Men's Basketball, Column

Midseason Firings Have No Place in Sports, Especially at the Collegiate Level

John Calipari isn’t getting fired anytime soon.

The Kentucky men’s basketball head coach has led the program to four of the last six Final Fours, its first National Championship since 1998, and 238 wins. Oh yeah, and he has churned out 20 first-round NBA draftees—three of which were selected with the No. 1 overall pick.

Not to mention that his Wildcats have won four in a row and currently sit just outside of the AP Top 10.

You wouldn’t have been able to tell on Saturday.

Following Kentucky’s comeback victory over SEC rival Georgia, Calipari sounded off in the postgame press conference about “what bothers [him] in this profession.” He began with a monologue concerning coaching criticism, supporting Bulldogs head coach Mark Fox, who has received backlash for his team’s inability to close out games this season. But then Calipari took to a larger issue: midseason firings.

You know I’m putting in my contract,” Calipari said. “You can fire me at midseason, but you’re gonna have to pay me $3 million.”

The statement stemmed from Thursday’s canning of North Carolina State head coach, Mark Gottfried. As Calipari himself pointed out, Gottfried took the Wolfpack to the NCAA Tournament four out his six years at the helm, including two Sweet Sixteen runs—something that hadn’t been done since 2005.

But just like most midseason firings, prior accomplishments weren’t enough to counterbalance unfulfilled expectations. After Gottfried recruited Dennis Smith Jr., the No. 1 point guard in last year’s ESPN 100, all eyes were on the Wolfpack to make a move in the ACC and finally edge closer to its neighbors, Duke and North Carolina.

That didn’t happen.

Despite getting off to an 11-2 start, and recording signature wins against then-No. 21 Virginia Tech and Duke, NC State’s success was tainted—the team dropped games to Miami, Wake Forest, and even Boston College. It was also short-lived. The Wolfpack have only won one game since they pulled off the upset in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Realistically, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Three of their top-five scorers are underclassmen. And the only thing that Smith Jr. guaranteed when he signed with the team was media attention, not wins. After all, Ben Simmons—2015’s Gatorade National Player of the Year, the 2016 SEC Freshman of the Year, and the most recent No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft—couldn’t even lead Louisiana State to the dance.   

Calipari knows firsthand that melding a group of teenagers into a cohesive unit is a tall order.

“He [Gottfried] has good players, but they’re young,” Calipari said. “They’re like my team. It’s hard to do this with young guys.”

Sure, right now it appears that Calipari is just blowing smoke. But the Hall of Fame coach is speaking from experience. Calipari’s 2012 National Championship team was littered with NBA talent. And with a blink of an eye, it was all gone.

Calipari was forced to unite freshmen Willie Cauley-Stein, Archie Goodwin, and Alex Poythress in a matter of months. To top that off, ESPN 100’s then-No. 1 recruit, Nerlens Noel, was sidelined with an injury. The team finished 21-12 and was bounced in the first round of tournament play—the NIT Tournament, that is.

But in a year’s time, Calipari constructed a team that was contending for a national title. And he suggests that perhaps the same thing could have happened to Gottfried. Instead, Gottfried will have to finish out the season, knowing that he’ll have to find somewhere else to work next year.

It’s a reality that numerous coaches in the sports world have faced of late.

In the past five years alone, 17 NBA head coaches have been axed midseason. Last season was a notable warzone. By February, five coaches (Kevin McHale, David Blatt, Derek Fisher, Lionel Hollins, and Jeff Hornacek) were already gone. Their replacements?

A mere 93-125—a mark that looks awfully better than it should. You have to remember that 27 of those wins are credited to Tyronn Lue, Blatt’s successor. And let’s be honest. Anyone could have taken over the likes of Lebron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, and produced a winning season. Bottomline, only two of the five replacements are still coaching their teams.

And it’s not just basketball.

Over the past decade, 19 NFL head coaches have been fired before the end of the regular season. Although teams may have pulled the cord with the intention of bettering the organization, like the NBA, that has often not been the result.

Those coaches have logged a combined 43-72 record, and only seven of them have been retained for the next season—three of those seven lasted two or less years.

Midseason firings don’t accomplish anything, besides maybe booking an appearance on SportsCenter’s “Breaking News” segment. All they really do is disrupt continuity within a program or an organization.

Especially at the collegiate level, teams need time to develop. More than a third of Gottfried’s squad consists of freshmen. At 18 and 19 years old, players are still pinpointing weaknesses in their game.

Even though the expectations are different from those of NC State, the same is true for BC. Head coach Jim Christian replaced Steve Donahue in 2014, tasked with rebuilding the program from scratch. As a result, the roster slowly filled with underclassmen. Now, the Eagles have no juniors, one senior, and two graduate students. The rest of the roster is populated with youth.

But with youth often comes inexperience and, consequently, failure. Like the Wolfpack, BC dwells at the cellar of the ACC.

It’s easy to get caught up in one-and-done college success stories, players like Kevin Durant, John Wall, and DeMar DeRozan. But for every Durant there are several Justin Jacksons—players who simply need a few years to broaden their talent.

At the heart of that development lies the head coach. In turn, many coaches form a father-son relationship with their players. This is true for Calipari himself.

“I am coaching someone’s child. That’s not just a basketball player; that’s someone’s child,” Calipari said in a Dec. 2, 2015 interview with Colin Cowherd.

When a coach is fired midseason, players essentially lose a father-figure. And in NC State’s case, Director of Athletics Debbie Yow is pretty much telling the team that it will have to finish out the season, conscious of the fact that its mentor won’t be there in a matter of weeks.

All motivation to play goes right out the window. Soon the players will be under the command of someone that didn’t handpick them—a stepfather of sorts. If you’re Smith Jr., there is virtually no incentive to return.

Yes, some, and arguably, many of the coaches that are fired midseason must go. But there is no reason why they should be fired prior to the completion of the season. Most of the time, the season is already lost. The least that athletic directors, owners, and presidents can do is let the schedule play out. Who knows, maybe the team can make a late push.

College basketball is filled with surprises. Midseason firings are the ones that it doesn’t need.

Featured Image by Karl DeBlaker / AP Photo

February 22, 2017

2 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Midseason Firings Have No Place in Sports, Especially at the Collegiate Level”

  1. Gottfried not fired mid-season. Word leaked out that the AD was going to make a change after the season, and once those leaks made their way into the national media, the AD had a very difficult choice. Either deny and watch the storm grow around the program, or let the coach know and confirm it publicly. It’s not what she wanted. But she was forced into that decision. Gottfried himself requested that he be allowed to coach out the season, and so the AD is letting him do that. This is not ideal (firing mid-season) but it’s not the atrocity that it’s being made out to be.

  2. I agree with the gist of this article in the case of W-L issues alone. But the coaches bear most of the responsibility. The salaries of major college basketball coaches have reached insane levels – Calipari’s is among the highest. As the money goes up – the patience goes down. These coaches don’t have to insist on becoming lifetime millionaires and the highest paid employee of the school. When you see what he’s paid – the proper reaction to Calipari is “cry me a river”. If these coaches made very good money in line with our top professors – then I’d listen. But they have largely brought this on themselves with their excessive greed.