WARNING: As you all know, I can be a bit verbose at times. This is one of those times. Sit back, relax, and get comfortable, because this is going to be a long read.
Long time readers know that I like to sort of summarize the season and the current state of the program after we play our last game every year. I did not do this at the end of last season, because 1)Bobbyjack beat me to the punch and I would have been mostly echoing his thoughts and 2) I did not want to comment on the controversy surrounding Coach Anthony Grant. At that time, I told the other writers here privately that I personally thought we should make a change (especially after Buzz Williams left Marquette for Va. Tech, I felt we missed a great opportunity), but at the same time I could see some merit in the decision to retain Coach Grant. To post that I fully agreed with the decision would have been insincere. To write that I wanted a change in leadership, in my view, could have been harmful to the program at that time. I'm far from the best contributor to this blog, but two things I will never do is jeopardize my credibility or intentionally harm the program.
As you all know, Coach Grant was relieved of his duties as head coach today. It was the right decision, and I believe the best solution for all parties. I'm never one to engage in letter writing campaigns, but even I made an exception and wrote an email to Bill Battle politely expressing the need to make a change. Coach Grant had completely lost the fan base, and it would have been impossible for him to turn things around in this current environment. He's represented the school with class, his teams played hard for him and never quit (which is a lot more than we can say for his predecessor), and I think he deserves another chance somewhere. I will be pulling for him, wherever he lands. As I said above, I wanted a change, but a part of me is sad to see him go. Like most fans, I really wanted him to be successful here, and was hoping he would be our coach for decades and take us to final fours and national championships. Obviously, that wasn't going to happen. Today is a sad day, but a necessary day.
THE 2014-2015 SEASON
If you look back at the season previews, I think we were optimistically hoping to be an NCAA bubble team. Instead, we find ourselves as the 6 seed in the NIT. For once, we felt like we had depth and Coach Grant would have a lot of possible combinations to use. We knew Releford would be difficult to replace, but Retin, Tarrant, and Coleman all played well at the PG position at various times. The big question mark, as usual, was our post play. Kessens was an upgrade from what we've had in the past, but was not the force we needed on the boards and played soft at times. Jimmie Taylor developed as the season went along, and was showing signs by the end of the year of having potential to be a top level big man in the league. I expect big things from him next year if he can stay out of foul trouble. Unfortunately, Shannon Hale regressed, while Riley Norris was a pleasant surprise as a freshman. Levi Randolph earned the Captain position and lived up to it, single-handedly keeping us competitive in many games. Coop also had a solid year in his senior campaign, and we will no doubt sorely miss both of those guys next year.
Our two wins over NCAA tournament teams came against North Florida and UCLA. I don't think UCLA should have been invited to the tournament, but they did play better down the stretch. We started out 2-0 in the SEC including an impressive 19 point win on the road at Tennessee, but we didn't have any real key upset wins. The defining moments in the season, in my mind, were the Wichita State game and the Florida game. A win in Wichita would have given us a lot of momentum and confidence, but we failed to finish despite having a late lead. We were still on the NCAA bubble according to most bracketologists before losing to the worst Florida in decades at home. That game effectively ended any realistic NCAA tournament hopes, and we had a rash of injuries that led to some more bad losses later in the season.
We will host 3 seed Illinois at 8 pm in the first round of the NIT Tuesday night, because their arena is currently a construction zone. Presumably, Coach Brannen will be named interim coach for the NIT. As I stated above, I agree with the decision to terminate Coach Grant's contract, but I feel he should be allowed to finish out the season. The team never quit on him, and these guys still have a chance to accomplish something that's never been done at Alabama, win the NIT tournament.
There's really no reason for the fans to not show up for this game. I understand the disappointment in the season, but the "boycott to make a statement that we need a new coach" is no longer an issue. This is a great opportunities for us as a fan base to show support for our players, and also show potential coaches how much we can support the program.
Before I get to individual candidates, I want to address some concerns I have about how we may go about this process, the attractiveness of the job, and the manner in which this decision was reached.
Let me state, that I'm on the outside looking in, and am not privy to the conversations surrounding this decision. That being said, rumors have been circulating for weeks from people who are presumably well connected, and the consensus went from it being a 50/50 proposition to he was definitely coming back until within the last 48 hours or so the prevailing winds changed. There's been some speculation that the administration did not realize the level of push back from the fan base until the aforementioned email campaign. Others have guessed that auburn making the semis of the SEC tournament and UAB going dancing prompted the decision. Frankly, while I'm glad they reached the right decision, if it took any of those events for it to happen, I'm scared to death at the thought of this administration being in charge of making the hire.
Furthermore, the timing of this announcement is puzzling. The chair of the NIT said they selected us without knowing of Grant's termination. Did our administration not realize that the NIT was a possibility? They did not even announce an interim coach when they announced Grant's dismissal. The whole thing just highlights our administration's general ignorance towards basketball.
On the positive side, despite all of our warts, we have a lot to offer a prospective new coach. First and foremost, we're loaded. Money isn't everything, but it sure helps. We are one of the most profitable athletic departments in the country, and basketball alone raked in over $8M last year. We can pay our coach a top 25 salary. We also have a lot of talent coming up in the state over the next few years. A coach who studies the history of basketball in this state, the history of our program, and the upcoming in-state talent, would have to believe that they can quickly build a top 25 program here, and get paid handsomely to do it.
That being said, we also have some limitations. As discussed above, while we reached the right decision, the administration's handling of the situation has been somewhat of a fire drill. Frankly, the leadership at our beloved University is an unmitigated disaster right now. We will have a new president and in all likelihood a new athletic director within the next 12-18 months, if not sooner. Since Witt moved up from President to Chancellor, we've been a ship without a captain, more or less wandering aimlessly at sea. It's a situation that needs to be fixed, and sooner rather than later.
Furthermore, we play in an average-at-best arena, and the new coach will have to work hard to get the attention of the fans until football season ends. In some ways, the success of Coach Saban and the football team could be seen as a deterrent to potential coaches. We need a coach that is willing to work with Coach Saban and use that as asset. The best case scenario is that we become a Florida/Oklahoma/Texas/Ohio State/Wisconsin type school, where basketball is very good but not on the same level as football in the eyes of most of the fan base. We will never be a North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, etc, as much as I would like us to be.
Generally speaking, I think we need to make a move sooner rather than later. We are arguably the best job available right now (Depaul is close, great recruiting base and location but not a power conference), but that may not be the case for long. We likely aren't getting a coach with an established winning history at a major program. We will either have to take somebody with baggage, real or perceived, who's had some success at a major program, roll the dice on another up and coming mid-major type coach, or hire an assistant from a successful program.
I was going to go into potential candidates, but I think this post is long enough at this point. I'll save that for another day.