Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Should He Stay or Should He Go?

I apologize in advance for the length of this post. Feel free to scroll down and just take in the Cliffs notes version.

There has been a lot of talk on the internet message boards and radio call in shows about whether or not the University of Alabama should retain Mark Gottfried for his head coaching services to the men's basketball team. There is no doubt that we just completed a horrible season, arguably our worst in the last 38 years. However, Coach Gottfried has been here for 10 years now, so we should have a complete body of work to judge his performance on. I think we can all agree that this year sucked, but let's examine his overall record and determine if he should stay.

Fortunately, fans do not hire and fire coaches (for the most part). He will not be retained or fired based upon what any of us think. Still, I would like to present both sides of the issue in a fair and factually based manner, as opposed to the over the top rhetoric you find coming from a lot of folks these days.

The case for Coach Gottfried He represents the University well and runs a clean program that we all should be proud of. He recruits players of high character. You never hear of our players getting into any serious trouble off the court. We haven't had any NCAA compliance issues. He graduates all of his players. Few coaches represent their University with the class that Coach Gottfried does, and that means a lot to me.

He is one of us. The man played for some good Alabama teams under Wimp Sanderson. One of my earliest memories of Alabama basketball is counting the consecutive 3 point shots he made during warm-ups of a game against Georgia. He would later play a key role in winning that game in overtime. That was the first of my many trips to Coleman Coliseum. With his strong ties to UA, it is less likely that he would leave us for greener pastures if he ever had great success here. Whereas if we hire the next great up and coming coach, we may enjoy the mountain top for a brief period of time before he bolts to Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, UCLA, or Indiana.

He saved the program from the Hobbs era. Basketball was as good as dead when he arrived. My freshman year at UA was David Hobbs' last year. Nobody went to the basketball games. I could walk in 15 minutes before tip off and sit on the front row along the baseline right next to Alabama's bench. In fact, Hobbs didn't even have enough seats on the bench for the entire team that year, so a walk-on redshirt freshman sat right next to me. It was a sad state of affairs. Thanks to Coach Gottfried, by the time I finally graduated 7 years later, it was necessary to spend the previous night at the coliseum to get a front row seat in the student section.

With the renewed interest in the basketball program, Coach Gottfried was able to pressure the athletic department into renovating Coleman Coliseum. It still has its faults, and we would probably have been better off building a new one, but the improvements were significant and Coach Gottfried deserves some of the credit for making that happen. I've been to every SEC arena, and at least we are now in the top half as far as facilities go.

Recruiting. Coach Gottfried has recruited some great athletes here. From Rod Grizzard, Gerald Wallace, Kennedy Winston, Mo William, Erwin Dudley, Jemario Davidson, Ron Steele, Richard Hendrix, and the list goes on. We have yet another good recruiting class coming in.

He has taken the team to unchartered territory. I have been to some amazing games. I saw the Crimson Tide win a National Championship in football in 1992. I saw my favorite baseball team get its only post season series win in 100 years. Hugging Kennedy Winston's aunt in Phoenix while the final seconds ticked off the clock in 2004 as we beat the defending national champs ranks right up there at the top of the list. That was our only trip to the Elite 8 in the history of the program. Coach Gottfried also led us to our first ever #1 National Ranking, but unfortunately we nearly became the first team to ever be ranked #1 and not make the tournament. We got in as a 9 sede and lost in the first round. Still, it was good publicity for the program.

There are some administrative reasons that would make it unwise to fire him. For one, he has a $3M buyout. As much as I want us to be a basketball school, we are not. The best we could probably hope for would be another up and coming coach who has a resume similar to Gottfried's when he was hired. It would be a gamble anyway, but the buyout issue makes it a HUGE roll of the dice. Not to mention the fact that Wendell Hudson is now too busy coaching the women's team to lead a search for the next men's coach. I like Mal Moore, he's done a lot of good for the athletic department and he knows his football, but I don't think he has the basketball knowledge to lead a search for a new coach.

The case against Coach Gottfried

We used to own the SEC tournament. There was a time when it was jokingly referred to as the Wimp Sanderson invitational. You could almost bet that we would be playing Kentucky or Arkansas in the championship game every year. In 10 years under Gottfried, we've been to the final game one time, and lost it. We've won one SEC regular season championship in that time. We've only had 3 seasons with a winning record in the SEC.

His record in SEC play after 10 years is right around .500. I know he inherited a mess and has had a lot of tough breaks over the last couple of years, but still, we shouldn't be this bad now and we should have been better in the years before that. Historically, we are the #2 program in the SEC behind Kentucky. Admittedly, that is a very distant second, and Arkansas would be #2 if they had been in the conference longer, but the point remains. At this point, we have been surpassed by Florida and arguably Tennessee.

As great as the Elite 8 run was, that is the only year he has made it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. I'd rather consistently make the sweet 16 than make the Elite 8 once every 10 years.

Every year, we have at least 2 games where we get embarassed. This year, it was Clemson at home and at auburn. Overall, this team played very hard this year with the exception of that Clemson game. That being said, most years we have a couple of games where we almost appear uninterested and unprepared. I have sat through more 20+ point losses on the road than I care to remember. In most of those cases, we were down 30 or 40 at some point.

He doesn't seem to make the best decisions in regards to hiring assistant coaches. I cannot recall the name of the assistant coach we had before Asbury from Alabama State, but he was awful. When Asbury left, there were a lot of well known coaches who were rumored to be available, but Gottfried decided to stay in house and promote Kobe Baker. Ultimately, he needs a staff that he is comfortable with, but from what I gather Baker's strength is that he's a great recruiter. We already have 2 great recruiters on this staff in Coach Gottfried and Coach Pearson. He needed to hire a very good X's and O's, defensive minded coach, but failed to do so.

The Verdict The fact that he is such a good recruiter, makes the SEC record that much more frustrating. He's obviously not getting the most out of his talent. Many of his detractors point to the fact that his crowning achievement, the Elite 8 victory, would not have been possible without the heroics of Pettway in the first round. While that is true, Coach Gottfried should still get credit for bringing Pettway to campus and having him in position to make a difference in the first place.

He seems to always perform well when his back is to the wall. Remember, the Elite 8 season looked like a lost cause after a home loss to Vanderbilt. It took an incredible upset over highly ranked m$u in Starkville to turn the season around. This year, he took some of the heat off by finishing strong with wins over Vanderbilt and Arkansas at home, a convincing win over the Gators in Atlanta, before losing a well played, hard fought game to m$u. While the self preservation instinct is impressive, after 10 years I would like to see him get to a point where his back is not to the wall every other year. For once, it would be nice if we built upon our momentum instead of regressing. We really should have been able to move up to the next level after the Elite 8 run.

You will notice I left some of the more popular reasons out of the case against him above. That's because I think some of the criticism of him is unfounded. For example, many say that he can't draw up an inbound play. While he's certainly called some questionable plays in pressure situations, I can think of several games where we got good shots off at the end of a game or half, including a few game winners. He's certainly no Roy Williams or Coach K in these regards, but he's not as awful as we sometimes make him out to be. Another common criticism is that he runs his players off, looking at the attrition rate. However, when you bring in the recruiting classes that he has, that is bound to happen. Kids want playing time, and for the most part the kids we've lost have not exactly gone on to be superstars, so I give him a pass on that one. Also, while I'm not a big fan of the high post offense and I think it is somewhat outdated, I do believe that any offense can be at least moderately successful if ran correctly with the right personnel.

I wonder if he has the same passion and drive as when he first came here. As an Alabama basketball fan, my expectation for the program is to be consistently competitive, with hopes of making it to a final 4 in the forseeable future. When Coach Gottfried first came here, he often spoke of his goal of winning a National Championship. When was the last time he said anything about a National Championship? I don't think I've heard those words come out of his mouth in 4 years. Somehow we have gone from boldly declaring our goal of winning it all to whining about how difficult it has become to make the NIT.

Okay, I'm going to finally get to the point. I think he needs to go. It saddens me to say that. I like the guy, and I want him to be successful at Alabama. However, the bottom line for me is that I want somebody capable of getting us to a final four. At this point, I'm afraid I have no confidence in Coach Gottfried's ability to do that. When I'm at the point that I feel there is no hope of making the Final Four, then I think it's time to roll the dice and take a gamble. That being said, I want CM Newton in charge of finding the new coach. I'm not willing to take that gamble if it means Mal Moore leading the search, no offense to Coach Moore.

Even though I have now expressed my opinion that he needs to go, I urge everybody to back off the guy. The personal attacks that I have heard and read about him and his family are completely uncalled for. He's done A LOT of good for the program, most of which is outlined above, and he's one of us. We should all be grateful for the job that he has done. Despite all of the mediocre seasons and blowout losses, I will always have very fond memories of the Coach Gottfried era. He made Bama basketball fun again while I was a student at UA. Today, some of my best friends are people that I met in college through our common interest in Alabama basketball. If he didn't save us from the Hobbs era, I probably would have been the only person in the gym those years.

Sometimes long term relationships go stale, and neither is at fault. Alabama and Coach Gottfried are kind of like a couple who have been together forever. Everybody wants to see them be happy together, but it just isn't meant to be. Sometimes you need something new and exciting, and I think that would be better for everybody in this situation. Coach Gottfried is a nice guy, but he can't give us what we need, and that is the next step, either a Final Four or at least a consistently, nationally competitive program. At the same time, Coach Gottfried would probably do very well if faced with a new exciting challenge. I think he would do very well back at another mid major. Regardless, I would certainly be pulling for him.

Reality I was going to post a list of potential coaching candidates, along with their resumes and my opinions of each, but I've decided that would be a waste of time. Unless something drastic changes, he's going to be back. I really hope he proves me wrong and we go all the way next year. I will be pulling for him and supporting him and the program in every way that I can. While I don't agree with it, his return is not entirely a bad thing. This is certainly a situation where there is a lot of evidence to support either position, and reasonable minds can differ. However, next year is a make or break year. The atmosphere at Coleman and the interest of the fan base was deteriorating at a fast pace by the end of the season. We cannot afford another year like the last 2.

Cliff's Notes Version Coach Gottfried is a class act who has done a lot of good for the program. He's taken us to new heights, saved us from the Hobbs era, and spearheaded an improvement in our facilities. He's a great recruiter, runs a class program, and graduates all of his players. However, he has not lived up to our historical level of competitiveness in the SEC, we often get blown out, he's made some bad hires, and he does not get nearly as much as he should out of his talent. A lot of the criticism is unwarranted or too harsh, but at the end of the day I just don't think he can get us to the next level. Regardless, whether we like or not, he's going to be back, so we may as well get behind him and hope for the best.


bobbyjack said...

First off... I thought I was reading war and peace (g).

I agree with most of your post... especially the part about the personal attacks. There's no justification for that.

What I disagree with is the attrition rate. We have a higher attrition rate than most schools. IMO that's because CMG for the most part had limited himself to a 7 man rotation and plays favorites.

My other issue is his recruiting. Yes we seem to get some good to great athletes, yet any of them are wasted running an offense that doesn't fully utilize their athleticism. With our current roster we should be an uptempo team... not a plodding, mythodical squad.

Good post.

DJC said...

We recruit great athletes, but not necessarily great basketball players. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that high school coaching in Alabama is not on the level that it is on Indiana, Kentucky, or North Carolina. It's up to our coaches to get those great athletes, then improve their basketball IQ and use them in the appropriate manner. We're pretty good at getting them for the most part, but we're coming up short in the other areas.

Thanks for taking the afternoon off to read my post. It took me 3 nights to write it.

Unknown said...

A well-done, very fair assessment.

I must quibble with you on two issues:
1) If scuttlebutt is true, Gottfried's program is not, in fact, a clean one. People round these parts have some stories about what Gerald Wallace's family received in exchange for his commitment to Alabama. Of course, all of it's talk, but still.
2) My biggest issue with him: the problems with the basketball team now (poor performance on the road, offense disappears for 6 minutes at a stretch, team can't get quality shots when it matters, etc.) are the SAME problems the basketball team has had since 2000. That's not a coincidence -- that's a testament to the guy running the show.
3) While the program is good about graduating players, Gottfried is also adept at recruiting one or two big names per season that never actually make it to campus. So that may explain the great recruiting classes yielding poor results.
4) Druid had a pretty good comparison between the Gottfried era and the abominable Hobbs era that Gottfried supposedly "saved" everybody from. I can't find it at the moment, but it was quite insightful. The extra excitement at Coleman is more a function of better marketing skills by the athletic department than anything else.
Anyway, good post.