It wasn’t all that long ago that West Virginia Mountaineer fans around the state were clamoring for change. Not a political change, but a change amongst the coaching ranks in Morgantown instead. After Thursday night’s embarrassing first round loss in the 2012 Men’s NCAA Basketball Tourney is it time for more change in Morgantown?
When former WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez decided to make a move to Ann Arbor in 2007, it opened the door for Assistant Coach Bill Stewart to take over the reins of the Mountaineer football program. A short time after a stunning defeat of the highly favored Oklahoma Sooners in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, Stewart was named the Mountaineer’s Head Coach to the chagrin of many WVU faithful.
Over the next three years, despite winning 70% of his games, Stewart would draw criticism for his assumed inability to take the WVU football program to the next level. After Dana Holgorsen was named coach-in-waiting by WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck in December of 2010, a soap opera would soon ensue in the Mountaineer athletic department.
“I have complete confidence in his ability to coach this team and lead us into the next chapter of Mountaineer football,” Luck said after Stewart resigned in 2011 and Holgorsen was promoted to the head coaching position. The message being sent out of Morgantown was basically that winning is nice but anything less than a National Championship is a letdown. After WVU’s convincing win in the 2012 Discover Orange Bowl earlier this year, Mountaineer football fans have new reason to believe that change has arrived.
But what about the WVU basketball fans? As football fans can easily remember, some of Stewart’s criticism was derived from the fact that he had only won because of “Rodriguez’s players”, meaning the Fiesta Bowl victory just didn’t mean as much on his resume. It’s time to pose that same question when looking at the WVU basketball team’s achievements over the past few years.
In an effort to treat all the coaches equally in Morgantown, one must question the fact that Men’s Basketball Head Coach Bob Huggins really just went to the 2010 Final Four because of John Beilein’s players. Da’Sean Butler and Joe Mazzulla both played huge roles in the Mountaineer’s Final Four run, Butler was the scoring machine to Mazzullo’s court general.
But since that season, the Mountaineers have been on the decline. The exact same discussion was applied to the WVU football team in 2008 and 2009. Since the Mountaineer basketball team made it to Indianapolis in 2010, the team has posted a lackluster 20-18 record against Big East Conference opponents.
Sometimes success is also viewed in terms of team play versus rival opponents. In the obvious state rivalry WVU is an acceptable 4-1 against cross-state rival Marshall University during Huggins tenure. But for many Mountaineer fans the Backyard Brawl is the only real matchup. Against the bitterly despised Pitt Panthers the Mountaineers have amassed a subpar 3-7 record under Huggins.
As conference and rivalry play indicates, the WVU basketball program is dangerously trending in the wrong direction. Granted the loss to the Gonzaga Bulldogs on Thursday evening was not that much of an upset. However the manner in which the game was lost is quite concerning.
All year long diehard Mountaineer fans have quickly offered up the excuse of “well they are a young team.” Most college basketball players are young. But one must consider that Gonzaga blew the Mountaineers off the court with a younger starting five than WVU fielded for Thursday evening’s game played in nearby Pittsburgh.
It may well be time for Luck to start putting out feelers for a coach that can both recruit and connect to today’s younger generation. The Mountaineers were horribly under-prepared for their first round match-ups in both the Big East and NCAA tournaments. Plus there’s a reason why coaches like the legendary Bobby Knight are happily residing behind the microphone.
Luckily one doesn’t have to look too far to find a coach whose stock is truly on the rise. Over the past three seasons 34 year old head coach Shaka Smart has led Virginia Commonwealth University to an 84-26 record. His resume also includes a 2010 College Basketball Invitational championship, a 2011 trip to the NCAA Final Four in Houston as a number eleven seed and an opening round upset win over Wichita State in yesterday’s NCAA tournament action.
Smart is truly one of the hottest young coaches in the game today. It would be safe to say that VCU’s success has not necessarily been built around blue chip recruits and superior athletes, but born out of preparedness and the ability to fluidly perform as a team. But while Smart’s opponents often look good on paper, they often underestimate the ability of a group of assumed “lesser” players to focus, execute and win. Just ask Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State, Kansas and now Wichita State about playing a lower seeded Shaka Smart coached team.
Unfortunately for Mountaineer fans, love affairs can often obscure the clarity of the situation. And most of the state has a huge crush on their Huggy Bear, some to the extent of callously blaming the student athletes for any possible problems with the program. But then again Bill Stewart was a good ol’ WV boy too. If the WVU athletic department truly wants to elevate Mountaineer athletics to the next level it is time to start thinking about the future in all sports.
As the dust settles on an uninspiring 2011-2012 WVU Men’s Basketball season, hopefully the leadership in Morgantown is looking to the future of the basketball program in the same manner as the football program. It’s quickly becoming time for fresh ideas and leadership in the Coliseum. And remember even the football team was able to score 70 points in their year-end finale!