Every spring, college basketball coaches across the country hop on the coaching carousel. Some coaches are fired, opening up spots on the ride, and other coaches leave their schools to take those openings, creating more seats. And on and on the carousel continues.
But in the Big East, the coaches are in a different part of the amusement park. Four schools are going through the hall of mirrors, where everything is out of proportion and nothing is as it seems.
The announcement Tuesday that Oliver Purnell would take over as head coach at DePaul appeared to put a cap on a strange ride in the Big East. Seton Hall had already parted ways with polarizing Head Coach Bobby Gonzalez and St. John’s fired the likable Norm Roberts, while Rutgers surprised many pundits by retaining Fred Hill after his fourth straight losing season.
But Hill kept the fun going by jumping back on the hot seat after a verbal altercation at a Rutgers baseball game. Reports on Thursday indicate that Rutgers will now fire Hill.
The Rutgers basketball coach was watching his father, also named Fred Hill, coach the Scarlet Knights against Pittsburgh on the diamond when he yelled obscenities at the Panthers coach. Hill managed to avoid the chopping block several weeks ago despite a 47-77 record over four seasons, but Rutgers will likely be able to fire Hill with cause, meaning the school will not have to pay off the rest of Hill’s contract.
Meanwhile, the other head coach in New Jersey, Gonzalez, was surprisingly fired at Seton Hall despite posting a winning record over four seasons and nearly guiding Seton Hall to the NCAA tournament this season.
Normally coaches are fired because of wins and losses or money, but Gonzalez was let go for his conduct. He left a bad taste with school officials, receiving seven technical fouls throughout the season and rubbing people the wrong way off the court. Gonzalez also gave second chances to players that ultimately got themselves in a lot of trouble.
In the Pirates’ NIT loss, forward Herb Pope punched a Texas Tech player in the groin. Off the court, Keon Lawrence was arrested for driving the wrong way on the Garden State Parkway in November, and Robert Mitchell was arrested in March – shortly after he was kicked off the team for making comments about Gonzalez – for duct-taping eight people and stealing their property.
The Pirates’ ship was sinking, and Gonzalez took the blame.
On the other hand, St. John’s Roberts was a highly respected individual and did everything the right way, but he still got a pink slip. He cleaned up the program after violations by previous coach Mike Jarvis, but he did not win enough games, finishing each of his six seasons with at least 15 losses.
The major criticism of Roberts was that he was not active enough in pursuing the top talent from the prep and AAU teams in the New York area. It led the New York Times to ask, “Can a [New York] program with big aspirations achieve the level of success it wants without breaking NCAA rules?”
So former UCLA coach and ESPN analyst Steve Lavin replaces the affable Roberts, Iona’s Kevin Willard takes over for the gruff Gonzalez, and the Big East’s coaching hall of mirrors continues to confuse.
Compared to the coaching search at DePaul, however, things looked rosy at Rutgers, Seton Hall and St. John’s.
The Blue Demons were roundly criticized for waiting too long to contact coaches and then reaching out to people they had no chance at or who would be poor fits. But appropriately for the Big East this offseason, DePaul landed a big name that had not been in any reports from Chicago.
Purnell is a bit of a coup for DePaul, coming from Clemson where his Tigers finished fifth in the ACC and made their third-straight NCAA appearance. At DePaul, he will be tasked with rebuilding a program that has one regular season conference win in the last two years and has not been to the NCAA tournament since 2004.
Purnell will also have to resurrect fan support in the Chicago area, something that will be difficult because of the many pro teams in town. The Blue Demons also struggle because they play off campus at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill., which presents a tougher hike for DePaul students than Verizon Center does for Georgetown students.
The Blue Demons fired Jerry Wainwright in January, shortly after Georgetown handed him his 50th Big East loss in 70 regular season games. Interim Head Coach Tracy Webster needed a buzzer beater to record his only win in 16 tries.
Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto said that she would pay the next coach handsomely to resurrect the floundering program. Big time coaches like Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon and UCLA’s Ben Howland, as well as Chicago native Isiah Thomas and former Chicago Bull Reggie Theus, floated in reports as possible candidates.
Yet it was Purnell, who was wooed in less than a week, that ultimately got the seven-year deal worth over $15 million and the opportunity to rebuild a once-proud program.
At this point, surprises are the norm in the Big East’s hall of mirrors. And just when it looked like the exit was in sight, Rutgers’ Hill provided another twist to the already confusing attraction.”