In the cold light of hindsight, it’s easy to rip Dave Braine for awarding Paul Hewitt what was essentially a lifetime contract in April 2004, but you know what? Were I Georgia Tech’s athletics director, I would’ve, too. The Jackets had just returned from San Antonio after playing for the NCAA championship, and there wasn’t a more impressive young coach anywhere than Tech’s.
Hewitt had taken his team on a breathtaking five-game run — each could have been lost in the final minute — and he’d done it despite losing his leading scorer to a sprained ankle in Game 3. (B.J. Elder wouldn’t score another point until the title game against Connecticut.) That spring offensive was a triumph of willpower and chemistry and inspired shotmaking by Jarrett Jack and Will Bynum, but it was also a triumph of coaching.
At that moment, nobody thought to ask, “What if this is as good as it gets for Hewitt?” Because there seemed no reason why a coach so savvy wouldn’t move from strength to strength, and also because there was a more pressing issue: What if a Big East school or an NBA team decided to throw silly money at him?
Tech offered lasting security for as long as Hewitt coached the Jackets — he would always be working on a five-year contract, which would be paid in full (meaning $7 million or thereabouts) should he be fired — and Hewitt would pay Tech roughly $3.5 million if he took another job. I say again: It seemed a good idea at the time.
I say today: I have no idea what became of the Paul Hewitt of 2004.
His record since Tech played for the national title is 95-85. His road record is 16-48. His record in ACC play is 34-57. He has had three losing seasons. He has won one NCAA tournament game, that against George Washington in 2005. Since 2004, there hasn’t been a single season where he has outperformed expectations. Now this.
The ACC’s most talented team has a losing record in league play. With the conference in conspicuous flux, the stacked Jackets should be making a run at the regular-season crown. Instead they’re in eighth place, losers three times in four games. They were blown out at Duke by a team they’d already beaten. They nearly wasted a 16-point lead at home against the ACC’s worst team. They lost on a last-second basket to the league’s second-worst team. On Saturday they were beaten by Wake Forest, which they’d blown out here.
Their RPI — they’re 29th, give or take — is enough to get them into the NCAA tournament, but when you start three McDonald’s All-Americans and you’re relying on RPI, something’s wrong. (And let’s dispense with the boilerplate excuse that Tech is “young”: Three of its top six players are upperclassmen.) Stem to stern, this isn’t just the most gifted team Hewitt has had but the most gifted in Institute history. And it’s below .500 in a watered-down ACC.
Hewitt, speaking last month: “I think [his players] know how much they can do.” He said that on Jan. 9 after Tech beat Duke, which still stands as the season’s one major victory.
As critical as I’ve been of Hewitt over time, the memory of his early years at Tech have always stopped me from saying, “It’s time to take up a collection and buy him out.” He did brilliant work in taking Bobby Cremins’ leftovers to the NCAA in 2001, and three years later he topped it. Nothing since had been very good, but this season — incumbents Gani Lawal, Zachery Peacock, D’Andre Bell and Iman Shumpert augmented by a top five recruiting class — has long loomed as a final exam.
No, the proctor hasn’t yet called “time.” Tech has five regular-season games and then the ACC tournament to position itself for the NCAA, but just slipping into the field and exiting after Round 1 won’t validate Hewitt. If he can’t get these players into the Sweet Sixteen, it’ll be time to take up that collection.