Things are not well in Foggy Bottom.
Until he was fired Friday, Mike Lonergan had been the men’s basketball coach at George Washington for five seasons, leading the Colonials to the NIT championship this past spring.
In July, the Washington Post ran an expose on Lonergan’s program, featuring numerous allegations of verbal and emotional abuse from George Washington University men’s basketball players, as well as accusations that the university wasn’t taking the players seriously.
After each of the past four seasons, three players have transferred out of GW, bringing the total to 13 in Lonergan’s five years. Over the past two seasons, according to people familiar with the situation, the school has fielded complaints from players about Lonergan. While university administrators addressed the concerns with Lonergan, according to a school official, there have been no public consequences.
For some players, leaving GW represented the best of a handful of ineffectual recourses. They could transfer, which would mean leaving their school of choice and being forced to sit out a year of competition per NCAA rules. They could entrust campus officials to scrutinize Lonergan’s behavior, which, to their understanding, already had happened and resulted in no significant change. Or they could stay and play for a coach whose behavior they viewed as bizarre and abusive.
That second paragraph nicely encapsulates the issues faced by college athletes beholden to their scholarships. Many did choose to transfer, and indeed that’s not all that uncommon in the current basketball climate. (Nor is it uncommon among college students in general.) But as the Post noted, these transfers were beyond the norm:
The three most recent departures this offseason leave only one player remaining from the five-member class recruited just two years ago. The transfer rate across college basketball has skyrocketed in recent seasons, more than doubling in the past five years to more than 700 players, according to research by ESPN. But players said the rash of departures at GW stems from a factor other than desire for more playing time or a better chance at success: Lonergan.
“A lot of kids transfer because they have delusions of grandeur,” said one former member of the GW men’s basketball staff. “Nobody transferred from GW with delusions of grandeur. They just transferred because they hated him. They couldn’t stand another second of him.”
That whole story is well worth a read; it paints Lonergan as insecure, inappropriate, and paranoid. The story prompted GW to bring in an outside investigator, and as CBS Sports reports, that investigation unearthed some more unsavory details:
Multiple players and all of Lonergan’s staff were interviewed on multiple occasions by an outside law firm (Saul Ewing), according to a source. In those interviews, some players confirmed disparaging comments Lonergan made about other players on the team, in addition to comments made about at least one opposing player.
Per a source, one of the questions asked to GW players was if Lonergan referred to former Seton Hall guard Derrick Gordon as “the gay kid.” Players confirmed that had happened. Gordon broke barriers in 2014 by becoming the first active men’s college basketball player to openly declare his homosexuality. George Washington played Seton Hall last season, Gordon’s graduate year with SHU.
So, we have allegations of Lonergan abusing his own players, making disparaging and lewd remarks about his own athletic director, and throwing in some homophobia towards an opposing player on top of it all. It’s unsurprising that GW made the move to fire Lonergan on Friday. There’s no other recourse, despite whatever mild success he’d managed on the court.
Lonergan sees it differently, and is reportedly now suing the school for wrongful termination.
Everyone’s familiar with the standard tough love coaching demeanor. Various coaches tip the balance to different ends of that spectrum, of course, and it’s true that a few of basketball’s most celebrated coaches have also been a few of the most difficult men in sports. (Hi, Bob Knight!)
But there are lines that can’t be crossed, and it appears Lonergan crossed most of them, multiple times.
As is normally the case with talented but troubled NCAA coach, expect him to land another job within three years.
[Washington Post/CBS Sports]