My longstanding belief has been that Georgia Tech cannot afford to fire Paul Hewitt because it doesn’t have $7 million in ready cash. But recent events have subjected that belief to recalibration, and now the issue, at least in this feeble mind, has become: Can Tech afford not to fire him?
Dan Radakovich has been supportive of the coach whose oppressive contract this athletic director inherited. (Quick recap: Hewitt’s contract has an automatic six-year rollover that calls for a full buyout if he’s fired at any time.) But D-Rad isn’t stupid, nor is he blind. He has to see that interest in Tech basketball is at a low not seen since the few folks who deigned to grace Alexander Memorial Coliseum in the final days of Dwane Morrison wore bags on their heads.
Bobby Cremins arrived from Appalachian State in 1981, and soon Tech was winning the ACC tournament and even reaching the Final Four. It got bad again in the late ’90s — Cremins’ teams missed the Big Dance six of his final seven seasons — and he announced his resignation in February 2000. Four years later, Hewitt took Tech to the national championship game.
It has, sad to say, been downhill since. Tech finished with a losing record three times in four seasons. When it made a run to the ACC title game last spring and won its first NCAA game since 2005, the team didn’t exactly become the talk of the town. And now most Atlantans seem to have forgotten Tech even has a team.
For a home game against Georgia, Tech drew 6,725 to a gym that seats 9,191. For North Carolina the crowd was 8,125, but a photo of the highest-priced courtside seating area showed almost an equal split between Tech gold and Carolina blue. For Tuesday’s game against Virginia Tech, the announced attendance was 5,794.
This mounting apathy comes at a perilous time. In April, Tech will begin a $45 million renovation of Alexander. Next year’s Jackets will play 10 games at Philips Arena and the rest in the Arena at Gwinnett. How many among a diminishing number of Tech patrons will be willing to make the trek to unfamiliar buildings? And how, if interest doesn’t pick up by November 2012, will it be to unveil a refurbished coliseum that few care to visit?
Granted, $7 million is a lot of money, but Radakovich must weigh that outlay against the price of standing pat. Down the road, how much more than $7 million would it cost Tech to keep an unpopular coach whose teams can’t be said to have overachieved since the golden run of 2004? At what point must an AD, hat in hand, call on donors and ask, “Can you spare a million to help us make a fresh start?”
There is, however, a fairly massive complication: The season isn’t yet over. Tech started horribly, losing non-conference games to Kennesaw State, which is 5-15; to Siena, which is 7-12, and to Charlotte, which is 9-10. Even after winning three of its past four games, Tech has an RPI of 136, second-worst among ACC teams. That said …
Tech is playing better. Its victory over Virginia Tech on Tuesday broke a trend. The Jackets had lost five of the past six against the Hokies, but on this night Iman Shumpert fashioned a triple double and overpowered the estimable Malcolm Delaney and, in a total departure, Hewitt outcoached Seth Greenberg.
Eleven regular-season games remain. Given the softness of its schedule and the weakness of the ACC, it’s not inconceivable that Georgia Tech, which is 10-9, could enter the ACC tournament 17-13 and 9-7 in league play. Would that be enough to save Hewitt? And now the bigger question: If you’re a Tech fan, are you rooting for a furious finish if it means keeping this coach?
Flash back to Nov. 24, 2007: Tech played Georgia in football. The Jackets were 7-4 and it was clear Chan Gailey’s time as coach was near its end. But what if Gailey, who was 0-5 against the hated Bulldogs, had beaten Georgia that day? Would Radakovich have fired a man who’d finally done what his constituency demanded?
Nobody will ever know the answer. Georgia won 31-17. Chan was canned two days later. Two years later Paul Johnson won the ACC title with Gailey’s players. In the grand scheme, that last loss to Georgia was worth it. In the grand scheme, one more losing hoops season might be the best thing for Tech.
By Mark Bradley