UC's hoops search . . . and shift in philosophy
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Mark Downey told me he was leaving as the head basketball coach of the University of Charleston, his words were chosen carefully.
Clearly, he enjoyed the city of Charleston. He and wife Ericka had nice jobs, and their kids were enrolled in good schools.
There was a reason, though, why Downey left and accepted a position at West Alabama. And it wasn't because of the incident at the end of April, when three of Downey's best players - Terrell Lipkins, Robbie Dreher and Quincy Washington - were arrested for robbery and subsequently kicked off the team.
"Not at all," Downey said when he resigned. "That was just an unfortunate incident."
I've known Downey since he played high school hoops. I know he was personally scarred by the aforementioned incident. But I truly don't believe that's why he left UC.
I believe he left because of the school's reaction to the incident.
After the headlines dominated the front of Charleston's two newspapers for a couple days, UC's hierarchy rolled out a "statement of athletic values and goals," which this week I was able to obtain through the school.
The statement spells out five "values" basically demanding a balance between athletics and academics as well as athletic achievements and community service.
There are also five "goals." The first is the athletic department "will report directly to the university President. The President is actively involved in the leadership and oversight of our intercollegiate athletic program."
Another "goal" is for the athletic staff to "selectively use background checks to screen recruits."
Last, but perhaps most important in regard to Downey, was the "goal" to "recruit primarily first-time students."
Downey has made a name for himself, and a successful career, through his contacts, which point the coach to higher quality players that fall through Division I cracks. Those players can be - and mostly are - transfers and junior college kids.
Certainly, most of those have issues - academic or otherwise - or they'd be in Division I programs. UC and Downey rolled the dice on the aforementioned trio and crapped out.
Had UC simply reacted with the "goal" of background checks, though, my belief is Downey would have been fine with that and remained. (He declined to discuss details of his departure.) When the "goal" surfaced of recruiting "primarily first-time students," however, Downey had to feel it was time to go.
If a Division II school wants to recruit only high school seniors, that's fine. Building winning teams, however, will take more time. Sustaining a winning program will be more difficult.
Aspiring coaches - as opposed to "lifers" - don't have time to wait. They can't afford two to three down years for one to two winning years.
When describing the situation at West Alabama, another Division II school, Downey said "it's a small town, but it's a public school."
That's key. A public school means public dollars and, thus, less reliance on fundraising, the lifeblood of a private school like UC.
If you're a coach at a high-profile private Division II school like UC, you'll also be a lead fundraiser. Winning really helps with that. And recruiting only high school seniors doesn't help with winning, at least on a consistent basis.
At West Alabama, Downey can use his contacts to secure high school players and transfers - complete with background checks if necessary.
That said, understand the UC "goal" said coaches should recruit "primarily" first-time students.
"We're giving a priority to first-time student-athletes," said UC president Dr. Ed Welch. "I think they should want to be here at the university. On the other hand, I'm not saying not to recruit transfers. What I'm saying is look first to the recruitment of first-time student-athletes to complement the others."
We'll see if the emphasis on high school recruits sticks. In the short run, it apparently made Downey, well, run. In the long run, the emphasis could remain strong or fade away. Losing teams can change emphasis, especially when the teams in question are tied to fundraising.
Welch, by the way, said athletic director Bren Stevens will return from vacation next week, when the coaching search will pick up steam. He said "lots of interested" candidates have shown interest, as one would expect.
Whispers have it that WVU Tech's Bob Williams and Concord's Kent McBride are the early leaders, with Delta State's Jim Boone also in the mix.
It will be interesting, however, to see how that shakes out. Word is Downey made just under $110,000 a year - including camp money - while at UC. Word also is, though, the school is now only willing to pay a maximum of $75,000 to the new coach.
We'll see if or how the apparent shift in philosophy affects the Golden Eagles program.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.
UC's athletic values and goals
The University of Charleston's intercollegiate athletic program is and must be an expression of the University's mission "to educate each student for a life of productive work, enlightened living, and community involvement." The values that direct the university's athletic program are rooted in the NCAA Division II phrase, "life in the balance." These are the values that define excellence for the University's intercollegiate athletic program.