Sometimes turnarounds come too late. Sometimes the coach who lost so much in his first four seasons and was hired by somebody else can’t possibly accomplish enough to save his job in Year 5.
Brian Gregory won a lot of games and earned a ton of respect this season — from the players who played for him, to the people who worked for him to the media vultures who had long ago buried him. But it’s clear now that realistically nothing short of an NCAA tournament run was going to keep Georgia Tech Athletic Director Mike Bobinski from firing Gregory this season.
So on Friday, Bobinski, who came from Xavier and fashions himself as a “basketball guy,” took his first step toward putting his stamp on something at Tech. He fired Gregory after a 21-win season with two years left on the coach’s contract — because the only realistic alternative would have been giving Gregory an extension, and that just wasn’t going to happen on Bobinski’s watch.
Gregory worked hard to improve the foundation of Tech’s basketball program over the past few years. He had the benefit of a senior-laden class this season. But Bobinski had “fire” on his mind after last year’s grease fire of a season (12-19, 3-15 in the ACC) and it would’ve taken something extraordinary this year for him to come off that.
When Tech started this season 3-9 in the ACC, his fate was sealed. It didn’t matter how many games the Yellow Jackets won in the NIT, and it might not have even mattered if they made it to the NCAA field.
“If you’re in the NCAA tournament, then that gives you something to really leverage from a recruiting perspective,” Bobinski said. “Could that have changed the thinking? It’s speculative – I don’t know.”
There’s your ringing endorsement.
Gregory never really had a chance. Now Bobinski has his.
He better have a plan.
Bobinski, in his fourth season at Tech, called the firing a “difficult decision.” Maybe on some small level. But he believes the Jackets can compete at a level in ACC basketball that they haven’t in years, and he believes that wasn’t going to happen under Gregory.
It’s important to understand that Bobinski believes he has a certain level of expertise in basketball. Xavier, his former job, is consistently one of the strongest mid-major programs in the country, an NCAA tournament team in 14 of the past 16 years. (I’m sure Musketeers coach Chris Mack will be among the most lists of speculated candidates, as will the usual suspects: Jeff Capel, Mark Price, Craig Neal and Tommy Amaker.)
But as someone familiar with the basketball landscape, Bobinski must also realize Tech is not viewed as a destination job like maybe it once used to be. It has the advantage of being an ACC program in a recruiting-rich city. But it’s also a program in an athletic department that is forced to squeezed nickels, competing in one of the toughest conferences in the nation and against some of the best coaches in history.
Tech’s athletic department coffers aren’t stuffed like Big Foot’s over in Athens. The school still owes former coach Paul Hewitt $2.7 million over the next three years and Gregory $1.3 million over the next two.
But Bobinski believes the impact of those economics have been overstated by the media. If that’s true, there are only two possibilities:
• He believes boosters will have him covered.
• He is going to hire a coach at discount. But if that’s the case, how difficult will it be to raise the stature of the program, improve recruiting and achieve a higher level of success? Unless the athletic director just happens to pick the the right young and inexpensive coach.
This will be the first major coaching hire of Bobinski’s career, and he needs to make it work. He wasn’t comfortable that Gregory could get the job done in coaching or recruiting, nor did he believe it would be healthy to rely heavily on transfers, as Tech did this season.
“You may have a chance to bring a highly skilled player back to Atlanta, but that is not something you can do every year,” he said.
Gregory did good work this season. But he was hired by former Athletic Director Dan Radakovich and he didn’t do enough to earn the benefit of the doubt from his successor.
When I spoke to Gregory at length a week ago, his team was coming off an NIT win over Houston, win No. 20. It was a significant moment for a program that had achieved that only once in the previous eight seasons. Several of the coach’s family members and friends joined Gregory in a postgame press conference to celebrate the moment.
But Bobinski wasn’t there. It’s never a good sign when the athletic director keeps a relatively low profile in these situations, and to say Gregory didn’t feel supported would be an understatement. His didn’t like being forced to twist in the wind, or that stories of his job security took the focus off his players.
“You have to fight those (negative) thoughts,” he said. “But I never want to fight it for personal reasons. I want to fight it for these guys. … I’d say I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed that my story of uncertainty would overshadow the players.”
Bobinski believes Tech can do better. Now he has a chance to prove it.
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