Friday, December 19, 2003

Sports: Another Coach Bites the Dust

St. John’s University fired basketball coach Mike Jarvis today. I remember when Jarvis left George Washington University to take the St. John’s job six years ago. I was an editor at one of GW’s campus newspapers and covered the press conference introducing Jarvis’s successor, former Texas coach Tom Penders. At the time, both schools thought they were taking steps to solidify their programs. Today, neither Penders nor Jarvis are coaching. Penders lasted three seasons before a series of seemingly minor scandals brought him down. Jarvis apparently didn’t produce a strong enough record in the highly competitive Big East Conference.

Last month I defended Nebraska’s decision to fire football coach Frank Solich on strictly business grounds. I endorsed Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson’s view that “mediocrity” was not a virtue in a competitive, moneymaking business like major college football. The same argument could be advanced for firing Jarvis. While Jarvis produced a winning record, the program was not maximizing its potential, given its recruit-rich New York City base and strong basketball tradition. The biggest criticism of Jarvis has always been his recruiting; at GW, he was often chided for relying on foreign players rather than aggressively recruiting local talent.

Then again, unlike Nebraska, St. John’s can’t seem to figure out what direction it wants to go in. Jarvis is now the third former head coach in nine years, following Brian Mahoney and Fran Fraschilla. And it made no sense to fire Jarvis in December—just at the start of conference play—while promoting his longtime top aide, Kevin Clark, to acting coach. That’s just throwing away the current season, which won’t send much of a message to recruits, fans, or current players.

One suspects St. John’s will press for a big name coach (Rick Pitino’s name has already come up), but that strategy may fall flat. This is what happened at GW when Jarvis left. The school went for the biggest name it could find, a name that happened to be good pals with the athletic director. GW overlooked the circumstances of Tom Penders’ departure from Texas, and within a couple years, they paid for that oversight. Now GW is rebuilding under a competent coach, Karl Hobbs, who was elevated from the assistant coaching ranks. Hobbs knows he holds a mid-major job just below the elite level. St. John’s is not at that same level, but may choose not to recognize that fact. This shows poor business management. Basketball is St. John’s chief revenue-producing sport; any attempt at a quick-fix will blow up in their face and do long term damage to the school.

And as I noted when Frank Solich is fired, it’s funny that universities will fire coaches for mediocre performance, but professors are considered untouchable due to tenure. Using Jarvis as an analogy, could you imagine an English professor getting fired before midterms because the students weren’t learning fast enough? Not that I would object to such a system. I just question why academia insists on the double-standard.

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