In-season changes becoming more common

January, 29, 2010
UNC Wilmington reassigned fourth-year coach Benny Moss on Thursday to bring the number of coaches forced out this season to five.

The numbers are likely to grow in the coming weeks before the end of the regular season.

We're going to have to accept that this is no longer abnormal. It's a trend that's not going away.

Earlier in the week, ESPN's "Outside the Lines" held a roundtable discussion with Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto, former coaches and current ESPN analysts Steve Lavin and Fran Fraschilla, and me.

The purpose of the discussion was to look at the four previous head-coaching firings, three at lower-level schools -- Penn, Dartmouth and Fordham -- and one in a power-six job at DePaul. But there's a consistent theme at all levels. As Boeheim said toward the end of our session, "The bottom line is you've got to win."

There are other factors that athletic directors have used before to explain coaching dismissals, like a disconnect with the players and fans, and a growing malaise around the program. But unless there were NCAA violations, or a legal or ethical issue, the reason for a move of this nature is almost always the win-loss record.

I had never been a fan of removing a head coach in midseason or even a few weeks prior to the end of the season, as was the case in recent seasons with the likes of LSU's John Brady, Alabama's Mark Gottfried and Georgia's Dennis Felton. The concern, of course, is what kind of message would a firing send to the players. But to put our heads down and ignore the business side of this is naive. Let's call it what it is at all levels in Division I: The goal is to make the NCAA tournament, draw attention to the school and improve attendance, as well as bring more money into the athletic department. At some point, maybe, that could lead to more applications for admission.

If the coach is going to ultimately be fired anyway, then it's no longer necessary to maintain the facade of what he may need to do to keep his job. If an athletic director and a president have made up their minds, then why put off the inevitable? Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley did that when he moved on Ron Zook in football. Foley told me that if you know you're going to get rid of a coach, then what's the point of waiting until March 10? You can still have the coach finish the season if he wants. But more importantly, the athletic director can pursue a new coach without having to be unethical.

"You're not being dishonest," Foley said. "What's the point in waiting? What does that get you?"

Foley said that if something isn't working, then you owe it to the institution to make a change.

Current Long Beach State coach Dan Monson, who was pushed out at Minnesota after a handful of games, said removing the coach during the season may not be the right thing for the players, but for the coach there is relief.

"You can move on and start figuring out what you're going to do," said Monson, who landed the Long Beach State job without having to sit out a full season of coaching. "You can get an early jump on everything before being fired in April. Yes, it's hard on the players."

Former Indiana coach Mike Davis said something similar. He said he made the decision in February 2006 to leave IU at the end of that season to dilute the negativity that was surrounding the program and suffocating the players. Indiana still made the NCAA tournament, and Davis was able to digest his situation and ultimately landed the UAB job once Mike Anderson made the move from the Blazers to Missouri. Davis is currently enjoying his best season as a coach. He's back home in his native state and enjoying his life. Meanwhile, Monson said he hasn't been this content since he was at Gonzaga in the late '90s.

Tracy Webster, DePaul's interim coach, said the players weren't feeling the burden of whether Jerry Wainwright would be retained. Webster joined DePaul in the offseason after Wainwright had to gut his staff and add a much more Chicago-based crew of assistant coaches.

Webster said the players were aware of the situation, but they wanted to win regardless of what was happening with Wainwright. He said the adjustment has been smooth and the support from Lenti Ponsetto unwavering.

"I'm sure the kids understand the dynamic of college coaching and college sports," Webster said. "But it was never addressed that we had to win [for Wainwright to stay]."

When a coach's job security is in jeopardy, recruiting can be hindered by the uncertainty, just like it could be in a situation with an interim coach. Webster said he hasn't stopped recruiting.

"We have to recruit like we're going to be here because anything can happen," said Webster, who is from Harvey, Ill., played at Wisconsin and coached at Illinois as an assistant. "Right now, we tell all the families that we hopefully will be here next year."

Webster's charge is to make sure the Blue Demons are competitive and can get a breakthrough win or two. You could see the euphoria when DePaul snapped a nearly two-season-long Big East drought with a home win over Marquette last week.

"Who wouldn't want a Big East job?" Webster said. "It was good here before; why can't it be good again? If you can get guys to come here, then others will follow. I truly believe you can win here. But you've got to be in the trenches. It's not a 9-to-5 situation."

Webster might be a long shot for the job, but the expectations for the rest of this season are low -- like they were at the beginning of the season. Wainwright was probably not going to last the season unless the Blue Demons made a remarkable turnaround. So you could argue that Lenti Ponsetto could have made the move last spring when DePaul was 0-18 in the Big East regular season.

The same could have been true with Fordham, since it was clear Dereck Whittenburg's team wasn't going to be a contender in the Atlantic 10.Similarly, Penn athletic director Steve Bilsky had given coach Glenn Miller something of an ultimatum to make things better, so when the Quakers were struggling early, Bilsky made the move to fire Miller during the school's holiday break. Dartmouth was another program that wasn't heading north, either. All of this makes the UNC Wilmington decision less unique.

When it comes to job security in Division I, you have to win or else you're out. That shouldn't come as a shock, but in a country with less patience than ever, no one should be surprised by another dismissal. Will it come at Rutgers or somewhere else? It's still unknown. Some athletic directors don't want the disruption now but are probably still going behind someone's back to look at a replacement. As Foley said, being more transparent probably helps all who are involved.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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