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There’s a point at which it’s easy to conclude, “It’s not going to work.” Georgia Tech had reached that point with Paul Hewitt.
Hewitt was fired as Tech’s basketball coach Saturday. Some of this is about bottom-line results. Hewitt had five winning records and four NCAA tournament berths in his first seven seasons; only one winning record and a tournament appearance in the next four. Even the greatest coaches can go through down periods and survive, but that requires creating a positive atmosphere and giving off signals that a turnaround was imminent.
Hewitt didn’t do that. He left little impression that he could do that. Positive energy hasn’t existed around Georgia Tech’s basketball program for the past few years. He would blame critics for that. Critics would blame him. Regardless of where the blame lay, perception was reality.
This was the fallout:
♦ There was the financial side: Fans stopped buying tickets. The decline likely would have continued next season at a time when a drop in basketball revenues has eaten into an already tight budget, and the Jackets are preparing to move into a refurbished arena in 18 months.
♦ There was the emotional side: Hewitt didn’t respond well to criticism. He fell into the common athlete trap of a borderline juvenile Twitter war last year with critics. His intent to come to the defense of his players was admirable. But his actions backfired. It was the strategic equivalent of Wile E. Coyote accidentally tying the dynamite fuse to his foot.
♦ There was the irritant side: Hewitt often came off as arrogant and dismissive in public, even though he actually could be one of the nicest and classiest men around. Some of my more entertaining debates came with Hewitt, even though they also left me with a headache. I told him on a few occasions he was one of the most paranoid individuals I had ever met. His response often was along the lines of, “The world is out to get me.”
The problem wasn’t merely a lack of belief that Hewitt could fix the problems — it was a lack of belief that he could rally the fan base into believing he could fix the problems.
Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich was so convinced a firing was necessary that he reached the decision before the ACC tournament. He met with school president Bud Peterson twice in the past week — before the Jackets played Thursday night against Virginia Tech. Radakovich recommended the firing, and Peterson signed off on it.
In Radakovich’s words, “We had come to concurrence on that.”
Regardless of what happened in the ACC tournament?
“Well, that’s just speculation. There was no finality to it.”
We’ll let you sort out the contradiction.
Hewitt’s dramatic fall has been mind-boggling. He led the Jackets to one of their two Final Four appearances and their only national title game in 2004. Coaches don’t get dumb over night.
In recent months, I’ve asked several people close to the program their thoughts on what happened. Similar themes were repeated. Hewitt tried to do too much. When he lost some assistant coaches, he replaced the bodies, but gave them little autonomy. He obsessed over everything: coaching, academics, the players’ personal lives. Much of that goes with the territory as a college coach. But Hewitt’s resistance to allow others to help hurt his ability to coach.
The only thing more remarkable than Hewitt’s fall was how quickly some fans and alumni turned on him, to the extent that several were celebrating his imminent firing. The whole thing became distasteful.
Guard Jason Morris referenced the “lack of support” from fans, and added: “[The criticism] was worse, having to deal with that on our own home court. Having fans going against our own coach wasn’t something we would ever support. No coach should ever have to go through that.”
Understand this about Tech: The program is not in disarray. Hewitt recruited well. He didn’t bring the program shame or embarrassment. He was devoted to his profession and the mission of college athletics. The problems that exist are easily fixable. But the first chore of the new coach will be to rebuild bridges and energize the fan base. There was no reason to believe Hewitt was going to do that.
By Jeff Schultz