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Hiring Record Didn't Support Alleva Deal

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

June 2, 2003 DURHAM — Duke has probably the worst football coach in ACC history and probably the worst baseball coach in ACC history, and in the eyes of some that means the Blue Devils also have the worst athletic director in ACC history. Of course, as long as the basketball team continues its amazing run of success under Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, most Duke supporters simply don't care enough about anything else to complain.

When the university's board of trustees re-appointed athletic director Joe Alleva to a five-year term in May, the decision was met with relative silence in Durham. At many other schools, where administrators' track records are poked, prodded and analyzed far more intensely, the same move probably would have been met with enormous amounts of publicity and an inevitable dose of outrage.

Since being elevated to the AD job in 1998, Alleva has led a department that has captured 29 ACC titles and three (of the school's six) national championships. The Blue Devils finished seventh in the 1999 Sears Cup, which measures the success of a school's overall athletic program, and they continue to post graduation rates that rank among the best in the nation. Alleva also has been a successful fund-raiser and has overseen a variety of facilities improvements, including the $20 million, 70,000-square-foot Yoh Football Center, which was completed last summer.

Football, Baseball Embarrassing

But Alleva also is the link between Carl Franks and Bill Hillier, two former cronies whom Alleva rewarded with jobs that clearly were beyond their abilities from the moment they were hired. Franks, a former Duke football player and an assistant coach for the Devils when Alleva was rising up the ranks of the athletic department in the 1980s, had never been a head coach or even a coordinator when Alleva hired him in 1999. Hillier, a former Duke baseball assistant, had a 97-171 record at UNC Asheville when Alleva hired him to lead the Duke baseball team in 2000.

File this away in the truth-hurts-sometimes drawer: Franks and Hillier have been utter failures, which means Alleva has been an utter failure in one of the most important facets of his job — hiring coaches.

Franks is 5-40 overall in five seasons and 3-29 in the ACC, and if you can come up with a football coach in a major conference who has done worse than that, more power to you. Hillier is 82-144 overall in four seasons and 21-73 in the ACC, and it would be difficult to find a less successful baseball coach in the ACC's 50-year history.

Duke remains a fixture in the top 25 of the Sears Cup standings, but that is largely a tribute to former AD Tom Butters, who hired the likes of Krzyzewski, Gail Goestenkors (women's basketball), Jamie Ashworth (women's tennis), Dan Brooks (women's golf) and Kerstin Kimel (women's lacrosse). It is the coaches hired by Butters who are racking up enough Sears Cup points to offset some of the duds tabbed by Alleva.

Search Process Left Questions

According to many long-time Duke observers, Alleva never should have replaced Butters. The sad part is, Duke knew it at the time.

Alleva, Butters' long-time right-hand man, was the token in-house candidate in 1998, but there was little momentum to promote him. The only important person calling for Alleva's ascension was Krzyzewski, who had known him for years and just as importantly knew Alleva would never, ever challenge him as the most powerful member of the athletic department. An outside candidate would not have come in with the same reverence for Krzyzewski. Respect, yes. But reverence? No way.

The AD search was a mess, lurching in various directions while being ridiculed by the likes of author John Feinstein, a Duke alum who said of Alleva, “He's a nice guy, but his next idea will be his first.”

Feinstein and other Duke insiders supported ACC official Tom Mickle, but the search focused on two athletic directors from the same, faraway state, Iowa's Bob Bowlsby and Iowa State's Gene Smith. Smith was the first prime target, but when he withdrew from consideration, he cited “the uncertain nature of the Duke selection process.” Duke then re-opened the search, although Alleva was the only name left, and eventually offered the job to Bowlsby, who turned it down.

Only then did Duke hire Alleva, who was predictably but ridiculously called “the right man for the job … right here on the Duke campus,” by Duke president Nan Keohane. So proud of her hire, Keohane released the news not with a press conference but with a fax, as if the university knew this was not a move to be trumpeted.

Good call.

Coaches: One Up, Three Down

Since replacing Butters in 1998, Alleva has overseen four significant coaching transitions, and only one has worked out. That was in volleyball, where Jolene Nagel has put the Blue Devils, a former NCAA powerhouse, back on the national map after a mid-1990s lull. In the other three situations, Alleva took a big swing and missed, wrenching his back in the process.

In football he fired Fred Goldsmith, who in hindsight deserved to coach the 1999 season with his best recruiting class performing as fifth-year seniors, and already had Franks lined up to replace him. Alleva was so bent on hiring Franks, a little-known Florida assistant, that he turned down applications from the last two national coaches of the year, Maryland's Ralph Friedgen (in 1999 the offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech) and Ohio State's Jim Tressel (then the head coach at Division I-AA Youngstown State). That kind of gross oversight alone would get some people fired.

In baseball Alleva fired Steve Traylor, after an 0-5 finish to the 1999 season left the Blue Devils at 25-30. Still, Traylor was the most successful coach in Duke baseball history, posting a 357-284-1 record and winning at least 20 games in 11 straight seasons. Before Traylor, Duke had won 20 games nine times — in 95 years.

Traylor won 38 or 39 games four times between 1992 and 1998, but Hillier has not been able to build on that momentum. Three times in four years under Hillier, Duke has finished last in the ACC, going a Franks-like 6-43 in the league the past two seasons. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Hillier's final season at UNC Asheville was a 20-39 disaster in 1999, when the Bulldogs had a 6.61 ERA — and Hillier is a pitching coach by trade. He's not the pitching coach at Duke, though. That job is held by his son, Bill Jr., who saw his staff post a 5.78 ERA. The No. 1 starter on the staff? None other than Joe Alleva's son, Jeff, who to his credit had a much better ERA (4.73) than the staff total.

Hillier Sr. didn't win himself any friends in the Duke athletic department after his first season ended, when Duke set a school record with 41 losses in 2000 and Hillier told the Durham Herald-Sun it was Traylor's fault.

“That's Steve Traylor's problem. That's not my problem,” said the man who managed the team from the dugout. “I didn't recruit these guys.”

No, but Hillier did recruit the guys on the current Duke team, which went 18-36 overall and 2-21 in the ACC. That, too, could get Alleva fired, but there's more.

In women's soccer, Alleva ran off long-time coach Bill Hempen after the 2000 season. Hempen took his 162-100-16 record to Colorado, allowing Alleva to hire yet another friend from the 1980s, former Duke men's assistant Robbie Church. Hempen went 14-8-1 in his last season at Duke, while Church has gone 8-10-1 and 9-9-2 in two seasons.

Clearly, Church deserves another season or two or even three to fill the roster with his recruits, but the early returns show the trajectory of the Duke women's soccer program pointing downward from the exact moment Alleva hired him. Again, Church deserves more time.

Alleva? At Duke, the board of trustees said yes, and most fans weren't paying attention. Anywhere else? Probably not.