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For Pete's Sake

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn and staff
February 14, 2005 Less than four seasons into his 10-year, $9 million contract extension, which came on the heels of the school's only NCAA Tournament appearance (2001) in his now seven-year tenure, Virginia coach Pete Gillen appears to be nearing the end of the road in Charlottesville. CHARLOTTESVILLE — The courtship, short and sweet, was followed by a lovely ceremony and a fun-filled honeymoon. But as it approaches the seven-year-itch stage, the University of Virginia-Pete Gillen marriage is on the rocks. Odds are, both parties will soon be heading for divorce court, just like Brad and Jen. You didn't see this one coming, at least until recently. Four years ago, UVa fans considered Gillen to be part John Wooden, part David Letterman. After he took the Cavaliers to the NCAA Tournament in his third season, few questioned the wisdom of awarding him a 10-year contract extension. No, this one was going the distance. Upon his retirement, the floor might even bear his name — PETE GILLEN COURT.

Instead, the Cavaliers are close to dismissing their second basketball coach in seven years. And, like Billy Bob Thornton and Rush Limbaugh, they'll be back on the market.

"They could throw me in the river tomorrow," Gillen said back in October, a little more prophetic than he would have liked. "I understand that."

So what happened? Nobody cheated. Gillen, even his critics agree, runs as clean a program as anybody. He has neither disgraced himself nor the university. Sometimes relationships just don't work out. There were just things — big things and little things — that made this one hard to resolve.

Such as:

Wins and losses. That's what it usually boils down to, right? Gillen has a .574 winning percentage at UVa, which could safely be described as "not bad." But since finishing 9-7 in 2000 and 2001, the Cavs are 13 games below .500 in the ACC. Gillen's postseason mark at UVa is 3-11, and his only ACC Tournament win to date came in last year's play-in game.

Remember, Gillen is coaching in Charlottesville right now only because his team made a late-season run in 2004 to save his job. This year's group — led by a nice-looking nucleus of senior center Elton Brown, senior forward Jason Clark, senior forward Devin Smith, sophomore guard J.R. Reynolds and freshman point guard Sean Singletary — was expected to contend for a middle-of-the-pack finish in the ACC. Considering the conference's strength, that would have meant a certain NCAA bid.

Instead, Virginia is 13-9 and in eighth place, with a 4-7 league record. The Cavs were 2-7 in January, with five losses coming by at least 11 points. The low point? A 110-76 drubbing, at home, at the hands of No. 3 North Carolina.

Virginia showed signs of life in the first half of February, with three consecutive wins, but it might be too late. To qualify for the NCAA Tournament — which might be the only way for Gillen to save himself — the Cavs would need at least three more victories. Two of their remaining five opponents are North Carolina and Wake Forest, both on the road, which leaves little or no room for error.

Anything short of 7-9 likely would mean a fourth consecutive NIT — a.k.a., No Important Teams. The last time the Virginia program went four straight years without an NCAA appearance was 1977-80, before a guy named Ralph Sampson came along to bring UVa hoops to the big time.

Enthusiasm. As recently as three seasons ago, UVa basketball was hot property. Students camped out for tickets, and Gillen often brought them pizza and doughnuts. University Hall's 8,392 seats usually were filled and rocking at least 30 minutes prior to tip-off.

Not so today. Virginia's average home attendance after 13 games this season was 7,581. That, believe it or not, was slightly better than last season's figure of 7,298. And those numbers are suspect, because UVa lists official attendance as tickets obtained, not bodies through the turnstiles.

Of the Cavaliers' last 46 home games, only seven have sold out. That's particularly embarrassing when you remember that U-Hall has the second-lowest seating capacity in the conference. Even for a Feb. 12 game against archrival Virginia Tech, there were hundreds of empty seats.

For Gillen, the timing couldn't be worse. Virginia is set to open a 15,000-seat, $130 million arena in 2006 and still has a ways to go in fund-raising. Since last month, the primary focus has been on "premium seating" — defined as those in the lower deck. To get the seat you want, you must make a pledge of at least $25,000 and an annual contribution of $2,200.

Asked recently whether fan dissatisfaction with the program had derailed fund-raising, Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage gave a response many perceived as a warning to Gillen.

"I think it would not be a stretch to say we haven't quite gotten to the point where we want to be," Littlepage said. "And it's my job to make sure that we are poised and on an upward movement in our program going into the new arena.

"It's not something that at this point in time is a concern, because I'm ready and our staff is ready and the university community is ready to put us in a position where we will have the kind of basketball program that is on an upswing. We will be there, I guarantee that. That's part of my job."

Coaching style. One Gillenism that has infuriated fans, as well as his superiors, is the coach's fondness for burning timeouts like kindling. Because he often calls as many as three in the first half, it isn't uncommon for him to have none left in the final minutes.

Sometimes, his timeouts are logical, such as one used to interrupt a 12-0 run. Sometimes, they seem to defy logic in the eyes of everyone but the coach himself. A couple seasons ago, he called a timeout 90 seconds into a game at Georgia Tech — with the score tied 3-3. At Duke this year, he called his second timeout with a 17-12 lead. Right afterward, the Blue Devils went on 6-0 run.

At Virginia Tech last month, the Cavaliers cut the lead to 75-73 on Brown's stickback with 11 seconds remaining. Normally, a coach would call a timeout in that situation to set his defense and choose whom to foul. But UVa had none left, and Tech guard Jamon Gordon ended up taking a long pass for a dunk on the other end, putting the game away.

"I get criticized about the timeouts, but you've just got to go with a gut feeling," Gillen said. "Everybody has to coach differently, and you are who you are."

Gillen also gets ripped for his seemingly random pattern of substitutions and, crazy though it may sound, not getting on the officials enough. In fact, a caller to his radio show last year blasted him for not picking up a technical foul after a bad call.

Yeah, that's the kind of stuff a coach on the ropes has to deal with.

Revolving door. In this era, many players get impatient. They want to start, they want to play 40 minutes a night, they want to score 20 points a game — now, now, now. If not, there's always another avenue.

While losing players to transfer is a national issue, Gillen has seen more than his share come and go. Since he took over in April 1998, 14 players with remaining eligibility have left the program, either on their own or at Gillen's urging.

Of the seven players who made up Gillen's second, third and fourth recruiting classes at Virginia, only two — Brown and Clark — were still around for their junior years, and Clark became academically ineligible halfway through this season. Gillen has lost five players to transfer during the past two offseasons.

Yet the coach doesn't believe those numbers reflect poorly on his program.

"It does hurt when you lose guys, whether it's somebody not happy with playing time or discipline," Gillen said. "But my thing is, it happens to almost every school. That's just the way it is. That's life in the year 2005."

By now, Virginia fans expected their team to be in a far different state. They were encouraged by Gillen's first season, when with a lineup that included only six scholarship players and a walk-on bartender he led the Cavaliers to a 14-16 finish. They loved his self-deprecating sense of humor ("I ranked 310th out of 315 in college, and the president said it was a dumb class") and stories about Brooklyn cronies Bullhead and Three-Fingered Willie ("Seriously, those guys are real. That's what's so sad").

A year later, after signing a much-hyped recruiting class that included guard Roger Mason and big man Travis Watson, the Cavs won 19 games and just missed the NCAA field. Gillen's third team went 20-9, beat six nationally ranked teams and made the program's first NCAA appearance in four years. When UVa extended his contract through the 2011 season, at an apparently guaranteed average annual compensation package of $900,000, most saw it as a wise investment.

The Cavs won their first nine games of the 2001-02 season and rose to No. 4 in the national polls. On Jan. 27, they were 14-2 going to Duke. Virginia lost by 13, but few saw any signs of trouble. The Blue Devils, after all, were ranked No. 1 in the nation. Yet the Cavs ended up losing 10 of their final 13 games and flamed out in the first round of the NIT.

It was a monumental collapse from which the program has not recovered. Since the night of Jan. 27, 2002, Virginia is 50-48 overall and 19-34 in the ACC.

Nobody (well, nobody with any degree of common sense) believes that Gillen lost his coaching ability overnight. Even if he doesn't win another game this season, he would be averaging almost 20 victories over his 20-year career as a head coach. He's won eight NCAA Tournament games, three coming in Providence's run to the Elite Eight in 1997.

He knows the game today every bit as well as he did then.

"It's not the coach's fault," Singletary said after a January loss. "All he can do is teach us what to do. It's our job to get out there and do it."

In fact, Gillen did a remarkable job in engineering the team's recent turnaround, however brief it might turn out to be. He took what some would consider a drastic step: completely scrapping the only style he had coached and doing the precise opposite.

In its first eight conference games this season, Virginia allowed an average of 88 points on
49-percent shooting. The Cavs were doing OK on offense, but not nearly well enough to keep up. So Gillen abandoned his "chuck-and-duck" philosophy for a conservative, slower pace. The goal: to shorten the game by limiting the number of possessions.

The short-term effect was two-fold: Virginia was more careful with the ball, and the players had more energy on defense. The Cavs went 3-0 immediately after the switch. The three opponents (N.C. State, Florida State, Virginia Tech) shot a combined 39.6 percent from the floor, and none of them scored more than 62 points.

"Doesn't surprise me," said FSU coach Leonard Hamilton, whose team led the entire way before Smith's three-pointer with 5.2 seconds left gave Virginia a 56-55 win on Feb. 9. "Pete Gillen is one of the more innovative coaches around."

Yet make no mistake, Gillen's job remains on shaky ground. He was nearly fired a year ago, but he was given a reprieve because his team came together and won six of its last 10 games, and it would have cost more than $6 million to let him go. According to sources, Gillen agreed to have his contract restructured in order to return. Though university officials will not confirm, a buyout now likely would cost less than $3 million.

Still, that's a good chunk of cash. Can Virginia afford it, especially knowing (a) it still has some $36 million to raise for the new arena, (b) it likely will have to buy out the remaining contract of whoever it hires as Gillen's replacement, and (c) a top-name coach these days commands an annual package of at least $1 million?

"A better question might be," one UVa official said, "can we afford not to?"

The message boards began speculating weeks ago. Names being tossed about so far have included the obvious (Michigan's Tommy Amaker), the ambitious (Texas' Rick Barnes), the intriguing (Kentucky's Tubby Smith) and the ridiculous (former UVa guard Cory Alexander, who has zero coaching experience).

For now, until he hears otherwise, all Gillen can do is keep coaching.

"We're not where we want to be," he said. "But I still believe we can get there."

If not, the river awaits.

Gillen Year By Year

Year School Record Conference Postseason
1985-86 Xavier 25-5 10-2 (1) NCAA 0-1
1986-87 Xavier 19-13 7-5 (3) NCAA 1-1
1987-88 Xavier 26-4 9-1 (1) NCAA 0-1
1988-89 Xavier 21-12 7-5 (3) NCAA 0-1
1989-90 Xavier 28-5 12-2 (1) NCAA 2-1
1990-91 Xavier 22-10 11-3 (1) NCAA 1-1
1991-92 Xavier 15-12 7-3 (2t) None
1992-93 Xavier 24-6 12-2 (1t) NCAA 1-1
1993-94 Xavier 22-8 8-2 (1) NIT 2-1
1994-95 Providence 17-13 7-11 (6t) NIT 1-1
1995-96 Providence 18-12 9-9 (3) NIT 1-1
1996-97 Providence 24-12 10-8 (2) NCAA 3-1
1997-98 Providence 13-16 7-11 (4) None
1998-99 Virginia 14-16 4-12 (9) None
1999-00 Virginia 19-12 9-7 (3t) NIT 0-1
2000-01 Virginia 20-9 9-7 (4) NCAA 0-1
2001-02 Virginia 17-12 7-9 (5t) NIT 0-1
2002-03 Virginia 16-16 6-10 (6t) NIT 1-1
2003-04 Virginia 18-13 6-10 (7t) NIT 1-1
2004-05* Virginia 13-7 4-9 (8) ???

* – through Feb. 15