A wonderful final act, wasn’t it? The home team won. The building was full for its last breath before the wrecking ball. Fans were loud and sometimes even on their feet. When it was over, Paul Hewitt stood and soaked it all in as the band played the school fight song, followed by “Auld Lang Syne.” Everybody smiled.
It was almost like a time warp.
Ever visit the back lot of a movie studio, where they have fake building fronts with no back? That’s sort of what Georgia Tech resembled Sunday. Great curb appeal. Just don’t peak around the corner.
The Yellow Jackets had a cool and perfect ending to their regular season. They drilled Miami 66-57. They had a pressure defense that forced 21 turnovers. They had four players score in double figures. Then afterward, when Hewitt finished his post-game news conference, he walked briskly down the hall at Alexander Memorial Coliseum because he had an important guest waiting.
“I really don’t have time – I’ve got a recruit waiting,” Hewitt said.
When asked if this game and the crowd reminded him of better times, Hewitt said: “When we win, that’s how people react. We’ve just got to win. It’s no different than any other year.”
One thing is different. This might have been Hewitt’s final act on campus. Georgia Tech will go into the ACC tournament as an 11th seed. The Jackets’ stay in Greensboro could be brief. The coach’s future may be next to feel the wrecking ball.
I want to start with this, because it tends to get lost amid the swarm of bitter folks who seemingly are taking glee in Hewitt’s demise: The man is not an idiot.
Basketball coaches don’t just luck into four NCAA tournament berths and three 20-plus wins seasons in their first seven seasons. So please, enough with the proclamations about Hewitt’s limitations.
Here’s a coach who understands the mission of college athletics, doesn’t cheat and doesn’t embarrass the university. He has succeeded at the highest level, taking over a program that failed to reach the NCAA tournament in four straight years and getting the Jackets to their first ever national title game in his fourth season. He never has projected anything but caring about his players, his program and the university. In college basketball, that puts him in special company.
The win totals obviously have been a problem of late. There is no excuse for losing to Kennesaw State. There is no excuse for going 2-14 and 5-11 in the ACC in two of the last three years. In many ways, it’s mind-boggling how far Tech has fallen.
But understand that if Hewitt loses his job — and that appears likely – this will be about much more than wins and losses.
When athletic director Dan Radakovich fired football coach Chan Gailey, it wasn’t because Gailey couldn’t coach. It wasn’t even because he couldn’t win. Fact is, Gailey never had a losing record. He won seven games every season – save the year he had nine. He went to a bowl every year.
But fans were divided on Gailey. Radakovich felt the need to galvanize and ignite the fan base. He believed the only way to accomplish that was by changing coaches.
Perception is reality. If Hewitt meets the same fate as Gailey, it will be less because of a belief that Hewitt can’t win any more than it will a belief that not enough folks around the program are buying in.
When presented with the Gailey comparison at halftime, Radakovich said: “You’re accurate to say it’s part of the overall evaluation of the program, and the direction of where we are and where we’re going.”
Radakovich repeated the usual sound bites of evaluating Hewitt after the season. He acknowledged the importance of having Tech fans excited before the arena reopens in two years, saying: “I want to be able to open this building on an uptick rather than a down tick.”
He was gratified by Sunday’s crowd. But when asked about declining attendance, he said: “There are certain factors that aren’t pointing in the right direction.”
Hewitt was asked how he is dealing with everything swirling around him.
“I’m just coaching the team,” he said.
Tunnel vision probably is wise in this case.
By Jeff Schultz