Travis Mays can not put into words what the University of Texas, or basketball for that matter, did for him.
"You have to understand, coming from Florida, I'm a first-generation college graduate, so the University of Texas taught me so many things," Mays said. "It taught me about myself, how to communicate, how to work with others. The growth that I had from my freshman year until graduating was incredible. And it was from the support system that was at UT."
Now beginning his fifth season as the head coach at SMU, Mays and the Mustangs will tip off the season Wednesday against the Vic Schaefer's Longhorns at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin. It will be a welcome reunion for the fifth-year head coach.
"You have to get excited," Mays said. "Covid has made it extremely difficult to put together a non-conference schedule. We're fortunate to be in the state of Texas. There's a lot of schools here. We were trying to be as cautious and careful as we possibly could, meaning we wanted to stay off the plane as much as we could. Once we got it solidified, you have to get excited, because it gives us an opportunity to play against one of the best coaches, one of the best programs in country. That being my alma mater, I get my team excited to play at Texas."
It will also bring back the memories, as it does every year Mays comes back to the Forty Acres and steps inside the Erwin Center — memories of him leading the Texas men's basketball team in a tight game against a Southwest Conference rival, of the hundreds of games he coached on the women's staff, of becoming the first in his family to graduate from college.
He also got a chance to not only see, but play a role in building a championship-caliber basketball program, something that would help him as he pursued a career in coaching.
When Mays came to Austin, the men's basketball team actually trailed Jody Conradt's women's team in attendance, thanks in part to the fact that the program had not reached the NCAA tournament since 1979.
"Coming in my freshman year, we would have crowds to where the women's team had a bigger crowd than we had," Mays remembered. "At that time, Jody Conradt was the head coach and the women's program was playing extremely well and was supported by the city of Austin and across the country. Our men's program didn't have that many fans.
"One of the proudest moments was when the style of play changed, because there was a coaching change and we started to get those fans that came and watch, and get excited about it, to where we filled the Erwin Center. A lot of people say, 'Well Travis, you scored a lot of points, broke this record and that record, why is that a memorable moment?' It meant the program was changing. It's hard to explain, but when we knew that we were putting a product on the floor that people appreciated it and enjoyed."
"Scored a lot of points" is an understatement. Mays is currently second in program history in all-time scoring with 2,279 points, and remains the only Longhorn to score more than 700 points in a single season.
Those teams of which Mays was a part began to lay the foundation for the success of the program decades later. Players like Kevin Durant and TJ Ford may have never set foot at Texas if it was not for players like Mays deciding to take their talents to a losing program, with the hopes of turning it around.
"Every student-athlete who dreams of going to play college athletics ... their dream is playing in front of a sold-out crowd. We were able to establish that in my final two years there. We were a three-pointer shy of beating Arkansas at Reed Arena to go to the Final Four. But we were able to make that program attractive enough to get guys like Terrance Richards, TJ Ford — the list goes on and on and on after that. To me, I feel connected, a part, always."
As an 18-year-old, in a new state, playing at a new level, getting adjusted to more challenging academics, Mays grew and developed at Texas.
"When I talk about leaving my neighborhood that I grew up in for 17, 18 years, that period was crucial to the next 40 years of your life," Mays said. "The foundation that you get in those four years are going to solidify so many things that you do and the direction you go in."
That direction he went in was coaching. When he finally hung up the jersey and retired from 10 years in professional basketball, spending time in the NBA and overseas, there was no question about what he wanted to do. He certainly was not going to leave the game of basketball behind. Inspired by his high school coach, and countless others under whom he played and with whom he coached, Mays ventured into the world of coaching, ready to make an impact that went beyond the court.
"I tell people all the time, [basketball] saved my life in a lot of aspects," Mays recalled. "It gave me vision, kept me from getting involved with the wrong kind. It gave me so many opportunities that I would not have been able to see. Growing up, it was one of the those things that ... was a natural fit for me, to give back to the game I love and a game that gave so much to me."
Regardless of Wednesday's result, Mays said he is simply happy to return to the Forty Acres as a head coach. In four seasons at the helm of the program, Mays never has gotten the chance to coach in the Erwin Center as the opposing head coach. Of course, that will all change the day before Thanksgiving. Mays said he and his squad will embrace this opportunity.
"You don't really know the identity of your team until they're put against competition," said Mays. "I think our first game will be against as good of competition as we can find anywhere in the country."