Minnesota fired a basketball coach, Tubby Smith, whose teams achieved five 20-plus-win seasons in six years. If that’s not extraordinary enough, consider the firing came at a school that accomplished only 10 other 20-win seasons in its 118-year history, and all of those came amid academic fraud, paying players, a ticket-selling scandal and an almost cartoon-like 100 NCAA violations in one particularly horrific four-year span. (Thank you, Bill Musselman.)
UCLA just fired a coach, Ben Howland, who went to three consecutive Final Fours. Now I realize that Howland hasn’t gone to a Final Four since way back in 2008 (you know, shortly after the Big Bang). But does anybody in Westwood realize that no other UCLA coach has gone to three consecutive Final Fours, save a man named John Wooden?
So much for lunacy and lost perspective in college sports being limited to SEC football.
This can be one of the best and worst times of the year. There are few sports events better than the NCAA tournament, which culminates with next week’s Final Four. We get storylines such as Harvard and Florida Gulf Coast College. These are storylines that don’t exist in college football because the structure doesn’t allow for the meteoric rise of a small obscure school in the postseason on a major stage.
But the firings of Smith and Howland reaffirm it’s also one of the worst times. The emotions of the tournament affect not only fans, but administrators, decision-makers who shouldn’t be affected by those who live to scream the loudest through social media and sports-talk radio.
Count Michigan State coach Tom Izzo among the stunned when he heard of Smith’s firing. “It’ll be a loss for this league and a loss for college basketball if he doesn’t stay in it,” Izzo said. “He’s got integrity beyond belief and let me tell ya, he’s been in some tough situations. I’ll close it up by saying it bothers me, saddens me.”
The knee-jerk firings and hirings are driven by the tournament. Previously unknown coaches such as Florida Gulf Coast’s Andy Enfield are suddenly cast as everybody’s savior. Nobody knows who Enfield will close a deal with after this tournament, but you can wager one will be Bekins.
Norwood Teague, the athletic director at Minnesota, suddenly believes the Gophers can do better than Smith. Smith won and didn’t cheat. He beat UCLA by 20 points in the first round before losing to Florida (possibly a Final Four team). He succeeded despite playing and recruiting against Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State — in hoops, not hockey.
Teague is going after Shaka Smart, whom he hired at Virginia Commonwealth.
I’m sure there are guys who went to middle school with Kate Upton who think they’ve got a chance with her, too.
UCLA is high-profile. It could land Smart or another good coach, but firing Howland is nonsensical. Howland brought in the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class and was 25-10 this season. He also didn’t cheat. The early tournament exit doesn’t suggest the foundation under Pauley Pavilion is crumbling. Somewhere in heaven, Wooden is covering his eyes.
It’s one thing to shoot high. It’s another to be delusional.
Smith and Howland will make a lot of money to walk away. This is how it works on campuses, between all of the sound bites on academic reform and the mission of college athletics.
The “hot” tournament coaches often don’t pan out. There was a time when everybody wanted Jeff Capel after he emerged at VCU. He went to Oklahoma, got raises, even went to the Elite Eight. Then came the descent and the firing. He’s now back at Duke as an assistant.
Buzz Peterson made a name for himself after a few great years at Appalachian State and Tulsa. He was hired by Tennessee. He flopped. (Peterson just finished his second 10-20 season at North Carolina Wilmington.) Auburn pounced on Tony Barbee after he took Texas-El Paso to the tournament in 2010. So far, so feh (12-38 in SEC).
Mark Fox is getting criticized because he has taken Georgia to the tournament once in four years. But athletic director Greg McGarity deserves some praise for not caving. Fox didn’t inherit Valhalla.
Few events can match the tournament for excitement and drama. But too often, the ripple effect is lost perspective.