CARBONDALE, ILL. • The five acres that surround Barry Hinson’s refurbished house on the outskirts of town are a work in progress. And that’s exactly the way he likes it.
Walking the land, he exudes joy when talking about converting a sand volleyball court into a garden. He recalls hitching a chain to the back of his jeep and ripping invasive trees out by their roots. He reveals plans to build a small cabin next to a pond, which he had emptied and dredged and then stocked with 100 catfish, 100 perch and 100 bass.
Every 20 feet or so, Hinson stops, points and talks with the confidence of a former member of Future Farmers of America about zoysia, creeping phlox, pole barns, cedar trees and cross ties. He has done much of the work with his own hands.
Maybe most important to Hinson is a small playground, complete with monkey bars, swings, a gravel box and a picnic table. A sign welcomes you to Carter’s Park.
Carter is Hinson’s grandson, whose last visit changed a family forever. It changed a house. It changed Christmas. It changed a coach.
Niles Thomason, Hinson’s son-in-law and his daughter Tiffany’s husband, died Christmas Day after breaking the morning silence with screams for help. At a Carbondale hospital, maybe an hour later, Hinson and his daughter watched as resuscitation efforts failed.
Thomason died of a strep infection that caused his organs to shut down.
Separated by hundreds of miles from his daughter, Thomason’s parents and at times his wife, Angie, who visits Tiffany regularly, Hinson has two places of refuge: the basketball court and his yard.
“If I don’t stay busy, then I really struggle,” Hinson said before his team’s final home game Saturday. “I really have some tough times. I’ve already packed for the Missouri Valley Tournament. I do stuff every night.
“You talk to your daughter every day. ‘Did you meet with social security? Have you met with the realtor? Has the life insurance money come in?’ I have a lot of guilt. I can’t do anything. I can’t help his mom and dad. They have to deal with it every day. I feel an enormous amount of guilt.”
The SIUC season has become best known for Hinson’s well-publicized postgame rant in December and the night the team bus became stuck in snow for hours, forcing players to sleep in a church in central Illinois.
They became national news and made for good stories and Hinson believes were positive forces in the Salukis’ ability to reverse a spiraling season. But the events of Christmas Day left him reeling and in need of counseling.
“Christmas will never be the same,” Angie said.
Angie has spent several chunks of time in Eagle, Colo., in the Rocky Mountains with Tiffany and Carter as have Niles’ parents, Johnny and Theresa. Hinson took a week off for the funeral and missed one game, which he acknowledges wasn’t enough time. His treatment of those around him tells him as much.
“I’ve done and said things this year I’ve never said before,” Hinson said. “I’ve erupted at players and staff and come back later and said ‘I’m sorry.’ The tone of my voice to players and staff members, it wasn’t me. I’m a volcano. I erupt but (previously) it would be over.”
During some recent incidents, he said, it wasn’t over. Hinson already had turned heads with comments he made about the team and players when video of his press conference at Murray State went viral. But he ultimately stood by everything he said that night except for his specific criticism of guard Marcus Fillyaw, to whom he apologized.
The explosive comments he made after Thomason’s death came from a different place. He was grieving and at the same time angry, at no one in particular. He unleashed on those around him, mainly coaches and players.
“I’ll never forget what the counselor said,” Hinson said. “She said all of this is natural and all of this is needed. But the most important thing you can do when you’re struggling is to tell people. You’ve got to tell them right then and there, and my staff has taken the brunt of that.”
EVERYTHING JUST FROZE
Thomason, who worked as a veterinarian, had complained of feeling sick the weekend before Christmas and suffered a leg injury as well. He joined the Hinson family in Carbondale on Dec. 23 and on Christmas Eve went to an urgent care center, where he was diagnosed with a pulled muscle and given pain medicine.
Thomason was able to spend time watching TV with the family for about an hour that night but eventually decided to go upstairs and rest. After watching The Polar Express, Tiffany took Carter to say goodnight.
“They play this game where Carter says, ‘Guess what? I love you,’” Angie said. “I heard him playing that game with Niles.”
But on Christmas he awoke, screaming in pain. Unable to walk, he had crawled to the doorway of his room. His injured leg was twice the size of the other and turning blue. Hinson called 911 three times before an ambulance arrived 20 minutes later.
Barry and Angie thought he might be suffering from a blood clot. But in retrospect, there was one hint that it was something worse. As he left the house, Thomason said he had lost his vision.
At the hospital, Hinson and his daughter were offered access to a private area but declined. A while later they were coaxed into the room and shocked to be told resuscitation efforts had started. They were taken to the room where Thomason was being frantically treated.
“They’re giving CPR and it’s 20 minutes,” Hinson said. “And then they asked what time it was. We’ve seen enough movies. I could tell the last five minutes. You’ve got people changing in and out and they keep looking at you, and their body language is, ‘We’ve got no shot.’ You could just tell.
“This is a dad moment and there’s no manual for dad moments like this – when they walk up to your daughter and say her husband has died. Everything just froze.”
Hinson told Tiffany he would call Thomason’s parents in Tulsa, Okla., but she insisted on doing so.
Carter had gone to a family friend’s house to play with other kids. By mid-afternoon Tiffany suggested he open his presents and have his Christmas.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Thomason had been sitting, albeit in pain, in the living room and laughing with Hinson, Carter climbing all over his lap. He was a hands-on father, who woke to dress his son every morning. One day a week, Angie said, they enjoyed a day together when Thomason was off work. An Eagle Scout, he loved the outdoors and would take Carter on excursions.
Angie learned the extent of her son-in-law’s impact on his community when a brewery in Eagle held a memorial in his honor. About 300 people attended, including friends and patients who took their animals to his clinic. And many of them brought along pets who had benefited from his work.
“There were kids in the bar and dogs and cats,” Angie said. “Niles’ mom was there and I think it was healing for her a little to hear people talk about how he had saved this dog or cat. It was a good thing.”
HINSON’S DAD HOSPITALIZED
Tiffany never cried around Carter. And Hinson did his best to use that approach with his team.
He talked to the players about what happened and then bottled his emotions in what is an otherwise expressive persona. He couldn’t sleep and began seeing a counselor, who told him to express his feelings when they were raw.
Until recent weeks, Hinson said he woke every morning at 6:30 and heard his son-in-law screaming for help. When a player became sick on a recent flight, teammates started hollering at the back of the plane, prompting Hinson to break down sobbing in his seat.
Hinson met three times with his coaches to tell them he was having a bad day and needed help. On a recent road trip he was unable to sleep the night before a game and skipped breakfast with the team. On other occasions, his temper went unchecked.
“The first game he came back he wasn’t himself and you could tell,” senior guard Desmar Jackson said. “After that he was definitely more emotional and you could see it on his face.”
Adding to the stress, few people knew, was that Hinson’s father spent several days in a Springfield, Mo., hospital with heart issues prior to Christmas. In November 2005, Robert Hinson went into cardiac arrest in the Missouri State locker room after a game at Arkansas State. Son administered CPR to his father that night.
Robert Hinson had a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted in his chest. He was told he had five to seven years to live. He’s going on 10 years.
Barry Hinson was concerned that reports on ESPN and CNN of his rant at Murray State might have prompted his father’s latest incident.
“I called to let him know about it,” Hinson said. “My dad said, ‘We already know.’ I think my mom and dad enjoyed it more than anything.”
Robert Hinson was released from the hospital on Christmas Day but not before Thomason had died. A doctor was present when he was told about Thomason’s passing.
In the weeks that followed, Hinson’s support team was out in force. Among those who checked on him regularly were his assistants, Kansas coach Bill Self and SIUC athletics director Mario Moccia.
“I told him, ‘If you ever feel you need a little more time, no one is going to think bad of you,’” Moccia said. “I told him, ‘Take whatever time you need to make sure you’re energized and have a clear head about things.’”
Hinson recalls two conversations with Moccia about the possibility of taking off more time. But he couldn’t do it.
Said Hinson: “Mario said, ‘Then you’re going to have to change some things because you’re not the person you need to be.’”
THE RANT AND THE SNOW
Before Christmas, Hinson believes he was the person he always had been. But that didn’t stop the media from running with the story of his comments at Murray State, where he called his players “momma’s boys” and used a flurry of colorful Hinsonisms to describe their poor play.
What he did regret was disparaging remarks he made about Fillyaw. He apologized at a press conference, but there were signs of tension when senior Davante Drinkard questioned Hinson’s tactics on Twitter, calling him “the little man.”
“When it first happened I’m pretty sure a lot of guys were pretty upset,” Jackson said. “I was upset he called us out like that. But we got over it, and we all knew he had a big reason to be mad because we weren’t playing great. He definitely had a point but I felt he could have said it to us.”
Now after every game, someone is assigned to make sure Hinson has his emotions in check before entering the postgame press conference.
However, outside of the program reaction was largely positive. Hinson received a flood of mail, which he said was about 97 percent favorable. People commented that they would want him to coach their son or daughter.
“The rant ended up being positive for our team,” Hinson said. “I think it opened up our eyes. I can’t go anywhere – a high school game, out to recruit, to eat in St. Louis or Kansas City – that people don’t come up and say, ‘I thought that was awesome.’”
Topping off the sequence of events came the night in the snow. Driving home from a loss at Illinois State in one of the worst storms in recent memory, the bus became stuck on the side of the interstate near Champaign.
After several hours, players were taken to a nearby church to spend the night. Hinson and two assistant coaches were driving ahead of the bus and made a stop in Mattoon, Ill., where they also became stuck.
The assistants went to a nearby hotel. Hinson waited in the car, followed a snow plow into town and slept in his car at a convenience store. The wind chill dropped to about minus-40 degrees that night.
“I got some hot chocolate and slept in the back,” he said. “I had all my coats. I got up every hour and a half and turned the car on. That was pretty easy. At least I had a restroom and a place to get stuff.”
And although he wasn’t with the team, Hinson felt it was another moment where the players were able to feed off an unusual situation and use it to their advantage.
“I felt we bonded a lot more,” Jackson said. “That brought us a lot closer. When we had to stay in the church, it made you think ‘We’re in a great position in life right now.’”
Although some may have perceived a rift between coach and players, their relationship runs deeper than that.
Hinson and the team forged a relationship based on hard work through hours spent laboring at his house. When Hinson first purchased the home in 2012, it was a shambles. Players yanked up carpet, painted walls and dug holes. They cut up turf at the SIUC baseball field and transplanted it into Hinson’s yard. The work continued weekend after weekend, and it will resume when the weather cooperates. He is able to pay them by following NCAA guidelines.
“I ask every one of them this when they work for me,” Hinson said. “When we’re on our knees digging holes, I’ll stop and say ‘Look at me.’ I ask them if they understand the value of an education right now. They said ‘Yeah coach, we understand.’”
A CHANGED COACH
Among the lessons Hinson taught his players was how to mix concrete. One of the first spots they used the mixture was to set the first post at Carter’s Park. When he will be able to return, the Hinsons don’t know.
Tiffany is likely to leave Colorado. Tulsa is a more probable landing spot than Carbondale because of the presence of Thomason’s parents and an abundance of friends.
“I did ask her if it was going to be hard to come back to this house,” Angie said. “She said, ‘I don’t know.’”
Despite all of the work and money invested, Hinson has wondered if they will eventually have to sell the house to rid the family of the memory. He still can’t bring himself to enter the room where Thomason slept on Christmas Eve.
“We want our family to come back for holidays, for Christmas,” he said.
Hinson and his wife are slowly regaining some semblance of normalcy. They realize neither Tiffany nor the Thomasons will be able to do so.
He can’t wait for the weather to break, so that he can quit spending time organizing his sock drawer and avoiding movies and TV news that produce a reminder and spark a bout of sorrow.
Hinson needs his yard. That may never change.
But the 52-year-old coach knows that he has.
“I’m not the coach I was to start the season, and I won’t be the same coach ever again,” he said. “I’ll be a different coach the rest of my life.”