Commentary

Coaches: The men of constant sorrow

Originally Published: February 15, 2012
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

WEEK: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

The Bottom 10 inspirational thought of the week:


I am a man of constant sorrow
I've seen trouble all my days
I'll say goodbye to Colorado
Where I was born and partly raised.

Your mother says I'm a stranger
My face you'll never see no more
But there's one promise, darling:
I'll see you on God's golden shore.

Through this open world I'm about to trouble
Through ice and snows, sleet and rain
I'm about to ride that morning railroad
Perhaps I'll die on that train.

-- Bob Dylan, "Man of Constant Sorrow"

Being a head coach in college basketball has its perks. There's the money, for one; in most cases, it's enough to buy all the Armani suits and Ferragamo loafers the heart could ever desire. There's also the exposure, the relative fame of being on television. There's the unique communal importance -- players come and go, but coaches can stay for decades. There's the adulation that comes with victory. And, last but not least, there's the ability to teach, to form relationships, to mold 18-year-old boys into 22-year-old men. We should probably mention that, too.

But the college coaching game can be thankless. Coaches spend their entire professional lives -- decades on end -- traveling from one job to the next, working in remote outposts and college towns, shopping at Men's Wearhouse, watching and cutting hours of tape, losing entire offseasons to the recruiting grind, scrapping and clawing and fighting like hell just for that one big chance, that career-making job, that tenure track. And then, once you get there, you soon learn just how short your once-die-hard fans' memories really are. The NCAA and its mountain of obscure rules is always looking over your shoulder. A thousand younger coaches just like you are lined up waiting for you to falter. Every loss is a referendum.

When you see a coach in the midst of a losing season, or dutifully undergoing a rebuilding project, or watching his team collapse its way to a potentially job-killing bubble slide, you tend to forget that coach's salary is more than you'll make in the next decade. Instead, you almost want to give him a hug.

Which brings us, of course, to Illinois coach Bruce Weber.

Weber was once the Land of Lincoln's favorite adopted son. His 2005 team almost went the length of its season without a loss -- a remarkable feat in the modern era. It was minutes away from a national championship when it ran into the buzz saw that was the Raymond Felton/Rashad McCants/Sean May Tar Heels. Whatever skepticism accompanied Weber when he was hired -- and whatever murmurs there were about Deron Williams and Co. not being "his players" -- the fact was the man nearly won a national title in his second season as a head coach. He was on top of the world.

You wouldn't know it in 2012. First-year Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas officially put Weber on the hot seat this week, whether he meant to or not. With the Illini faltering down the stretch, and Weber's dare-I-say-trademark pained glares flashing across each and every Illinois broadcast, the Bottom 10 can't help but hear the plaintive strains of early, Guthrie-inspired Bob Dylan.

This week, thanks to a new publishing schedule (we're back to Wednesdays for the rest of the season) and the short turnaround from Friday's edition, the Bottom 10 decided to examine some of the struggling coaches throughout the country. This doesn't mean they're on the hot seat, though that might be the case here and there. What it means is this: For all the glamour and glitz of college coaching, there is just as much suffering and agony when the losses start piling up. This edition is dedicated to that agony.

(Which means only good news for Binghamton: For the first time this season, the still-winless Bearcats are not on the Bottom 10! By default, of course, but still. Big day!)

Anyway, without further ado, and with apologies to Steve Harvey and Robert Zimmerman, here's this week's Bottom 10.

1. Bruce Weber, Illinois

Offense: Vote of no confidence
Bottom 10 judgment: "Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance." Illinois fans are openly revolting against Weber -- #occupybruce? -- but their anger has been simmering just below the surface for years. First, it was the questions about recruiting. Then it was the loss of previously committed star Eric Gordon. Then it was the 16-18 season in 2008. Then, when Weber began recruiting well, as he has in recent years (landing McDonald's All-American Jereme Richmond and possible lottery pick Meyers Leonard), it was the underachieving teams, most notably last season's. All this and more has come to a boil in 2012, and it couldn't come at a worse time: Illinois' once-promising season has devolved badly thanks to brutal offense and suddenly forgiving defense, and the Illini have lost six of their last seven as a result.

Even worse? When athletic director Mike Thomas sat down to take calls on a local radio station Saturday, he was barraged by a dutifully prepared crowd (there were message-board postings alerting fans to Thomas' availability) that spent almost the entire time battering Weber on call after call after call. Thomas subtly refused to calm them down, nor did he provide Weber with an open vote of confidence. Instead, as ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers wrote, Thomas "did Weber no favors. … His lack of support spoke volumes." Weber's job security has been questioned at various times in his once-promising, now-questionable tenure, but never this strongly, and never without former AD Ron Guenther ready to stand by his coach's side. Thomas has already pulled the trigger on former football coach Ron Zook. If Illinois doesn't turn this thing around, Weber might very well be next.

"Honey, just allow me one more chance/To get along with you/Honey, just allow me one more chance/Ah'll do anything with you"

2. Isiah Thomas, Florida International

Offense: The great Zeke experiment is over (or at least it should be)
Bottom 10 judgment: "All I Really Want To Do." In all honesty, the Bottom 10 doesn't think Isiah Thomas -- for all his faults as the coach and general manager of the New York Knicks (and, for that matter, the late, lamented Continental Basketball Association; miss you, Quad City Thunder) -- is even remotely this bad at coaching, scouting and/or recruiting. Which means one thing: He isn't trying. That's the only explanation for Thomas' stunning lack of success in three seasons at Florida International. Thomas took the job -- his first after the Knicks finally came to their senses -- accompanied by much fanfare. He sought to recruit far outside the realm of typical Sun Belt players; he sought to recruit the nation's best, if occasionally troubled, young talent, promising a path to the NBA and, at the very least, secondhand exposure. In his first two seasons, the Panthers were 18-61. Thus far in 2011-12, they're 7-17.

Throughout all this, Zeke has been at the center of constant rumors about his ongoing role with the Knicks. NBA insiders believe Thomas still has the ear of New York owner James Dolan, that Thomas has cast himself as instrumental in the acquisition of stars like Amare Stoudamire and Carmelo Anthony. He may even be taking credit for Jeremy Lin. Would it surprise you? Whatever the realities here, it's clear Zeke's heart isn't in the FIU gig anymore, if it ever was in the first place. Can we all stop pretending otherwise?

"I don't want to fake you out/Take or shake or forsake you out/I ain't lookin' for you to feel like me/See like me or be like me"

3. Jeff Bzdelik, Wake Forest

Offense: The perils of progress
Bottom 10 judgment: "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." Wake Forest has already won three more games than it did last season, one of the worst in program history. And before the season is out, the Demon Deacons may just win a few more. In a vacuum, that's a sign of progress. Besides, it's always too early to evaluate a coach after just two seasons. Jeff Bzdelik deserves time and space to build his program in his own image, and all that. Granted. But here's the thing: When Bzdelik was hired in 2010, he replaced Dino Gaudio, a coach who had overseen the program's rise to a No. 1 ranking in 2009 and a 44-18 record in two seasons. Sure, Gaudio's teams finished poorly, but they were more than competitive. Still, Wake AD Ron Wellman fired Gaudio after just three seasons at the helm and quickly installed Bzdelik, despite the former Colorado coach's 36-58 record in his three previous seasons.

Two seasons later, Wake is alone in last place in the ACC -- again. The Demon Deacons have now lost six in a row and nine of their last 10, including a 20-point home drubbing to Clemson on Saturday. If Wake Forest wins its last five ACC games (which, hint, ain't happenin'), Bzdelik would reach 24 total wins at the school -- as many as Gaudio had in 2009 alone. It's too early to write a memorandum on Bzdelik's tenure yet. He's the coach now, and he deserves more time. Even so, Wake's proud, hungry fans must agree that Gaudio deserved much the same.

"It ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe/It don't matter, anyhow/And it ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe/If you don't know by now"

4. Herb Sendek, Arizona State

Offense: Where have you gone, James Harden?
Bottom 10 judgment: "Temporary Like Achilles." To his credit, Herb Sendek did something few coaches in Arizona State history have ever done, especially in the last 20 years: He made the Sun Devils nationally relevant. Still, James Harden's 2008-09 All-American campaign was the first and only time Sendek has taken ASU to an NCAA tournament, and following last season's 12-19 finish, his program desperately needed a step back toward the light. Instead, things have only worsened. Touted freshman Jahii Carson never suited up after being ruled ineligible by the NCAA, and halfway through an already bad season, leading scorer Kaela King was suspended and eventually dismissed for a variety of reasons, most of them to do with attitude. As such, the Sun Devils are 8-17 overall and 4-9 in one of the worst editions of the Pac-12 we've seen in decades. They sport losses to Pepperdine, Northern Arizona, Fresno State and a 64-43 drubbing at the hands of Utah (it's true). Sendek was always underappreciated at NC State, but if the fans in Tempe start to become restless, well, they have their reasons.

"Achilles is in your alleyway/He don't want me here/He does brag/He's pointing to the sky"

5. Doc Sadler, Nebraska

Offense: Wrong place, wrong time
Bottom 10 judgment: "It Ain't Me, Babe." Nebraska basketball may yet be on an upward trajectory. The Cornhuskers just joined the Big Ten, bringing piles of non-football TV revenue into their coffers. They just revealed a brand new practice facility. Even better, in 2013 they'll unveil a glittering new arena in downtown Lincoln's West Haymarket area, part of a $344 million project that will also include "an ice center, a 200-room hotel, 100,000 square feet of retail space, another 100,000 square feet of office space and 100 residential units." Which is why it would be a bit of a shame to see Doc Sadler, one of the game's most self-effacing and honest coaches, fail to keep his job before he has a chance to show recruits what Nebraska's new digs are really all about.

Unfortunately, Sadler may be close to suffering that very fate: His team, which flirted with the bubble in 2011, is finding its new home in the brutal Big Ten to be unforgiving territory. The Cornhuskers are 11-13 overall and just 3-10 in conference play, and they can be safely projected to win one more game (at home versus Iowa, if that) in their final five conference contests. Sadler has been at Nebraska since 2007, and while the Huskers have yet to qualify for an NCAA tournament, it hasn't much mattered to this football-obsessed fan base. But with so much change afoot -- new conference, new facilities, new arena and so on -- can Sadler survive?

"Go melt back into the night/Everything inside is made of stone/There's nothing in here moving/An' anyway I'm not alone"

6. Jim Baron, Rhode Island

Offense: Apparent stagnation
Bottom 10 judgment: "Subterranean Homesick Blues." How does a coach survive nearly a decade in the modern hoops landscape without taking his team to even one NCAA tournament? The expectations at Rhode Island are hardly overwhelming, and besides, with a few exceptions, Jim Baron has almost always turned his worst teams into 20-plus win outfits. But after this season, he may not get the chance. The Rams are currently 5-21 overall and just 2-9 in the Atlantic 10, which might actually be better than expected, seeing as those wins came over UMass and on the road at Dayton (the latter of which is especially mystifying). Baron's status may depend less on his team's final record than his administration's willingness to finally close the book, but either way, it's been an ugly year at URI.

"Get sick, get well/Hang around an ink well/Ring bell, hard to tell/If anything is goin' to sell"

7. Matt Doherty, SMU

Offense: So, about that whole "moving to the Big East" thing
Bottom 10 judgment: "One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)." Matt Doherty's eventual post-UNC-demise journey has not been particularly kind. After leaving Florida Atlantic, Doherty headed to Dallas, and his SMU teams have notched more than 14 wins in just one season; his record at the school (as of this writing) is 78-104. Doherty did build a 20-game winner in 2011, a team that finished a surprising .500 in a decent Conference USA. But this season has marked another step backward. SMU is 2-8 and in last place. On Saturday, the Mustangs fell 43-39 (yes, 43-39) at Rice. Even worse, SMU becomes a member of the Big East in 2013. This barely made sense in football. In basketball, it's lambs to the slaughter.

"When I saw you say goodbye to your friends and smile/I thought that it was well understood/That you'd be comin' back in a little while/I didn't know that you were sayin' goodbye for good."

8. Darrin Horn, South Carolina

Offense: Is it football season yet?
Bottom 10 judgment: "Black Crow Blues." It requires a brave man to take on the job of building South Carolina -- a dormant program for much of its history -- into a consistent winner. There's little evidence to support the premise in the first place. Which is why Darrin Horn's first year at the school, a 21-10 campaign led by diminutive giant-killer Devan Downey, seemed such a promising step. (The Bottom 10 has two married friends who live in Columbia. He recalls their being rather stoked.) Alas, Horn has yet to approach the 20-win barrier since, and this season isn't helping: The Gamecocks are 9-16 overall and 1-9 in SEC play; they're a two-point home win over Alabama away from being the nation's last winless team in major-conference play. Of all the ugly statistics that have produced this record, one sticks out: The Gamecocks rank No. 333 in the nation in their ratio of assists to field goals made. That's just bad basketball. The question is: Between spring practice and the Head Ball Coach's charity golfing tournaments, will anyone in Columbia notice?

"Sometimes I'm thinkin I'm/Too high to fall/Other times I'm thinkin' I'm/So low I don't know/If I can come up at all."

9. Chris Lowery, Southern Illinois

Offense: Remember that No. 4 seed?
Bottom 10 judgment: "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry." From 2005 to 2007, Chris Lowery won 78 games and went to three NCAA tournaments. In 2007, The Year Of The Missouri Valley, SIU went 29-7, landed a No. 4 seed in the tourney and went to the Sweet 16. Lowery was the hottest coaching name in the country, the guy every high-major program wanted, but he stayed in Carbondale all the same. In the immortal words of Gob Bluth, Lowery made a terrible mistake. The Salukis failed to make the tournament in any of the four years that followed. Lowery's previously stellar record suffered; he went 59-67 in that span. Unfortunately, 2012 may be the new nadir. The Salukis are 8-19 this season and 5-11 in MVC play. They played a decent nonconference schedule, but even so, that doesn't explain away losses like the home defeats to Western Kentucky and something called Ohio Dominican. On Tuesday night, they allowed Creighton to shoot 78 percent -- 78 percent! -- which shattered the previous MVC record. So Lowery, once the nation's hottest young coach, suddenly finds himself on the precipice. The tables, as they say, have turned.

"Now the wintertime is coming/The windows are filled with frost/I went to tell everybody/But I could not get across"

10. Ben Howland, UCLA

Offense: An utter mess
Bottom 10 judgment: "Highway 61 Revisited." This is still the same coach that went to three straight Final Fours, right? There isn't some "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" stuff going on here, is there? No? Right. It's difficult to fathom the depths Howland and his Bruins have sunk to in his ninth year at the program, mostly because Howland had such a splendid run from 2006 to 2008. This season began with a Top 25 ranking and the preseason nod to win the Pac-12, but it wasn't long until forward Reeves Nelson -- the Bruins' best player last season -- was suspended and reinstated and suspended and finally dismissed for various conduct issues, all before the second week of December.

Since then, the Bruins have never quite recovered, never made any sort of late-season push, never really come together. A 14-11 overall record in a bad Pac-12 might be enough to keep, say, Craig Robinson safe, but the folks in Westwood rightfully expect much more, and it's been no surprise to see fans vocally abandon their once-loved coach as this disaster of a season wears on. It's doubtful UCLA will pull the trigger on Howland this offseason, not after a year spent taxiing between "home" venues while Pauley Pavilion undergoes renovation. But the Bruins' messy start and subsequent mediocrity has been downright baffling to observe both up close and from afar.

"Well Mack the finger said to Louie the King/I got forty red white and blue shoe strings/And a thousand telephones that don't ring/Do you know where I can get rid of these things"

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com.