Follow the bouncing coach Increased pressures at all levels spark a season of change

Men's college basketball preview

November 13, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

They are supposed to be the constants, the anchors holding '' firm in college basketball's swirling sea of change. In a sport in which players often leave before their eligibility runs out, the stability of the coaches becomes the focal point upon which alumni dollars are raised and television ratings generated.

But that stability is being threatened heading into the 1997-98 season.

More than a fifth of the 306 schools with Division I programs will have new head coaches. The recent reassignment of Liberty coach Jeff Meyer brings the number of coaching changes to 63 since the end of last season. Many left for better jobs, others were fired and a few, including a legend named Dean Smith, simply retired.

The number of changes -- representing a shade more than 20 percent -- is the second-largest since the NCAA began keeping records on coaching moves in 1950. The only year when there were more changes was 1987, when 66 of 290 Division I teams switched coaches. In contrast, as recently as 1994, there were only 33 changes among 301 schools.

The two winningest programs of all time found themselves in the market after Rick Pitino left Kentucky for the Boston Celtics last spring and Smith, in a surprise announcement, left North Carolina for the golf course last month, replaced by longtime assistant Bill Guthridge.

Another high-profile program, Michigan, recently removed Steve Fisher for alleged NCAA improprieties after an eight-year stint that included three Final Fours and one national championship.

But this coaching carousel is a trend that seems to afflict programs at every tier of Division I.

Some coaches wound up with better jobs -- albeit interim positions -- despite not being rehired at their former schools. After Brian Ellerbe did not return to Loyola for his fourth season by what was called "mutual consent" with athletic director Joe Boylan, he was hired as an assistant at Michigan and later was named to direct the Wolverines this season. Ditto for Don Newman, who went 20-114 in five years at Sacramento State and is now coaching Arizona State after Bill Frieder was fired.

Why are more coaches being fired, particularly at the middle and lower level on which most schools in Division I reside? There are myriad reasons, some as simple as a won-lost record or not adhering to NCAA rules; others are more complex, such as not building the fan support needed to raise money that helps defray the cost of the school's nonrevenue sports, or being perceived ++ as not fitting in with the community or the philosophy of the athletic program.

"Where it has changed the most is at the lower levels of Division I," said Virginia athletic director Terry Holland. "The pressures that were normally reserved for only the top 60 programs in the country have been passed down. It's a lot easier for athletic directors to hire a new coach and give him an extra $30,000 or $40,000 than fix an entire program for hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Holland, who was previously the athletic director at Davidson, said that he was able to stick with Bob McKillop for several losing years because expectations were not high at the small school outside Charlotte, N.C. McKillop finally turned things around. But others were not as fortunate and their athletic director not as patient as Holland, a former coach at Davidson and Virginia.

Terry Truax, who in 14 years took Towson State twice to the NCAA tournament, was fired by new athletic director Wayne Edwards last March after a 9-19 season. He was told that the school wanted to go "in a new direction." Edwards wound up hiring Mike Jaskulski, an assistant at Miami. Truax said he understands the pitfalls of a profession in which most Division I coaches make more than $100,000 a year and many between $350,000 and $500,000.

"The coaches have created their own monster," said Truax, who recently was offered a job coaching a professional team in Seoul, South Korea. "Dean Smith said that most coaches are overpaid. When you have a $500,000 job, you might do certain things to protect that lifestyle, like cut corners when it comes to recruiting. And you also have athletic administrators who start to feel the pressure to generate money."

Truax had tried to take advantage of his success and came close to leaving Towson a couple of times. But coaches sometimes stay too long. Others leave before they're going to get fired, as was the case with Pat Kennedy's going to DePaul from Florida State after several run-ins with new athletic director Dave Hart. When a request for a contract extension was turned down, Kennedy left despite having three years remaining.

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