Frank Haith's reported departure from Missouri for T-T-T-ulsa(?) on Thursday is even more bizarre than Cuonzo Martin's departure from Tennessee for California on Tuesday.
In fact, it would be difficult to believe if it didn't perpetuate a trend that should deeply concern Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive. African-American coaches keep leaving his league for lesser jobs.
Haith and Martin are merely the latest to do so. Two years earlier, Trent Johnson jarringly jumped ship at LSU for TCU, a basketball sinkhole where he has won two out of 36 Big 12 games. And in 2007, Tubby Smith started the trend by leaving blueblood Kentucky for mediocre Minnesota.
I can't think of another conference that had four coaches make such surprising lateral-to-downward moves within the last seven years. Or within any seven-year period.
The fact that all of them are black could be a Southeastern coincidence more than a reflection on the Southeastern Conference. But it also raises questions – and could create a perception – about the work environment for a black coach in the South.
I wrote earlier this month about the lack of African-American coaches at big-time programs – a surprising development in what once was the most diverse of all sporting coaching populations. Since then we have a pair of relatively young black coaches (Haith is 48, Martin is 42) downsizing their careers – perhaps in an effort to elongate them.
All four black coaches who fled the SEC for less-green pastures could probably sense they were on borrowed time and got out ahead of the pink slip.
After steadily declining returns and reputation-sullying NCAA sanctions followed a smashing debut year, Haith was almost certainly heading into a hot-seat season in 2014-15 at Mizzou, although some at the school dispute that. Martin had been given a $500,000 pay bump after taking Tennessee to the Sweet 16, but the Volunteers look weak on paper for next year – and the memories of those 35,000 petition signatures urging his ouster this season were not going to fade anytime soon. After a 27-8 debut season at LSU, Johnson had gone 40-56 over the next three – enough for even the basketball-apathetic Tigers fans to get restless. (And truth be told, Johnson already had done the lateral-move-at-best shuffle once in his career, going from Stanford to LSU.) After winning a national title in his first season and sustaining consistent success for eight years, Smith wore out his welcome at Kentucky with consecutive subpar seasons in 2005-06 and '06-07.
Maybe that's shrewd self-preservation instinct from all four men. But maybe it says something about the desperation to leave what are good jobs – all of them in the top 40 nationally – for a tangible reduction in prestige, pay or competitiveness. In some cases all of the above.
"Worrisome trend," was the assessment of one African-American coach I communicated with Thursday.
It absolutely should worry Slive, who made coaching diversity a point of pride during his tenure in the SEC. He strongly championed the barrier-breaking hire of Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State as the league's first black football coach, in 2004, and until this week he had the nation's most diverse group of men's basketball coaches in a power conference.
Half of the 14-team league's coaches were African-American in 2013-14. Today that number is four. That's still a high number compared to the Big Ten (one, Eddie Jordan of Rutgers) and the Atlantic Coast Conference (two, Leonard Hamilton of Florida State and Danny Manning of Wake Forest), but that's significant attrition in a single spring.
Tony Barbee was fired at Auburn after four losing seasons, and was replaced by Bruce Pearl. Then Martin bailed on Tennessee for Cal after three seasons in Knoxville. Now Haith has done the same after just three years in Columbia.
Tennessee and Missouri still could hire black replacements, but the initial candidate speculation lists for both schools were rather white. The only black coach mentioned thus far for those jobs has been VCU's Shaka Smart, who definitely is not going to Tennessee and would seem an improbable hire at Mizzou.
And there are storm clouds looming in 2014-15 for a couple of other SEC black coaches. Anthony Grant narrowly kept his job amid growing fan criticism at Alabama, and Mike Anderson should feel some urgency to earn his first NCAA tourney bid at Arkansas in what will be his fourth season.
Haith's parachute pull certainly ranks as the most surprising coaching move of the spring, given the gulf between Missouri and Tulsa. Yes, the Golden Hurricane made the NCAA tournament this year while his Tigers did not. And yes, Tulsa is upgrading to the American Athletic Conference next season, with a financial package to match. And yes, Tulsa has a rich heritage of overachieving (much of it thanks to the work of black coaches Nolan Richardson, Tubby and Steve Robinson) while Mizzou has historically underachieved. But the tangible difference between what Haith is fleeing and what he is embracing remains immense.
It clearly indicates that Haith's position was increasingly tenuous at Missouri. Attendance had risen over the Mike Anderson Era, but plummeted to an average of 9,215 this past season – lowest since 2007-08. After a 32-4 debut year in 2011-12 ended with a stunning round-of-64 upset at the hands of No. 15 seed Norfolk State, it was a case of decreasing returns in Columbia.
The 2012-13 team was just 2-8 on the road and bowed out early in both the SEC and NCAA tournaments. This year's team, with multiple potential pros, was relegated to the NIT.
Contributing to the erosion of goodwill was the five-game suspension Haith received last October from the NCAA for a failure to monitor his program while head coach at Miami. Had the NCAA not infamously sabotaged its own case with breaches of protocol, the charges and sanctions against Haith could have been far worse – and in that case it would have been difficult for Mizzou to stand by him.
Given all that, and the talent exodus from this year's team to the NBA draft, next season was not setting up very well for Frank Haith.
So he went to a well-worn playbook for black basketball coaches in the SEC – he took a step down and got out.
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