Everybody got this broken feeling, like their father or their dog just died. - Leonard Cohen
As I have been the chief defender of the faith in Anthony Grant at this blog for the last six years, I feel I am uniquely qualified to write this post. I have been called many unpleasant things the last six seasons as I have defended Anthony Grant from the wails and moans of the worst of the message board sect. In recent weeks, I have been forced to eat humble pie. It's not the first time I've been on the wrong end of a crusade, and it likely won't be the last. While my optimism about Alabama basketball has suggested that I am overly warm and fuzzy regarding all topics, the reality is that I am an overly hardened cynic, rendered wary and weary by a world in which the worst of our species thrive, while the best of us die. From a college basketball standpoint, we're seeing that point driven home this weekend as Bruce Pearl mugs for the SEC Network cameras, and has his team two wins away from an unthinkable SEC tournament title. Meanwhile Anthony Grant (whom, by all accounts, is a good human being that has run the Alabama program with class and humility) waits for a Sunday announcement of the NIT field, and/or possibly a pink slip for his termination.
And as much as I hate to write this, that pink slip is painfully necessary at this point. Following the program's 11th straight loss to a Florida program whose 14-15 edition will finish the season under .500, and a record of 0-10 for Anthony Grant against that Gator program, the Alabama program as a whole is spinning its wheels in a mud hole of mediocrity. I've said for many years that the Alabama basketball program is a sleeping giant, but over the course of the last two seasons we've watched it fall into a coma. Attendance is down, apathy is high. And some tough decisions must now be made.
Unlike some who read and comment to this blog, I have nothing but respect for Anthony Grant. You will never see me write that Anthony Grant is "incompetent" or one of the other numerous insults that have been directed towards him by some of our more, ahem, "passionate" readers. How or why would anyone of sound mind be disrespectful towards Anthony Grant? As noted above, he has been a class act during his tenure as men's basketball coach, representing the best aspects of a person as he trudges along in a tough profession that has taken many great men and women before him and reduced them to base animals, selling their souls for one more donation or win. In that respect coaches are not so different than politicians. If you're going to succeed in politics, coaching or any profession really, you are forced to play a game, the rules of which are not always yours to make. Anthony Grant has not always played by those rules, and it has cost him brownie points among the media, in high school recruiting circles, and, particularly, with the proles in the fanbase who, like most voters, only like the guy who sounds and looks the best on television.
However, to be fair, it also comes down to wins. And the fact is that Anthony Grant simply hasn't won enough of the most important games during his tenure to build the momentum necessary to create a championship program. Yes, there are other obstacles that exist for a basketball coach at the university, but as Anthony Grant has been fond of saying over the years, the game is always the same within the lines; and the bitter pill to swallow is that his teams just haven't got it done between those lines.
This is not to suggest that Anthony Grant is a bad coach. Some of you will disagree, but I don't buy the man is a bad coach. Put Grant on another bench at a different school, the results could be far different. And I believe the final word on his competence as a head coach should be determined at any future stops he makes. I feel confident that, should the university relieve him of his duties, he will land on his feet somewhere, and perhaps be the better for it.
Grant's teams have always been competitive during his tenure, but they have just never been able to get over the hump in key games. The Wichita State game in December was a great example of the struggles under Grant. His team, on the road in one of the most hostile environments in the college game, outplayed a top twenty RPI team for thirty-five minutes, but when it came to winning time, the team faltered under the pressure that comes with winning, as we've seen them do too many times in the past. A key aspect in coaching is the ability to motivate and convey mental toughness before, during and after a game. While Grant's teams have always been resilient overall, they have always seemed to lack resiliency in key situations in games. In the Wichita State game, it was simply a matter of protecting the basketball for five minutes of game time. Turnovers had been minimal for the first thirty-five minutes, but the team fell apart in the final five. That goes back to the bench, right or wrong. Yes, players have to make plays, but a coaching staff has to be able to imbue them with the confidence that they cannot be denied, regardless of the opposing team.
How does a program, in this day and age of the sport, lose to the same program eleven times in a row? Despite Florida's success, they have not been light years ahead of Alabama in terms of talent. And yet, Alabama has been unable to win one game in the last eleven meetings. Bruce Pearl, for all of his perceived faults, understands the importance, as the coach of Auburn, in beating Alabama, just as he understood the importance of winning at least one game in Nashville this week. The wins over A&M, LSU and beyond will be cherries on top. It was the Wednesday game against Mississippi State that was the most important game. And Auburn won the game. I can assure you that every future team under Pearl will have that importance of certain games hammered home. One wonders if that same level of importance was leveled at Florida by Anthony Grant at any time prior to one of the ten losses that have occurred under his leadership. I can't believe it was, for if it had, I feel confident that Alabama would have, at the very least, a handful of wins against that program.
The time is now. The rumors continue to swirl about whether or not Grant will receive a seventh season, but after the last six seasons, I'm not sure that's the best thing for either party, UA or Grant. The university is going through many administrative changes. Within the next year alone the university will have a new president and, maybe, a new AD. The thought process may be to delay any coaching changes until that transition is completed. As I've said here before, if Grant is retained I will gladly pull for him, his staff and the team to finally find a way to get over the hump. However, I can no longer hold firm to the belief that glory days are ahead for this program under Anthony Grant's direction.
And that realization creates a deep, lasting pain in my gut, for it tells my cynical mind that virtues alone is not enough. That we are seemingly cursed to always live in a world in which we must bite our lip, and concede that good will never be good enough. Damn. No wonder some people hate sports.