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Robyn Norwood / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Postseason is no haven for coaches

March 14, 2007|Robyn Norwood

Make the NCAA tournament, or you're fired.

Or how about this? Make the NCAA tournament, but you're fired anyway.

That's what happened to Louis Orr at Seton Hall last year, little more than a week after his team lost to Wichita State by 20 points in a first-round game.

It could happen to somebody else soon.

Larry Reynolds has guided Long Beach State to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1995, but he is in the final year of his contract.

The silence from the administration has been deafening.

Coach Stan Heath supposedly was going to be out at Arkansas unless the Razorbacks made the NCAA field.

But the Razorbacks are in, perhaps undeservedly, after they made the title game of the Southeastern Conference tournament and a time-strapped NCAA selection committee penciled them in even though they ended up losing to Florida by 21 points.

Even Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith, who won the NCAA championship in his first season in Lexington in 1998, seems to be on thin ice if the Wildcats lose to Villanova in the first round. But Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart, whose earlier remarks fueled the speculation, endorsed Smith this week, though he stopped short of saying he would definitely be the coach next season.

It sometimes seems as if the NCAA tournament has become the be-all and end-all for college basketball.

Should not making it be enough to cost someone his job?

And should making it be enough to save one?

Both decisions can hang on the result of one game, or one free throw, or how the NCAA selection committee decides to sort the wheat from the chaff for the final berths.

Jim Haney, executive director of the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches and a former coach at Oregon, said coaches accept both realities.

"I think they all recognize that if you make the tournament, that's a significant accomplishment and has the ability to add to your job security," he said.

"But it's not always the case."

The truth is, some coaching situations are like bad relationships: Both people might be lovely partners for somebody else.

Sometimes, a coach is fired just as he is turning the corner.

Plenty of people thought they had seen enough after a former Army coach who reached the National Invitation Tournament in his first season on his new job finished 10-17 and 11-17 the next two.

Three years later, Mike Krzyzewski guided Duke to the first of 10 Final Four appearances.

The pressure has long been intense at major-college powers. Now, with the success of Gonzaga and George Mason, it is trickling down.

In the West Coast Conference this season, Dick Davey was pressured to announce his pending retirement at midseason -- in part, he said, because boosters who no longer wanted him were concerned that Santa Clara might make a run to the NCAA tournament and make it more difficult to push him aside.

The Broncos almost did, losing to Gonzaga in the title game of the WCC tournament.

"The Gonzaga Syndrome has affected a lot of coaches in our league, I think," Davey said near the end of the season, explaining that administrators expect other programs to be able to duplicate Gonzaga's NCAA tournament success, helping the school reap a financial windfall and the sort of national publicity that drives up student applications.

The Gonzaga Syndrome may have claimed another victim last week when San Diego fired Brad Holland, the former UCLA standout who took the Toreros to the NCAA tournament in 2003 and had only two losing seasons in 13 years.

Ky Snyder, the San Diego athletic director, told reporters he made the move because he would like the Toreros to compete in "the upper quartile of our conference."

In the 16-team Big East Conference, that would mean finishing in the top four.

In the eight-team WCC, that means the top two.

"There's a monster up in the Pacific Northwest that wins our league every year and that's been hard for all of us to overcome," Holland told reporters his last day on the job.

Making the NCAA tournament -- and for some programs, advancing past the first or second round -- often seems paramount.

But it isn't everything, which helps explain how a coach can get his walking papers anyway.

"It's all about the political realities of the place, but it is more difficult to fire a coach who has led his team to the tournament," Haney said.

Those realities can include attendance, whether a coach is embraced by fans, and whether the coach has strong backers in the administration.

Holland was working for an athletic director who took over less than four years ago, and the Toreros drew an average of 2,224 spectators in the 5,100-seat Jenny Craig Pavilion, an appealing six-year-old arena.

Reynolds, the Long Beach State coach who is in the fifth year of his contract and didn't win more than 10 games any of the first three, has a new boss in Athletic Director Vic Cegles.

The 49ers play in the 5,000-seat Walter Pyramid, which opened in 1994 amid the excitement after Long Beach reached the NCAA tournament in 1993 under coach Seth Greenberg.

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