Coaching Georgia State is a tough job. That’s why Mary McElroy, who was the athletic director in 2007, thought she’d found the right man: Rod Barnes had already worked a tough job.
At Ole Miss, Barnes won 20 games and made the NCAA tournament three times in his first four seasons. Then it went bad — four losing seasons in four tries, which led to Barnes getting fired, which led to his availability when McElroy called. By Georgia State standards, his hiring was a coup: A former SEC coach who, at 41, was young enough to build something on the Concrete Campus.
That was in March 2007. A different AD fired Barnes on Sunday after not-quite-four seasons for a basic reason: “The win-loss record does not reflect where we want to be,” Cheryl Levick said in a release, and nobody could argue that 44-79 spells success. But now we return to our original thought.
Georgia State is a tough job.
It isn’t quite true that the Panthers have never done anything in men’s basketball. Under Tom Pugliese in 1983, they beat Tennessee in Knoxville. Under Bob Reinhart in 1991, they won the TAAC — Trans-America Athletic Conference, later to become the Atlantic Sun — tournament and qualified for the NCAA. They were seeded No. 16 in the South Regional and faced No. 1 Arkansas in the old Omni. They famously took MARTA to the game. They lost by 41 points.
In both 2001 and 2002, Lefty Driesell’s teams beat Georgia under Jim Harrick. Lefty’s crew won the Atlantic Sun in 2001 and beat Wisconsin in the first round of the NCAA tournament, losing honorably to Maryland in Round 2. In 2002 the Panthers lost the A-Sun final to Florida Atlantic when a last shot didn’t fall, and 10 months later Driesell resigned. And there you have, pretty much in its entirety, the list of Georgia State highlights.
(Except for this: You’ll recall that George Mason reached the 2006 Final Four. The Panthers led Mason in overtime in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament.)
Georgia State has been playing basketball since 1963. It has had eight winning seasons: Two under Reinhart, five under Lefty, one under Lefty’s successor Michael Perry. It has won 20 or more games in a season three times (all Lefty); it has lost 20 or more games 18 times. It has an all-time record of 460-839. If you care to make the case that this is the worst program in the history of Division 1, you won’t be laughed out of court.
Driesell remains the only GSU coach to get folks excited. (Remember the baseline bunch of students dubbed Lefty’s Loonies?) But even as he won games, he fought the battle every other Panther coach had and will. The man who’d made his reputation — first at Davidson, then at Maryland — as one of the great promoters the sport has ever seen couldn’t fill a walk-up gym that seats 3,400.
Not that Lefty didn’t try. He started games at 6 p.m., thinking he could snare students. (”Once they go home,” the Lefthander reasoned, “they won’t come back downtown for a game.”) But starting games at 6 p.m. cut out the non-Downtown workforce who might be inclined to come watch.
And that was at a time when folks actually realized GSU had a team, as opposed, say, to now. In four years under Barnes, the Panthers drew more than 20,000 fans in only one home season. (This at a school with an enrollment of 31,000.) The average gathering under Barnes was 1,283. This season it was 915.
Winning would have bumped up attendance a bit, but Barnes didn’t win. He never had that signature victory over a Brand Name that a mid-major must notch if it’s to grab the attention of the masses. (His teams did play Georgia Tech and Florida State close.) Nor did he win much in Colonial play. And there’s no way to sell a losing program that has only the faintest footprint in a big-city marketplace.
Give Levick credit: She didn’t sugarcoat the firing. It wasn’t about Barnes being a bad guy or a bad coach but simply about a bad record. He was paid to do a tough job and couldn’t do it. What’s unclear is whether anyone can do it at Georgia State in the Colonial, which is a cut above the A-Sun, and it’s doubtful GSU wishes to go the wholesale transfers-and-JUCOs route paved by Lefty. (And for the old line about this state producing so many good players … well, it does, but not many of them dream of playing before 1,200 in a third-floor arena.)
Once again: This is a tough job. It’s so tough it might be not be doable — unless that Krzyzewski guy gets a hankering to coach in an even smaller gym.
By Mark Bradley