Do you know how you know you’ve made a poor choice as an athletic director when it comes to hiring and firing a head coach for a sports program?
Neither do I, but I’m willing to bet that having the team’s best player put you on blast on Twitter is a reasonable indicator, especially when the program in question is your lone nationally-televised, revenue-generating sport.
O.K, we can debate whether Erick Neal or Kevin Hervey was the team’s best player, but neither of them is thrilled about this move.
And what of this move? Did Scott Cross fail to have success as a head coach? Let’s check the boxes
- 225 wins, most in program history (second place is 179)
- Five 20-win seasons out of 12 for a program that had two 20-win seasons in the previous 47
- 72-33 record in the past three seasons for a program whose previous three-year best was 52-34
Last year the Mavericks won the Sun Belt regular season title, and this year they were a win away from the Big Dance, after having gone in Cross’ second season at the helm. In his 12 seasons, UTA had a postseason record of 0-1 in the NCAA Tournament and 2-2 in the NIT. Before him? Their only postseason appearance in program history was an opening-round home loss to South Alabama in the 1981 NIT.
You get the idea.
This program was a mediocre Southland Conference team before Cross, and they won their first-ever regular season title three years before his arrival (with a whole bunch of years nowhere near the top). Cross won that title in his sixth year and the team’s last in the Southland, and won another in the Sun Belt.
So why on God’s green Earth would you fire a coach that has brought you unprecedented success? There aren’t many reasons.
Money is one, but I highly doubt that UT-Arlington fired Cross halfway through a four-year contract extension that was paying him $250,000 a year because they couldn’t afford him. We already covered performance, which couldn’t really be it.
Baker and Cross have had a tumultuous relationship since the summer of 2016, a source said, and it’s only deteriorated since then. Baker was never satisfied by the consecutive 20-win seasons and conference championship, wanting Cross to match the nation’s top mid-major programs.
Even after Cross led UTA to the best season in program history last season the coach’s end-of-year meeting with Baker didn’t go well. Voices were raised amid Baker telling Cross he wanted UTA to be the “next Gonzaga.”
That’s just woefully shortsighted on the part of Baker if it’s accurate. Gonzaga has literally spent decades becoming Gonzaga – a basketball power in a location without a ton of competition that has used the right hire and years of continuous success to become a big deal. Know what started Gonzaga’s run to who they are today? Consecutive twenty-win seasons, something UTA had never done until recently.
The problem here is that Baker, who was hired the same day the Mavericks opened College Park Center and was the second signature on the last two contract extensions given to Cross, supposedly wants to “hire his own guy.” If this is true, then Baker is blind to the fact that in order for this hire to work, he needs to bring in someone who will be more successful than Cross.
Baker said he felt he needed “new leadership to match my philosophy and match what my dream is,” which is playing on the sport’s biggest postseason stage.
“We want to be that Loyola,” Baker said. “We want to be UMBC. We want to be the SFAs. Those schools are getting there, so we want to be there.”
Jim, listen to me man.
Loyola just reached the tournament for the first time in 33 seasons, and this year was only their eighth winning season and third with 20+ wins in that time.
UMBC just posted their second consecutive 20-win season after only managing five winning seasons and one tournament appearance in their 30-year history prior to that.
These are programs that – outside of their tournament appearance this season – have been less successful in the last twenty years than your program has been in the last six years that you’ve been there.
The Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks watched Danny Kaspar leave for Texas State after spending 13 seasons building their program from twenty wins every three years to twenty wins per year (but 0-1 in the NCAA Tournament). Then Brad Underwood took over and SFA just went to the tournament for the fifth time in the last six years despite another coaching change since then.
I’m sure you’d like to be the next Stephen F. Austin; but that means hiring a coach that’s an improvement on what you had, which could be tough.
Winningest Sun Belt basketball programs, last three seasons:
- UTA: 72-33 (.686)
- ULL: 67-33 (.670)
- Georgia State: 60-38 (.612)
- Georgia Southern: 53-44 (.546)
So who are you going to get to replace a coach who was the best in your conference the last three seasons? Let’s not forget that next season, UTA will be replacing their entire starting five, and the only returnees are their junior sixth man, their senior seventh man, and a junior who has been the last guy off the bench two years in a row.
Firing the most successful coach in your program’s history right when the roster turns over completely is a great way to wind up torpedoing your program into single-digit-win oblivion, and that would be hard to recover from. He’ll also need an impeccable hire to avoid it.
Maybe Baker’s UT connections give him some ins we don’t know about when it comes to potential coaching hires, but the odds are good that his best case scenario is a hire that eventually pays enough dividends to make fans forget this change. Even then he’ll still be despised, especially when Cross goes on to be successful elsewhere.