Hokie Men's Basketball: the State of the Union
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 3/12/99
Nearly a decade ago, during the 1990-91 season, I tuned in to watch the Hokie men's basketball team play a game on TV, and I was depressed by what I saw. Bimbo Coles was gone, having finished his eligibility the previous year, and in the wake of his departure, the Hokies looked pathetic. They couldn't score, they couldn't shoot, and I had seen matadors play better defense.
I struck me that although coach Frankie Allen had gotten off to a fast start in his first year (19-10 in 1987-88), he had followed that up with two straight losing seasons (11-17 and 13-18), the pain of which had been masked by watching the stellar play of Bimbo Coles. With Bimbo on the floor, the Hokies were never really out of it, and they were never, never boring to watch.
But on that day in 1991, I realized that Hokie basketball had bottomed out, to a new low the likes of which I had never seen. And indeed, at one point in that season, Tech would lose ten of eleven games. They would finish that year at 13-16, their third straight losing season.
After having only one losing season from 1970-1988, the Hokies, under Frankie Allen's guidance, were making a habit of it. And they were doing it with players he had recruited and coached for a full four years, and the handwriting was on the wall. It was time for Mr. Allen to go.
I sat down and wrote a letter to Dave Braine, saying that I thought it was time, that Frankie Allen would destroy the program for good if Dave let it go on too much longer. There were larger issues at hand that I didn't understand that were contributing to the demise of Hokie hoops, most notably the slow decay of the once-proud and stirring Metro Conference (thank you, Louisville), but in my mind, the blame was squarely on Frankie's shoulders.
Dave agreed, and Frankie Allen was dismissed at the end of that season.
Fast-forward to November 19th, 1998. I'm sitting in Cassell Coliseum in a tiny gathering of 2400 Hokie fans, watching ETSU - East Tennessee State, for crying out loud - lay a nine-point loss on my Hokies, 57-48. At home.
That ETSU game brought back memories of that sad day in 1991, when I watched a completely inept Hokie team embarrass themselves on TV. Only this time, I was watching a completely inept Hokie team embarrass themselves in front of a pathetic gathering of just over 2000 fans. Sad days, indeed.
I gave up. Born in the fires of that mid-80's cauldron of Hokie basketball, when the Hokies would lay 48 points on teams like ETSU before half-time without batting an eyelash, I decided I couldn't take it - the losing, the boring defensive-oriented play, and the small crowds - anymore. So I took a break from Hokie men's basketball. I didn't attend a game for two months.
And I certainly wasn't alone. This year, Tech averaged just over 4,000 fans in Cassell, an all-time low for that great coliseum.
After that ETSU debacle, in ensuing games, the Hokies would lose a ten-point lead to WVU with two and a half minutes to go, and would later lose a five-point game to Wake Forest in which they shot 3-11 from the "free" throw line.
In mid-January, with the Hokies sleep-walking their way through ten losses in thirteen games and carrying a 6-11 record, the cry to fire coach Bobby Hussey began to well up from the ranks of Hokie fans who were actually paying attention. For the second time in the decade, the Hokie basketball program was scraping rock-bottom, and in this day and age of instant gratification, many fans wanted a change now.
And I'll tell you right now, although I was silent at the time, I was right there with those fans. I wanted a change.One Year Ago, Things Looked Great
It was hard to grasp feeling that way this past January, only thirteen months after a young Hokie basketball team electrified its fan base by coming within one point of beating #5 South Carolina in the most horribly officiated game I've ever seen, and by hanging with powerful North Carolina for one half before falling in defeat. Both games occurred in early December of 1997 at the Pepsi Classic in North Carolina, in Bobby Hussey's first year of coaching the Hokies.
The Hokies were packed with exciting young talent, featuring freshman point guard Jenis Grindstaff, freshman forward Rolan Roberts, and freshman shooting guard Kenny Harrell. All three players were pegged to be future superstars, heralding a new age of Hokie basketball that would return the Hokies not just to their winning ways, but to filling Cassell Coliseum again.
That team would eventually lose ten of eleven games, as well, and would wind up going 10-17, but that didn't dim my enthusiasm. Not only did Tech have a great nucleus of young players, but they had snagged another Top 100 recruit in Dennis Mims. With Grindstaff, Harrell, and Roberts on board, and Mims coming in, the future looked amazingly bright. It appeared that Bobby Hussey and his staff were rapidly cleaning up after the departure of Bill Foster, who left the cupboard bare.
Then came March 25, 1998, the day Jenis Grindstaff announced he was transferring. That was the day that Bobby Hussey's ship sprang its first leak.
It is unheard of for a star player who is averaging over 30 minutes a game and has been given the green light to do as he pleases on the court to suddenly announce that he's transferring, but that's exactly what happened.
A year later, it's still not clear why Grindstaff transferred. Now that his decision is cold in its grave, I can tell you what I heard, but it doesn't shed any light on the subject.
From Jenis's friends and family members, those that communicated with me, anyway, I heard that Bobby Hussey created a poisonous situation on the team by playing favorites with Jenis, and allowing him to be creative on the court, while continuing to criticize other players and keep a tight leash on them.
I was told that the other players took it out on Grindstaff, isolating a player who was decidedly more religious and withdrawn than the rest of them. The other players resented Grindstaff, and Hussey, oblivious to the situation, let it fester and boil until it drove Jenis to transfer.
From other sources loyal to the coach and the team, I heard that Grindstaff was a me-first prima donna whose self-interested attitude was in sharp contrast to his supposedly Christian character. I heard stories of Grindstaff moping when he played poorly, even when the team won. I heard stories of Grindstaff's father berating Bobby Hussey for not promoting Jenis harder for the A-10 all-freshman team, which Rolan Roberts made and Jenis did not.
I heard it all, to the point where I don't really know what the hell happened with Jenis Grindstaff. And, as a side bar, that's why I don't pass on a lot of "inside information" that I hear, because I have learned that every piece of information comes through a filter that is biased according to the source's own personal opinions and outlooks. Such it was with the Grindstaff situation, and to this day, perhaps only Jenis Grindstaff knows why he transferred.
But the outside world doesnt care about the reasons. All the outside world saw was that a coach - Bobby Hussey - had failed to maintain lines of communication with a very talented player, and had failed to see the transfer coming, and to prevent it.
I mean, really, most transfers occur when a recruit isn't getting playing time. But in Jenis's case, he was getting all the playing time he could handle. Who ever heard of a player who was averaging 35 minutes a game deciding to transfer? So, when Jenis decided to leave, Hokie basketball fans wanted answers, and in the absence of answers, wanted to do a little head-hunting.
Very quickly, the glow of a bright future dissipated, and instead, Hokie fans, me included, found themselves wondering, "Hey, what the hell's going on here?"
Then, in late September, Kenny Harrell fired a gun on campus, a cop saw it, Harrell was immediately dismissed from the team, and Virginia Tech basketball continued spiraling down the toilet. Suddenly, as I told one friend, the team was "starting to develop a stench of death about it," and when the season started, I didn't see anything to change that opinion.
A home loss to ETSU? Give me a break. Somewhere, off in the distance, I could hear the ghost of Dell Curry muttering in disgust.
A Bad Season
During the season, not only did Tech suffer the losses against ETSU, Wake, and WVU, but the Hokies also lost their first-ever game to St. Bonaventure, and they were tagged with their worst-ever loss at Cassell, a 78-48 debacle at the hands of Temple. And, as I said, the average attendance this year set an all-time low at Cassell, barely topping 4,000 fans a game.
Player defections, injuries, and gun-toting guards aside, Bobby Hussey's Hokies are setting the wrong kinds of records. Through it all, the Hokies only beat one team in the Top 50 of the RPI, George Washington. It was the first and only time in Hussey's two years of coaching that the Hokies had knocked off a Top-50 team. So, taking all this into consideration, it's only valid to question if the man should continue to be the coach of this basketball team.
The Hussey Question
The thing is, we can debate that point - whether Bobby Hussey should stay or go - ad nauseum, and Lord knows, the message board posters have done just that. And as you might expect, opinions are split. There are those who want him gone NOW, and those who say that he must be given the chance to coach the duration of his contract, and those who say he is a good coach and should stay, period.
But before the debate begins (or actually, continues), one simple fact has to be acknowledged: Bobby Hussey will be here next year, coaching this team, and he may even be here the year after that. Tech AD Jim Weaver has publicly stated that Hussey will be the coach next year, so that pretty much seals the deal.
Even if Jim Weaver hadn't said that, all but the most rabid anti-Hussey Hokie fan needs to accept the fact that you don't get rid of a coach after two years of his four year contract not at Virginia Tech, anyway, where principles such as honor, loyalty, and conducting business in an ethical manner still mean something.
Yes, it is a fact that many collegiate athletic departments are run like professional franchises, where a coach must produce immediately, or he is jettisoned. But that's not the way it's done at Virginia Tech, so Tech must, and will, honor at least one of the two remaining years on Hussey's contract. It's the proper way to do business.
In my opinion, the only reason you should fire a coach two years into his contract is if he is coaching the team in an unethical fashion, however you define that - cheating, paying players under the table, using racial slurs, abusing players, that sort of thing.
You certainly don't fire a coach for having the gall to go 13-15 in his second year. Nope, that's not cause enough.
Especially when you consider that you dont just cut loose a contracted coach without having to pay the price. Hussey makes something like $140,000 a year in salary, and if Tech were to fire him now, that means that over a quarter of a million dollars of Jim Weaver's money would have to be paid to a coach who was no longer doing any work for Tech. At the same time that a new coach would be drawing a salary. That's not going to happen.
And here's one more thing to think about - another one of those "in the past" stories. One year after writing Dave Braine a letter, asking him to get rid of Frankie Allen, I wrote Dave another letter, and asked him to cut loose another coach who wasn't performing. Frank Beamer.
I couldn't believe what I was seeing on the football field. We were three games into what was shaping up to be a nasty 1992 football season, and even though we were 2-1 at the time, I could see the train wreck coming. I was convinced Frank Beamer didn't have what it takes as a coach to win.
He brought an archaic wide-tackle six defense with him from Murray State, and real-live Division 1 teams were eating it alive. It was a defense that only had three true defensive backs, so when it ran into a four-wide passing attack like Florida State or Miami of Florida, it got mauled. I'll never forget sitting in Lane Stadium in 1992 watching Tech linebacker P.J. Preston trying to guard one of Miami's NFL-caliber wideouts. Ridiculous. What kind of idiot would actually use that kind of defensive scheme and expect it to work?
The kind of idiot who's capable of taking Tech to six straight bowls, that's who. We all know how that one turned out, and fortunately, Dave Braine didn't listen to me on that one.
But if I'm going to tell that story, there's an important point that has to be made: in order for Frank Beamer to stay and be successful, things had to change. Not just Frank and his coaching style and schemes, but other things, too. And I think therein lies the key to Bobby Hussey's success, as well. Things have to change. More on that later.
What We Know About Bobby Hussey
Two years of watching Bobby Hussey and his teams has revealed the coach's - and the man's - positives and negatives in detail. You may have your own opinion of coach Hussey, but here's how I see Bobby Hussey:
Bobby Hussey is a tireless worker who knows his X's and O's. He is a self-admitted game tape addict, a guy who will spend hours and hours analyzing game film, breaking down offenses and defenses, and making up his game plan. No one can ever accuse the guy of being lazy, and as I go through life, I feel more and more that one of the finest things a person can be is a hard worker. Some people are lucky, and everyone has certain skills, but most of us achieve success through hard work. If hard work is all it takes, Bobby Hussey will be successful.
But sometimes, I wonder if he thinks and analyzes too much, and overcoaches. I have watched players who have been in his system for two years now look sometimes as if they have no clue what to do on the court. In particular, there are times where the basketball team looks as if they have no idea what they're doing on offense.
For example, watch Indiana run their offense like a precision drill, moving the ball crisply for the open shot, and then watch as Bobby Hussey's troops struggle sometimes just to pass the ball around the top of the key. It's not all the time, mind you, but believe me, the team certainly looked like they didn't know what they were doing in the ETSU game I was talking about earlier.
Bobby Hussey and his staff are good recruiters. Jenis Grindstaff, Kenny Harrell, Rolan Roberts, and Dennis Mims are all top-notch ball players. But as one observer who had watched Jenis play in high school told me, "After he went to Tech, he just wasn't the same Jenis I'd seen in high school. He was airballing three pointers, he was turning the ball over, and I didn't see him dunk once. He used to dunk on people all the time in high school."
Rolan Roberts, although a talented player, hasn't advanced his game much in two years. He still commits silly fouls, and he still can't shoot free throws well. So the jury is still out on whether Bobby can develop the talent he recruits. Believe me, I'll be watching Dennis Mims closely over the coming years to see if he improves after a spotty freshman year. If he's still here in the coming years - more on that later.
Bobby Hussey is a man of integrity, a man who plays by the rules, is always gracious with the fans, and believes in winning with class and character. I will take Bobby Hussey any day over primping slimeballs like former UMass coach John Calipari, who looked the other way as his star player, Marcus Camby, paraded around draped in thousands of dollars worth of gold jewelry and clothing that any idiot could see he hadn't bought with his own money. The threads and accessories were gifts from an agent, and that cost UMass a lot of NCAA tournament money when the NCAA found out about it.
But Bobby Hussey is also a reserved, quiet man whose stoic, sometimes grumpy demeanor does nothing to endear him to those who don't know him personally. Only his players and staff can tell you if knowing him and working for him inspires loyalty. Just don't ask Jenis Grindstaff.
But one thing is clear about Bobby Hussey. He does not have a magnetic personality that draws people to him. He almost never smiles, and he rarely jokes.
Coach Bill Foster was always ready with a home-spun story or quote, and that, along with the winning, endeared him to Hokie fans. Coach Beamer's aw-shucks-gosh-lemme-tell-ya style is endearing to Hokie fans not just because he comes across as a good ole country boy, but because Hokie fans know that the casual demeanor hides a shrewd, calculating football mind. Frank Beamer may not be Vince Lombardi or Bear Bryant (only time will tell), but he's a much better coach than his country-boy bearing would have you believe at first glance.
But Bobby Hussey doesnt have the type of personality that draws people to him. He may be trying to learn, because after a few home victories late in the season, he smiled and waved at the crowd, and gave them a thumbs up. It was good move that made him connect with the fans, but there has been too little of that.
There are natural-born leaders in this world that inspire loyalty simply by the way they go about their business, and the confidence they exude. Three examples of natural born leaders that come to mind instantly are Jim Druckenmiller, Jim Weaver, and Bonnie Henrickson. They are people who carry themselves as if they expect success in life, and as a result, success comes to them.
Jim Druckenmiller does it with a broad-shouldered, big-lug, let's-go-run-over-linebackers attitude. And he always played his best in the big games.
Jim Weaver's intelligence and vision blow away anyone who spends more than five minutes with him. Weaver doesn't think anything's impossible. He doesn't ask "Can we do this?" He adds one simple word to it, and makes it, "How can we do this?" And then he changes another word and makes it "How will we do this?" And then he throws out question marks altogether and says, "Here's how we're going to do this."
As for Bonnie Henrickson, she strides onto a basketball court with a calm professionalism that oozes confidence and control. She patiently explains things to her players, and the players go out and execute what she says, and they win. It's all very simple to Bonnie, and for the great ones, it always is.
For natural-born leaders, greatness and success is part of everything they do and say. Very few of us have that quality. Lord knows I don't. And in two years, I haven't seen it in Bobby Hussey, either. That's not a slam or a criticism of the man. It's just a characterization.
What We Need
Virginia Tech men's basketball is hitting rock bottom. After having no losing seasons from 1970-71 through 1985-86, nine out of thirteen seasons since then have been losers.
In the last thirteen years, we have played in the NCAA's or the NIT twice. Twice in thirteen years. Search the membership list of most major conferences in America, and you'll be hard-pressed to find teams with such an undistinguished record of post-season play.
Once a semi-major player in men's basketball, we have become nobody. We dont even upset ranked teams anymore, something we used to do with regularity, even during down years. Cassell Coliseum, once one of the most feared pits in the country, is no big deal these days for visiting teams to play in. We have lost home games to LaSalle, ETSU, and St. Bonaventure in the last two years, for crying out loud.
We once played in a great conference, the Metro, that included national powers Memphis State and Louisville, and other teams like Southern Mississippi and Tulane, that were among the most entertaining teams in the country.
Now we play in a conference that most Hokie fans don't care about, don't identify with, and won't pay $10 to watch us play in. Even the students won't walk across campus and use the tickets they have paid for with their athletic fees. Attendance and fan interest are at an all-time low.
That's not whining or criticism. Those are just facts.
Certainly, all-conference membership in the Big East would do wonders to improve fan interest and attendance, and recruiting would go up several notches, as well. Much like Virginia Tech's football team, the basketball team would be well-served by inclusion in the Big East, and such an invitation could serve as a magic potion to significantly boost the program.
But until that magical day arrives (and don't hold your breath), what Tech needs to snap out of their doldrums is an exceptional coach. And Bobby Hussey is not an exceptional coach. An exceptional coach would have been a winner the last couple of years, even with the player losses. Exceptional coaches win despite adversity.
At this point, you're saying, "Will wants to fire Coach Hussey! Will wants to fire Coach Hussey!"
No, that's not what I'm saying. The Frank Beamer lesson taught me that when your coach isn't getting the job done, you dont necessarily need to fire him. But he does need to be willing to change.
For Bobby Hussey, the nasty fact is that next year, the clock starts ticking. He will enter the last two years of his contract, and unless he breaks out of his box and starts doing something extraordinary, he may not last beyond the terms of his contract.
Next year, Coach Hussey has some new talent coming in, and over the next couple of years, in order to return Tech to winning form, he needs to (a) keep doing well the things he does well -- working hard, coaching defense, and leading the program with dignity -- and (b) he would be well advised to do the following things better:
Play more exciting basketball. Hokie basketball fans have visited this subject over and over again. Every fan wants to run the ball up and down the floor and play exciting offensive basketball, and neither Bill Foster nor Bobby Hussey has been willing to. Both coaches say they want to, but they have cited lack of depth and lack of talent as reasons for slowing the ball down.
Well, guess what - if you continue to walk the ball up and down the floor, you'll never recruit the talent and the depth to run the ball up and down the floor. Players who want to play exciting basketball will go somewhere else, and Tech will continue to walk the ball up and down the floor, wondering why there isn't more depth and talent on the team. It's a vicious cycle. And in the meantime, the fans, tired of watching 51-49 slugfests, will vote to stay home and watch TV instead.
I'm not stupid. I know that if you take an undermanned team and start a track meet with the likes of Xavier or Rhode Island, you're likely to get destroyed. I also know that it's very easy for me as a fan to sit here and whine about the style of play. But you have to start somewhere.
Bonnie Henrickson made an interesting comment earlier this year. She said, "We're in the entertainment business. If you don't put an exciting product on the floor, people aren't going to come to see you play, and we understand that."
Meanwhile, the men's team continues to walk the ball up and down the floor, wondering why there's no one in the stands. Sure, membership in the A-10 is a snoozer for fan interest, but so are the 50-point defensive battles we're being fed a steady diet of. Frankly, I'm bored, and so are most fans. The attendance numbers prove it.
Play better fundamental basketball. Shoot free throws better. Turn the ball over less (how many times does Andre Ray have to walk with the basketball before someone pulls him aside and teaches him how not to?). Set better screens. Move the ball better on offense. Basketball players aren't born knowing how to do these things. They're taught these things. By a coaching staff. There's no excuse for losing a game by five points because you shot 3-11 from the "free" throw line.
Get in touch with the fans. Fan interest and high attendance isn't a right, it's a privilege that is earned. For example, with Tech's women's team, it's not just the winning that endears (there's that word again) them to Hokie fans. It's their wide-eyed appreciation of the crowds, and the hour-long autograph sessions after their games that make them fan favorites.
I don't know how the men's team can suddenly "get in touch with the fans," but certainly, ignoring them isn't going to do it. The women have all sorts of neat little fan-friendly things they do. At the beginning of the game, they have little Nerf basketballs that they hold, and after player introductions, they throw them into the stands. After the game, they huddle at mid-court, and when they break the huddle, they wave to the fans.
On the other hand, the men's team never even acknowledges the fans. Bobby Hussey is catching on a little bit, with his waves and thumbs-up after victories, but geez, just smiling at the fans now and then will do wonders.
In short, make the game fun again. As a friend of mine says, he never attends men's basketball games, because everyone "is angry."
"The players are yelling at the refs, the fans are yelling at the refs, the fans are yelling at the players, the coaches are yelling at the players, the players are yelling at each other. Everybody's mad. I just got sick of it."
That's a pretty interesting comment. I'm not sure how it's relevant to the state of the team and its coach, but it's part of what they have to work against.So, What Am I Saying?
That's a lot of rambling, and I'm sure my point probably got lost in all the verbiage.
The reason I wrote this article is that during the slump last January, as Bobby Hussey's job status was being debated on the message board, several people asked me what I had to say about the matter. I said I was going to wait until the end of the season, and then speak out. So here I am.
And to summarize, I have this to say: we have a team that has been through some adversity, and fan interest and the ability to post a winning season are nowhere to be found. To pull us up out of this thirteen-year slump (broken only by Bill Foster's three good years in the mid-90's), it's going to take great coaching, and our current coach hasn't done anything in the last two years to justify being labeled a "great" coach.
He's a good man, a man of integrity, and a hard-working, knowledgeable coach, but he needs to be able to get his current collection of players to overachieve in order to be successful, and he hasn't displayed the ability to do that. Not yet. And as I said, I personally think that he needs to change some things in order to get to where he needs to be.
And given that he was Bill Foster's hand-picked successor and was not hired because he beat out several other candidates for the job, he has a shorter honeymoon than most new coaches. And the fact that he is a reserved man whose personality is not "fan friendly" like that of Bill Foster or UVa's Pete Gillen doesnt do him any favors or earn him the good graces of Tech fans.
Unless Bobby shows some flashes of something we haven't seen from him yet, and unless the team starts beating some good teams and posting winning records, he's not likely to last longer than two more seasons, and he may not even last after one more. And Bobby Hussey himself would probably agree that unless his team starts winning next year, perhaps he shouldn't stay. Like most coaches, he is driven to win, and doesn't accept anything less than winning. And he wouldn't expect us to.Dennis Mims: the Ticking Time Bomb?
The interesting thing is, this discussion could be rendered moot by Dennis Mims.
Rumors that Dennis might transfer have been swirling for months now. As a matter of fact, one insider told me last December that he thought Dennis wouldn't come back after Christmas break. I kept that little nugget to myself, and Dennis did come back, but the rumors became public in mid-January, and since then, he has done nothing to dispel them.
As has been reported by Richmond Times-Dispatch writer Jeff White, and Roanoke Times writer Randy King, Dennis was asked about the rumors recently, at the Atlantic 10 conference tournament a week ago.
His answer? "I don't even know about that right now. I have to think about it."
I dont know how seriously to take that statement, but if Dennis does decide to transfer, then in my opinion, Bobby Hussey should be given a one-way ticket on the next train out of Blacksburg. Jim Weaver will have no choice, because a track record of wooing top recruits only to have them transfer out after one year will be the kiss of death for a basketball program that is currently just middle of the pack.
But until then, stand back and let the man work. Give him at least one more year, maybe two, before you make up your mind for good. That's what I'm doing.