Players call action 'unselfish'

TULSA, Okla. -- Tulsa players on Sunday praised coach John Phillips' midseason resignation as an unselfish act meant to renew a team after a 2-5 start and last year's losing record.

Seniors Jarius Glenn and Kyle Blankenship said players were stunned when Phillips opened practice Christmas evening by telling them he was stepping down.

"To me, it was him just being totally unselfish," Glenn said. "He talked about what his family was going through. And he talked about just wanting to give us the chance have a fresh start."

Phillips led Tulsa to the NCAA Tournament in his first two seasons but the team finished 9-20 last year. The Golden Hurricane have lost four of their past five games.

Interim coach Alvin "Pooh" Williamson said that with three games in the next five days, including Oklahoma on Tuesday, he won't have time to make significant changes in Tulsa's scheme. But he's looking to build a team that's more aggressive on defense.

"We'll gradually make some changes and do some different things," he said.

Williamson -- who has been an assistant under Phillips since 2001 after previous stints as an assistant at Tulane, Illinois State and Washington State -- called his promotion "bittersweet."

Phillips phoned him Saturday morning with the news of his resignation and "sounded like a guy who had been wrestling" with the decision, he said.

Williamson, 31, played for Tulsa under former coach Tubby Smith and was instrumental in the school's back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 in 1994 and 1995.

He likened his energetic personality to Smith's and said he planned to seek advice from the Kentucky coach.

Williamson said Tulsa has suffered from the "hangover" of last year's poor finish, failing to pull off in games the effort the team has shown in practice.

"We've got to do a lot of work between the ears," he said.

Blankenship said Williamson brings "an energy that's hard to match from a player's standpoint and any other standpoint."

Athletic director Judy MacLeod said Phillips had accepted her offer to stay on as an assistant athletic director, although his duties remain unclear.

"You're not going to find a better individual who cares more about TU and wants to help," she said.

She said she couldn't pinpoint the reason for the team's decline over the past two seasons but that she agreed with Phillips' decision to step down now.

"Knowing his mindset right now, it was probably the right time. Only he can truly say that, but I think that's what he truly believed," she said. "When you get to a point where that's what you believe, then I think that's probably the best thing for the program."

MacLeod said she would be considering candidates for the job but would make no announcements until after the season.

Phillips, who was 61-42 in three-plus seasons at Tulsa, was hired in April 2001 after four seasons as an assistant.

He took over a program whose roster had been mostly recruited by former coaches Bill Self and Buzz Peterson. Tulsa had gone to the NCAA Tournament six times in eight years before Phillips became head coach.

After making it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Phillips' first two seasons, the team finished tied for eighth in the Western Athletic Conference last season.

Criticism of the coach had mounted after a string of losses this season, including Wednesday's 91-85 home loss to Lamar, a team that hadn't won a road game in more than a year.

"You could just feel a bad vibe after the Lamar game," Blankenship said.

Glenn said the team had opened the season with optimism but players soon were looking over their shoulders "waiting for something bad to happen."

He said he couldn't say whether Phillips' resignation was a positive step for the team.

"Somebody had to make a move. It was just a bad aura," Glenn said. "You could feel it after the games."