Another early-season firing raises some eyebrows

December, 15, 2009
12/15/09
3:43
PM ET
When it comes to coaching security, the line between the NBA and college is officially blurred.

No longer can coaches feel safe in any fashion once they get through the spring recruiting period and into summer evaluation.

If the feeling isn't right, if the losing has become too much to bear, if the players won't play for the coach, if there is a disconnect between the coach and his fans and boosters … well, any of that appears to be just as much cause for firing these days as when NCAA violations are uncovered.

In recent years, making moves before Jan. 1 at St. John's, Minnesota and USC was somewhat palatable because of the sheer size of the program. Moves at Indiana, LSU, Alabama and Georgia during conference play were just quick head starts on coaching searches before the inevitable. But the head start didn't make a hire come quicker. The move was made to make a move.

That doesn't make any of them right or wrong, but they were still more explainable than the recent firings at Fordham (Dereck Whittenburg) and Penn (Glen Miller). Now there is officially a trend. No coach can feel secure if there is reason to believe he's in trouble, even if he stayed in power at the start of the season.

Fordham could have shed itself of Whittenburg in the spring. But it opted to go into the season with him as coach.

Penn might have done the same with Miller, but athletic director Steve Bilsky made it clear that Miller had a shot if he met expectations. Through seven games, he did not.

"I made it clear to Glen that this was a pivotal year," Bilsky told ESPN.com on Tuesday after firing Miller on Monday. "There were multiple things that had to show progress was being made."

Once the decision was made that there was no progress in all these "expectations" he put on Miller, timing became an issue. Bilsky said he made the decision to cut Miller loose last week in advance of final exams. Penn students are in exam period and have a two-week break between a game at Monmouth on Saturday and a trip to Davidson on Dec. 28.

"The kids are in a reading period and then finals, and I knew there was a lot on their minds," Bilsky said. "There was a lot of pressure on them -- if there was a time to do it during the season, then this was it. I wanted their minds cleared, knowing what the future looked like, to have the burden lifted so they could be upbeat."

Bilsky said he feared that if he stuck with Miller, the program would have continued in a downward spiral from December to March.

That same mindset was there when Minnesota made the move to oust Dan Monson three years ago, seven games into the season. Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi and Monson have both said it was best for them to part.

The timing of the recent firings ruffles coaches but doesn't seem to faze administrators.

"It's sad when one of our brethren is gone in the middle of the season," said Yale coach James Jones. "But I don't presume to know too much on the situation."

Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, a member of the National Association of Basketball Coaches and a fellow Big Five member with Penn, said the recent firings at an A-10 and Ivy League school "further blurs the distinction between professional and collegiate coaching." Martelli rhetorically asked whether either could have been let go in the spring, as Fordham and Penn still will have to compensate the coaches.

"As long as the character is good, I'm going to err on the good chance that they're going to be successful and might pull the plug later than earlier," Bilsky said. "I gave him every bit of help and support."

Penn has been hampered by injuries of late. Tyler Bernardini has been out with a foot injury, and Andreas Schreiber (shoulder), Larry Loughery (groin) and Justin Reilly (recurring concussion syndrome) also have been out. Although a full squad might have prevented a 0-7 start, that apparently didn't mask all the issues.

Miller didn't suddenly forget how to coach. He was successful at Brown and took Penn to the NCAA tournament with Fran Dunphy's crew in his first year before two subpar seasons, including eight Ivy League losses last season. While Penn and Princeton have taken a dip lately, Cornell has risen to power behind former Penn assistant Steve Donahue, who is going for his third straight Ivy League title. His toughest competitor likely will be Harvard, not Penn or Princeton.

Meanwhile, Dunphy went to North Broad Street and has led the Owls to two NCAA tournament appearances in his three seasons. He's also fresh off a win over No. 3 Villanova on Sunday.

"Dunphy was always able to get kids and did a helluva job there," said Basketball Hall of Famer and former Temple coach John Chaney. "When they lost Dunphy, they lost the best. Dunphy always had shooters and always could compete. For them to become what they were when Dunph was there isn't going to happen. That day is gone. Dunphy is pretty darn good at knowing this game."

Bilsky was in charge at Penn when Dunphy left for Temple, then hired Miller away from Brown. He said Dunphy's experience as a coach and stability at the program were big parts of the success, which included nine NCAA tournament appearances.

"We were fortunate to have him as long as we did," Bilsky said. "I'm happy for him and happy that he was able to do something in Philadelphia and not have to relocate. He deserves the success. He loved the school, and he was a good fit."

Bilsky tabbed first-year assistant Jerome Allen, a former three-time Ivy League champ under Dunphy, to lead the Quakers the rest of the season. He said Allen has a shot to earn the full-time gig.

Bilsky said he wants someone who is familiar with the Ivy League, understands Penn's history and knows it is in a unique situation. It is unlike any other Ivy League school in that it has Philadelphia as its home base, players within an easy reach and a tradition of playing in the Big Five. The fame the Quakers get locally and at times nationally for playing games against Villanova, Temple and Saint Joe's helps with the national profile. That's why Penn consistently is a potential spot for high-major programs on the East Coast to play games and at times home-and-home series. The famed Palestra is one of the sport's cherished venues.

"I'll be watching him carefully," Bilsky said of Allen. "He represents the best about Penn, knows the game and represents the school. This is not a trial, but we'll be supporting and watching him as well."

Allen finished college in 1995 and is still quite green. This is his first head-coaching gig, but the players likely will have his attention because he is close to them in age.

The natural long-term choice would be Donahue, but he has made Cornell into an Ivy power. And if Donahue were to move, why not out of the conference and into a higher-paying gig in a power-six league?

Still, Penn likely will be a coveted gig if Allen isn't the choice. The timing of removing Miller may make no difference in who can get the job unless it's Allen. Getting rid of a coach before the end of the season doesn't give an AD much of a head start. The only time it proved to be beneficial was when Tim Floyd got the USC gig in the middle of the season and then recruited while interim coach Jim Saia coached the Trojans.

But that's the exception, not the norm.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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