Thursday, March 25, 1999

Into the Breach:  Ricky Stokes Hired as Tech's Head Coach

Stokes named Virginia Tech head coach - Excite Sports
Roanoke Times Tech basketball page

Well, doesn’t that just get your orange and maroon underwear all in a bunch? Call Jim Weaver anything you want, but don't call him boring.

Wednesday, just two days after Bobby Hussey was fired, Virginia Tech announced that its next head men's basketball coach will be former UVa player Ricky Stokes, who will leave his job as Associate Head Coach at Texas to join the Hokies. On Wednesday, the Hokies signed Stokes to a five-year contract that will earn him about $130,000 a year in salary and another $70,000 in other earnings, for a total of $201,000 per year.

Perhaps upon hearing that a former Wahoo is going to coach the Hokies, you had the same type of reaction the characters on Friends have when they hear something they think is gross or disgusting: "Eww! Eww! Eww!"

(Picture Phoebe or Ross flailing their arms with their face all screwed up. You'll get the idea.)

But once you get over the shock, you can't deny that Stokes looks like a good choice. While most Hokie fans and the media were throwing around the names Brey, Peterson, and even Bristow, Jim Weaver was taking a good hard look at Stokes. Jim made it sound as if he studied Ricky for several weeks and then contacted him for the first time shortly after firing Hussey on Monday, but I have a hard time believing that Tuesday was the first time the two had met face to face. This decision was too important for Mr. Weaver - and Ricky - to have made it so quickly.

The announcement polarized the message board, as you can imagine. Most of the posters there took a look at Stokes's bio from the University of Texas web site and pronounced him a sound choice, and if successful, his UVa roots will soon be forgotten, or at least not seen as a point of contention. Meanwhile, a couple of posters took great exception to Mr. Weaver hiring someone from the UVa camp. For some people, their dislike of anything orange and blue clouds their desire to see Tech succeed.

Me, I want whatever's best for Virginia Tech, and if Ricky Stokes is just that, then so be it. At Wednesday's press conference Ricky said all the right things, telling the press that he wanted to play an up-tempo style, but that would be dependent upon the personnel he has available to him.

He also said that when he was picking a college, he "wasn't smart enough" for Tech, so he went to UVa (that's not likely, of course, and probably not true, but it was a nice piece of PR by Ricky). And he also said that Tech was the best university in the state - another good public relations move. Ricky did everything he could, short of burning his old UVa jersey and denouncing UVa as a hotbed of preppie liberalism. Frankly, I would prefer it if he not demean his alma mater in any way. I would prefer him to be proud of his UVa background, because it would show that he has confidence in himself and where he comes from. Don't flaunt it, mind you, but don't be insincere, either.

The hiring of a former Wahoo - this particular Wahoo, anyway - is probably easier for me to take than it is for most of you, because for me, my memories of Ricky Stokes go all the way back to my high school days in Charlottesville (Albemarle High, Class of 1983), when I was still a UVa fan, and Ricky played for UVa teams that I rooted hard for.

I liked Ricky as a player, but then again, I liked almost all of those Wahoos that played on the Final Four teams of the early 80's. I was never really big on Ralph Sampson, who wasn't very personable and never seemed to play the game with much intensity, but as for the other guys, you couldn't watch guys like Jeff Lamp, Lee Raker, Ricky Stokes, and Mike Owens, and not like them. They were all gutsy competitors, handcuffed by what I felt was an average coach.

So although my memories of Raker and Lamp stand out more than my memories of Ricky Stokes, he is someone I remember who gave it his all on the basketball floor, and he overachieved, unlike Sampson and coach Terry "Weasel" Holland, who always seemed to underachieve during those years.

So let's take a look at the upsides and the downsides of Ricky Stokes:

The Upsides

For starters, as Jim Weaver said, Stokes has achieved at the highest levels in men's college basketball. As a player, he went to the NCAA tournament all four years he played, went to two Final Fours, and played year in and year out against some of the toughest competition available, in the ACC.

As an assistant coach, he once again made visits to the NCAA tournament a regular occurrence, from 1991-1997 with Wake Forest, and in 1999 with Texas. He recruited one of the top players in Wake Forest history (Tim Duncan), and he also recruited the NCAA's all-time leader in three-point shooting, Curtis Staples of Virginia.

One of the things many of us like about Jim Weaver himself is that his background includes experience in many big-time atmospheres: Penn State, Florida, and UNLV. Jim Weaver knows what the big-time looks like, and he knows what Tech needs to do to get there. He's stepping on some toes along the way, particularly in the last three days, but rapid growth is always painful for some. Just ask Bobby Hussey.

But my point is, Ricky Stokes has been a part of the big time, too, both as a player and an assistant coach. He knows what it looks like up close, and he knows that Tech is currently not big-time in men's basketball. He also knows that we can be, or he wouldn't take this job. He has turned down three other Division 1 head coaching offers in the past, all at smaller schools that he felt did not have the chance that Tech does to succeed (Virginia Commonwealth, Furman and East Tennessee).

Stokes receives high praise from everyone who meets him, including Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver, who is a pretty good judge of people, from what I can tell. Stokes is articulate, bright, cheerful, well-educated, and comes from a successful, well-educated family (his dad received a Ph.D. from Tech, so there, he's at least partially a Hokie).   And he is said to be charismatic, a real charmer.  The UVa fans who stopped by the message board yesterday spoke of him in glowing terms.

The Downside

Stokes has no proven track record as a head coach, and in fact, no experience as a head coach at all. Also, whereas candidates like Brey of Delaware and former Hokie basketball player Jeff Schneider of Cal-Poly Slo are disciples of proven winning coaches (Brey is a Coach K disciple, and Schneider is a Tubby Smith/Rick Pitino student), Stokes was the understudy to … Dave Odom. Not a bad coach, but certainly no Coach K.

And let's be honest - Stokes's background as a Cavalier doesn't leave me with a warm fuzzy feeling about him having long-term loyalty to Tech. Sorry, I know that will annoy many of you who feel "that doesn't matter," and you may be right. Blacksburg and Virginia Tech are certainly places you can fall in love with, even if your roots aren't here.

I’m betting that when Ricky settles into the area and starts raising his family here, he will grow to love it, as well. But if he wins 20 games five years from now, and for some reason, UVa (or any other school with a better tradition and more money than Tech) comes calling, looking for a new coach … can we trust him to stay? I abhor coaching changes, and that's a key question for me. Plus, one of the reasons Weaver hired a young man is in the hopes that it will be a long-term relationship, not a five-and-done situation like the terms of Bill Foster or Frankie Allen.

We won't know until that day comes, if it ever does, whether Ricky will choose to stay at Tech, like Frank Beamer has chosen, and like we hope Bonnie Henrickson (another coach without Tech roots, but one who has apparently grown to love Tech) will choose. Heck, we may be ready to run him out of town on a rail five years from now, if he's even good enough to last that long. We don't know how the next few years are going to play themselves out.

My Feelings

For Ricky Stokes, he is at a crucial point of his career. He has impressed people everywhere he has been, he has a great resume for a young man, and he is now being handed the reigns of a basketball program with untapped potential. Virginia Tech features a rabid fan base (when it's properly motivated by a likable winning team and a charismatic coach), very little competition for the local entertainment dollar, and a great home coliseum. And if the Hokies are ever invited into the Big East for all sports, Stokes will be coaching in one of the premier basketball conferences in the country.

When I look at Ricky Stokes's bio, hear him talk, and read the quotes of those who know him and are impressed by him, I like what I see. But I think the situation is analogous to sizing up a football recruit that has impressive high school credentials and is highly rated by recruiting services. On paper, Ricky appears to be a great prospect, but we're about to ask him to do something he has never done before, and we have no idea how good he's going to be at it.

At first glance, Ricky is what many of us were asking for - young, dynamic, and a good recruiter. We weren't asking for a UVa grad, and it will be interesting to see what dynamic that part of his resume will create among Hokie fans. If he's not successful, that part of it could get ugly, and Mr. Weaver will be subjected to much second-guessing.  But that's why he earns the big bucks.

It seems obvious to me that Ricky Stokes has the necessary tools and background, and I'm excited to have him coming on board. But the question remains: will he be able to deliver the goods? Only time will tell.


TSL News and Notes Archives

TSL Home