If money was no object at all, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State would not have to think twice about firing their head men’s basketball coaches at the end of this season.
Brian Gregory and Travis Ford work hard and field competitive teams in tough, deep conferences. Georgia Tech consistently plays ACC opponents close, and Oklahoma State — even when struggling — gives Kansas fits in Gallagher-Iba Arena, as was the case earlier this month. The Yellow Jackets and Cowboys provide an honest effort. It’s not as though these teams mail it in on most nights or any night.
They just don’t perform well when they need to, which is something they used to do.
Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State played a thrilling Final Four national semifinal in 2004:
In the previous 15 seasons, both schools made other Final Four appearances (1990 for Tech, 1995 for State), won conference tournaments, and made multiple other appearances in the Sweet 16. Bobby Cremins and Eddie Sutton made these programs established names in the world of college basketball.
Gregory hasn’t even made the NIT, let alone the NCAA, in his first three seasons in Atlanta with the Jackets. Travis Ford, now in his eighth season in Stillwater, has won a total of one NCAA tournament game — seven years ago, in 2009. The Cowboys are virtually certain to miss the Big Dance this season.
These programs both need to hit the reset button with fresh voices in the sideline huddle.
Yet, this thing called money stands in the way of an easy solution at both schools, the issue we’re going to tackle in this piece.
It’s not disputed that Georgia Tech’s finances are an absolute disaster. Given the amount of money Georgia Tech has had to pay to former coach Paul Hewitt (the coach of the 2004 Final Four runner-up), the school is not in a position to offer an especially lucrative contract to Gregory’s successor.
Let’s turn to Stillwater: Oklahoma State has already committed quite a lot of coin to Travis Ford. Therefore, it’s understandable that the Cowboys can’t part with him right away, as much as they might want to pull the trigger on a move.
The question is conceptually simple but hard to answer on a substantive level: What can these schools do?
One answer — an answer which is not commonly sought, typically chosen, or widely hailed — is this: The Clay Helton solution (minus the act of making him the permanent coach in a much larger sense).
Players on the USC football team wanted interim boss Clay Helton to be their full-time coach late last year, after Steve Sarkisian had to step down due to health and behavioral issues. USC athletic director Pat Haden chose to make Helton the permanent coach. The move was naturally well-received by players, and in the short run, that doesn’t seem so bad. Helton will have the unreserved support of his players. He’ll have a happy and harmonious locker room in 2016.
Here’s the thing about Helton and other coaches — football or basketball — in his situation: For one season, serving as the head coach might be just what the program needs in order to build a bridge toward long-term stability in the future. The “one-year interim” — meaning a coach who isn’t just the interim after a previous coach leaves or is fired in the middle of a season, but who gets one full year with the team the next season — strikes me as a perfect way for a program to get a fresh voice at considerable short-term cost savings.
I wrote last November that USC could have hired Helton on a trial basis for one season. The University of Minnesota could have done something similar with Tracy Claeys, given that previous head coach Jerry Kill — like Sarkisian — left under very uncommon circumstances. The assistant who had the trust of his players could have taken a full season to audition for the job at a greatly reduced cost. This is how a program could have saved some dough; given the “one-year interim” a fair shake; maintained continuity within the program; kept the players happy; and set the table for a more splashy hire the following season if the one-year interim didn’t quite work out.
Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State could both have an assistant handle the 2016-2017 season. The schools could pay that assistant a modest rate with the promise that the season would be an audition for the permanent job the following year, with the possibility of a competitive (read: substantially greater) salary. They could reasonably claim that they sought change, but not to the point of disruption or financial recklessness. They could say they listened to fans by clearing out the previous coaches, but they could claim responsibility in terms of not thinking they could legitimately hire a name coach.
What will Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State do in a few months? They don’t have endless options, but they can think creatively.