The Final Fate of a Nice Guy
by Jim Alderson, 3/11/03

The 2002-03 Virginia Tech men’s basketball season has ended with Tech’s record of never having lost a Big East tournament game intact. Tech has missed the BE tournament in all three of its years as full Big East members, and for Ricky Stokes the third time proved to be something other than the charm.

Forty-eight hours after the latest and last of the infuriating Tech losses that punctuated the career of Ricky Stokes, he was fired. He joins Bobby Hussey, Frankie Allen, Charlie Moir, Don Devoe and Howie Shannon as coaches who, since I have been following Tech sports, left the basketball office under something other than voluntary circumstances. Basketball coaching continuity is not our strong point.

I had remained quiet as the debate raged around TSL as to whether Stokes should be fired, because I was very ambivalent at the prospect. I have met and talked with Ricky Stokes, and very much liked him. He is a very likable guy, and I have rooted very hard for him to succeed, and will continue to do so wherever his coaching career next lands him. Unfortunately, that won’t be Virginia Tech.

The regime of Ricky Stokes at Tech had positives. He conducted himself with class and dignity and was a credit to our university. This year finds a bumper crop of scandals blooming across the college basketball landscape, but there was not a hint of impropriety connected to Ricky Stokes. In a profession rivaled only by politics in the sheer number of scoundrels it attracts, Stokes brought an honesty to the Tech basketball office that would be as alien to Jim Harrick or Jerry Tarkanian as Tony Soprano at an FBI employee picnic. Unfortunately for Stokes, Tech, and the coaching profession, it wasn’t enough. 

Ricky Stokes came to Tech carrying a reputation as a very good recruiter. With the notable and glaring exception of point guard, he had a very good idea of the type of player available to Tech these days, good athletes with a large basketball upside such as Bryant Matthews and Carlos Dixon that could be developed into quality players. This year’s crop of freshmen was in the same mold and could provide the foundation upon which future recruiting upgrades could be built. My opinion is that it will take Tech at least a decade to become competitive with the best of the Big East [about how long it took UConn when they were in similar circumstances], if it can indeed be done.

Tech has precious little to offer top schoolboy basketball talent, and the only way to change that, short of a Bonnies-esque Welding curriculum or the ‘they’re only rules’ approach taken a couple of states to our south, is to bring in the best available athletes and gradually increase the talent level as they move through the program, hoping to unearth the next Ace Custis or Bimbo Coles along the way and working towards making Tech attractive enough to attract the next Dell Curry. Stokes had begun this process. That we are back to square one is not a comforting thought. 

While Ricky Stokes came to Tech with a reputation as a recruiter, although he was unable to land the coveted blue chip prospect some Tech fans feel should be flocking to campus, it was his performance on the floor that got him fired. The skills necessary for successful recruiting often do not translate to jobs in the big office. Football Recruiting Coordinator Jim Cavanaugh is an excellent recruiter, but that does not necessarily mean I would want him running the defense or the entire football team. Ricky Stokes had serious trouble motivating his teams to play at anything close to a level consistent enough to win. There were many losses to teams that shouldn’t have been within double figures of Tech. A loss to the likes of Wofford is simply inexcusable, and there were many more just like it.

After four years, Ricky Stokes never developed into a competent game tactician. All too often, the Tech bench during a timeout would resemble a Chinese fire drill with players staring into a space while all coaches talked at once. This would frequently result in Tech returning to the floor and promptly turning the ball over or jacking up a very ill-advised shot. In what turned out to be Stokes’ final game, a simple changing of the defense by the opposing coach caused such befuddlement among the Tech staff and players that a total collapse ensued. Stokes had no experience calling his own game when he came to Tech, but after four years it appeared he never learned. That failure cost him his job.

Tech now goes looking for what will be its fourth coach over the last decade. The Athletic Director has indicated that the department’s financial situation has improved to the point that the next coach will be chosen for qualities other than that most highly-prized in Stokes, a willingness to work cheap. Hopefully, the next coach can improve Tech to at least a degree that justifies our membership in the Big East for something other than our football program. As for Ricky Stokes, most Tech fans join me in wishing him nothing but the best in future endeavors; it is unfortunate things didn’t work out here.

It has appeared in newspapers all over the state, but it is a fitting epitaph for Stokes’ Tech career and bears repeating one more time:

In this case, a nice guy did indeed finish last. Three times.

Jim Alderson, who first made his mark with his biting political commentary on the A-Line email newsletter, also brings a unique, sarcastic, and well-informed perspective on college sports, particularly (1) Virginia Tech sports and (2) ACC sports.  While Hokie fans currently have very little use for subject number 2, Alderson is an entertaining and informative columnist on subject number 1.  For even more fun, visit Jim's A-Line home page.


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