Commentary

Interims an odd decision but make sense

Originally Published: August 30, 2007
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Florida A&M started school Monday and the Rattlers still don't have a men's basketball coach. But FAMU athletic director Nelson Townsend said Wednesday that the plan is to hire a permanent coach, not name an interim coach for this season, to replace the fired Mike Gillespie.

Texas Southern has an opening too after Ronnie Courtney was fired in July. It's hard to say what the Tigers are going to do since athletic director Alois Blackwell hasn't returned phone calls or e-mails to ESPN.com. The Texas Southern Web site simply says that the 2007-08 coaching staff has yet to be determined.

Maryland-Eastern Shore, Norfolk State and East Carolina all had coaching vacancies earlier this year. Instead of hiring a new coach, each school promoted an assistant coach to the head coaching position, but only on an interim basis. Meredith Smith is the interim coach at Maryland-Eastern Shore. Anthony Evans, an assistant at Norfolk State for four years, is the interim there. Mack McCarthy, who has head coaching experience, is now the acting head coach at East Carolina.

Anthony Evans
NSU Sports InformationAnthony Evans replaced Dwight Freeman at Norfolk State, but who knows if Evans will have the job after this season.
One thing is certain: The way Maryland-Eastern Shore, Norfolk State and East Carolina handled their openings doesn't appear to be a trend. The decision to go interim in all three cases -- while on the surface appearing odd -- was a unique decision in each instance.

On March 14, Larry Lessett Jr. resigned at Maryland-Eastern Shore after a 13-75 record over three seasons. He was 4-27 last season and 1-17 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. A day later, athletic director Keith Davidson promoted Smith as the interim coach. That was in March, and it was a decision for the entire 2007-08 season.

If it doesn't make sense to you to decide on an interim coach in March for a season that is still eight months away, then you're not alone.

"I wanted to make sure that we didn't continue the mistakes that had been made in the past," Davidson said. "I thought we needed to step back and look at what we've done."

Davidson said the school empowered him to look at the way the program had made hires prior to his arrival in 2003. He said he didn't want to go out and make a big splash hire without really knowing if the infrastructure was in place to give a full-time coach a chance to succeed.

"There are a lot of good coaches out there, and we need to do our due diligence to make sure we ask the serious questions and get the right fit for who we are and what we're looking for," Davidson said.

Maryland-Eastern Shore will start looking for a full-time coach in January, and the new coach will take over in March. Smith will be a candidate.

But there was a larger issue that Davidson faced that forced him to make this unique decision. He didn't want Maryland-Eastern Shore to lose players and force another potential penalty by falling below the Academic Performance Rate (APR) cut line. He said Maryland-Eastern Shore had already been penalized one scholarship for falling below the APR line. Schools that fall below the line are subject to a penalty that includes loss of scholarships. The APR is, according to the NCAA, a "real-time assessment of the team's academic performance."

"We realized that we didn't have an academic problem but a retention problem, and that's where we took the biggest hit," Davidson said. "We had to do something about the coaching situation but had to have an eye on the academics, so [that's why] we stayed with the continuity of the coaching staff."

Davidson said he took some heat locally for the move, but he wanted to resist the demand for change and to make a quick decision. He said the assistants were well aware that their time at Maryland-Eastern Shore may only be for one season. UMES lost four seniors and two other players who transferred elsewhere; given the interim tag, that isn't too bad. It could have been a lot worse, with a bigger defection, if there had been more of a change.

Norfolk State -- which is in the MEAC, like Maryland-Eastern Shore and FAMU -- also went in an interim direction, but for a different reason. Athletic director Marty Miller promoted Evans as the interim coach to replace Dwight Freeman on April 17. Freeman, who was 63-75 in five seasons, was reassigned to a position in the development/fundraising office.

"I just felt that we needed to make sure that we had the appropriate time to make a sound selection," Miller said.

Miller's decision wasn't about academics. It was more about being certain Norfolk State found the right coach, and he was willing to give Evans a chance while also searching the country for a viable candidate. Evans had been an assistant the previous four seasons.

The reality of MEAC recruiting is that these schools, like most in lower Division I, must sign players after the high- and mid-majors get their pick. So going with an interim coach won't necessarily hurt their recruiting since their classes are usually assembled later in the process.

As for East Carolina, Terry Holland, the former Virginia coach and athletic director and current AD at ECU, had a former head coach in McCarthy (16 seasons at UT-Chattanooga and Virginia Commonwealth) on staff. So it was an easier call to go with McCarthy earlier this month as the team's acting head coach after Ricky Stokes was moved into administration as the associate athletic director for basketball but was later bought out of his contract.

Holland said that Stokes' job status was going to be a distraction if he had stayed, and this eliminated the issues.

"Ricky's situation may have been too tough a load to carry for a young and fragile team," Holland said in an e-mail. "Therefore, I thought a whole new staff was too disruptive under the circumstances. A shake-up seemed to work best and right now things are going very well for Mack and staff -- they have bonded."

Stokes had gone 14-44 in his tenure. Holland said McCarthy will be given a chance to get the full-time job.

"This eliminates the speculation since everyone knows that in the spring Mack will get a nice contract or we will be hiring a new staff," Holland said.

Is the interim tag a trend? Nope, it just so happens that athletic directors at UMES and Norfolk State apparently are very deliberate in their hiring practices, while ECU is a more unique situation. The Pirates made the switch over the summer, had a previous head coach on staff and clearly saw no problem with giving him a shot to earn the full-time gig before opening it up nationally.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com