn said. “It’s been fun for me to watch him continue into the coach he is today. He’s ready to be a head coach. There’s no question about that.”
The fire to become a head coach exists inside Berry. It’s his ultimate goal. Right now though, he’s focused on the present and helping his team become better.
“I definitely have aspirations, but I’m very grateful for the opportunity here,” Berry said. “If (a head coaching job) is meant to be, it’ll be.”