It would be better for both parties if Paul Hewitt leaves. Better for Georgia Tech, which would be free of an increasingly unpopular coach and his onerous contract, but also better for Hewitt, who could return to New York as the people’s choice. As coach of St. John’s, he wouldn’t be viewed as the guy who hasn’t really delivered since 2004; he’d be the man from Queens come home to save the Johnnies.
There was a time when Paul Hewitt seemed the savior of Tech basketball. In his first season he took Bobby Cremins’ remnants and turned them into an NCAA tournament team, and in 2004 he took a team of his own creation to the championship game. And for all those who’ve looked at Tech lately and decided Hewitt cannot coach his way out of a paper bag, the memory of 2004 stands as a golden counterpoint: That team was a triumph of coaching.
I’ve said it before, but here it is again: I don’t know if any other coach could have taken Tech further than Hewitt did in 2004, but I can think of three dozen who could have done better since. Tech hasn’t finished above .500 in its conference or reached the Sweet Sixteen over the past six seasons. His record over his first five seasons was 96-66; his record over the past five is 81-78.
Even more distressing has been Hewitt’s penchant for seizing every crutch. Tech’s too young. Or it’s overscheduled. Or it has injuries, or academic issues, or players who’ve left early. Or it’s just “snakebit.” This willingness to explain away mediocrity has always seemed bizarre, given that the 2004 Jackets were handed a gold-plated excuse — leading scorer B.J. Elder sprained his ankle in Tech’s third NCAA game and didn’t score another point until the final against UConn — and persevered.
There are no perfect collegiate teams. The aim isn’t to see who can cry the deepest river but who can maximize what it has. Thad Matta took an Ohio State team without a true center — or even a real forward — and won the Big Ten; Hewitt took a team with the nation’s best complement of big men and finished seventh in the 12-team ACC. On Sunday, Matta’s team spotted Hewitt’s eight points and won by nine.
Hewitt wasn’t Chan Gailey, who was unpopular among Tech fans from the start. Hewitt was warmly received at the start and beloved after the Final Four, but there was never a follow-through to the daring deeds of 2004. It took Jacket backers a while to get impatient, but they’re there now. They’ve seen the same game lost the same way too many times over too many winters, and they’ve read about his never-ending contract and they wonder if the underachieving will ever cease.
This gifted team was Hewitt’s last best chance to persuade his doubters, and all it did was give rise to deeper doubt. If he couldn’t win big with Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal, what will happen next season when both figure to be gone? Will it ever get better for Hewitt than this? And is 23-13 good enough?
St. John’s isn’t a better job per se, but for Hewitt in 2010 it’s a better situation. He can leave the ACC, in which he has a career record of 67-93, and try the Big East, for which he has great affection. (He was an assistant at Villanova under Steve Lappas.) He can charm the New York media, which has the reputation of being nasty but is a pushover for a return-of-the-prodigal yarn, and he’ll recruit well and have the Red Storm back in the Big Dance soon enough.
Six years ago there seemed no better fit than Paul Hewitt for Georgia Tech, but today the two need fresh starts. No coach wants to fall into the disfavor of his constituency, and no constituency wants to root against its coach. But that, sad to say, is the reality at Tech. Paul Hewitt wasn’t Chan Gailey, but Paul Hewitt has become Chan Gailey.