It was the first round of the conference tournament. It is one and done time. We had never won a conference tournament game since 1998. Derek was coming off his best year and even though they were playing the higher seed I felt this could be his year. To win a tournament game would validate all his hard work. Statistically speaking, at some point we were going to have to win a first round game and there was no better time than the present. The team won more games than they have in a long time, the players were feeling confident and it was their turn to shine. I was even feeling the mojo. Unfortunately, that night the mojo was on the other team’s side and they came away with the victory. That was it. Season over. The AD would have to let Derek know soon whether or not he was going to be the coach next year. He couldn’t put it off any longer. As a coach you want to go out on your own terms. Derek didn’t necessarily want to stay but he did want the ball in his court. He wanted options. He wanted a job and if his only option was to stay then so be it. I was mad because I drove through a damn blizzard to be there and I was in the car driving to Cincinnati longer than I was in Tulsa. The next day the team took the bus back to school and I hopped on a plane back to Cincinnati. The kids were on spring break so we were just going to stay with my parents for the week before we headed back. It was a Sunday when I arrived back in Cincinnati from Tulsa and I called Derek to let him know I made it back safe. He told me the AD set up a meeting with him tomorrow at 9:00 am. I really wasn’t worried about his job status. Derek had one of the best records that they have had there in years, he is a hard worker, and he is a good man who was well liked around town so I thought this meeting was just protocol. The AD often meets with the staff after the season to evaluate the year and to go over expectations for the upcoming year. I was just curious to what words of wisdom he was going to give Derek. In fact, I thought he was going to praise him for doing such a good job with the program over the last five years. Praise him for taking a program that was in the toilet just five years ago to a program that teams in the league didn’t assume was a guarantee win on their schedule.
I remember it like it was yesterday, I was surprised to see Derek’s number pop up when my phone at 9:15 am since the meeting was scheduled for 9:00 am. All he said was, “We’re out.” I asked him to repeat that. He said, “We’re out. He didn’t renew my contract. He said they wanted to go in a different direction”. Different direction!?! Derek was bringing this program up so does that mean you want it to go down? There he goes with those damn quotes again – “different direction”!! Please, that is the most generic phrase used when firing a coach!
You could bring Pat Riley to coach here and he wouldn’t win. First, before we even mention the athletic department let’s look at the school’s location – the closest airport is an hour and a half away, the biggest city is 3 hours away. There is one high school in town which has only produced one NCAA basketball player in its tenure. Therefore, there is no recruiting base – no big city, one high school, no airport for recruits to fly into, and no transfer prospects. How do you compete with other teams in your league that are located in places like Tulsa, Indianapolis, Detroit, and Kansas City? These teams don’t even have to leave their cities to find talent. They can travel to 50 high schools in a 30 mile radius. They have opportunities to attract transfers who went away to Big League schools and decided they want to be closer to home or want more playing time than they were getting in the bigger conferences. Most of the schools that win in our Conference have transfer players from these bigger schools.
So, before any coach steps on campus, he is already fighting an uphill battle. Now add to the fact that you have one of the three lowest budgets in the league and you only have two assistants and the rest of the league has three assistants. The budget was so low that I remember Derek and his assistants having to switch cars amongst themselves because they were only allowed to put so many miles on their company car. So, if one assistant’s car was getting up in miles he would borrow my husband’s car to go on his next recruiting trip. Then when Derek’s miles were adding up he would borrow the other assistant’s car. It was ridiculous. The funny part is that they didn’t want the staff to fly because of the expense yet they didn’t want them to run up the mileage on their cars. How did the AD want them to recruit – the internet? Finally, if it could get any worse, the men’s basketball team could only practice on their own home floor about forty percent of the time so there was no such thing as home court advantage. For the first semester they could not get into their own gym until 6:00 pm. The reason being that the women’s volleyball team was still in season the first semester and there was no other practice facility that would accommodate the women’s teams. When you have three sports – volleyball, women’s basketball, and men’s basketball – struggling to get practice time on one court you would think the administration would do anything to try and accommodate these Division I sports. It seems they wanted to accommodate everyone on campus but the athletic teams. The teams were prohibited from practicing from 9-12 in the morning because the administration considered this the academic part of the day and they wanted the athletes in class. Even if Derek managed to have his players schedule all their classes from 11:00 am until 3:00 pm they would not let him schedule a practice from 8:30 am – 10:30 am. Then, from 12 – 1 pm no collegiate athletic team was allowed on the main gym floor in order to allow the sacred “noon ball” to take place. “Noon ball” is an hour a day when any faculty or alumni can come and play pick-up games. I am all for exercise at lunch time but why does it have to be on the arena floor. They had a perfectly good recreation center right next door that had three courts available. Therefore, the gym floor was not available to the athletic teams until 1:00 pm. Not only could they not get on their floor until the afternoon, ultimately, the reason they never could practice on their home court was because any major event that was taking place at the University or in the community was held at the arena – graduations, concerts, guest speakers, high school tournaments, band performances, art shows, agricultural show, etc. For that reason, the men’s basketball team could be found practicing at the local high school, that is, if there wasn’t a high school game that night!
I think what irritated me the most was that by not renewing Derek’s contract it made it look like it was my husband who failed. But he was set up to fail. The athletic administration is the one who is failing. Since the AD likes quotes so much, how about, “You can only work with what you have”, or “Whether you like it or not, money builds programs not unsubstantial quotes”. I made up that last one.
Five years ago Derek came in with guns blazing, thinking with hard work he could turn this program around and I was right there with him. I had dreams of him turning the program around and becoming a Cinderella team in the NCAA tournament. I thought he would become a young, successful sought after head coach that would get his pick of schools to coach. In the end, we both left deflated. It is hard to put your whole heart and soul into something that unbeknownst to you, was destined to fail from the beginning. I know Derek felt he did as much as anyone could do with the resources given to him. He did the best he could but no one likes to be fired even if it is a dead end job. No one wants to feel like a failure. I guess we should have seen the writing on the wall with the AD’s friendly little e-mail in the beginning of the year and his unwillingness to talk about a contract extension in the middle of the year. I am sure he had his mind made up before the season started that he was not going to renew Derek’s contract. To be honest, the AD did us a favor by not renewing my husband’s contract. The job was not doing anything for his career and our kids were getting older and needed to be in a place where there were more opportunities. A small town was a great place to live while the kids were very young but our oldest was turning ten and we wanted endless possibilities for our children. This town didn’t offer endless possibilities.