By Jorge Milian
Palm Beach (Fla.) Post
April 26, 2004 CORAL GABLES Perry Clark was fired as Miami's men's basketball coach on March 26, but the end of his tenure with the Hurricanes actually took place three weeks earlier. On March 6, Miami lost its final regular-season game at home to West Virginia, eliminating the Hurricanes from qualifying for the Big East Tournament. That was an embarrassing development, even for a traditionally beleaguered program that was boarded up between 1971 and 1985 before undergoing a resurrection under Leonard Hamilton and reaching the NCAA's Sweet 16 in the 1999-2000 season. After some early success in his first two campaigns, Miami basketball quickly deteriorated under Clark. The Hurricanes finished 11-17 in 2002-03, marking their first losing season in nine years. That was followed by this year's 14-16 record, which included a 10-game losing streak. Attendance, usually pathetic even in Miami's best seasons, fell off as steeply as the team's record. Despite the presence of their new and cozy on-campus arena, the Hurricanes drew only 2,545 fans per game this season, their lowest average in 10 years. Also working against Clark was his relationship with powerful boosters and fans. Many thought Clark was aloof and lazy, especially compared to the workaholic Hamilton. Fans often ridiculed Clark on websites devoted to UM sports, and some even began showing up at games this season with "Fire Perry" T-shirts. Hosts on the local all-sports radio station openly called for Clark's removal. "Wherever I've been, I've always been liked," Clark said. "Here, it's been an uphill run from the beginning." Despite all of that, Clark may have survived if not for the loss to West Virginia that ended Miami's season. Clark later said he was told by school officials that a 16-win season would have allowed him to keep his job. Miami athletic director Paul Dee admitted as much after firing Clark, pointing out that the Hurricanes' inability to beat West Virginia at home and earn a Big East Tournament spot "was very disappointing to me, a special moment." Still, Dee was anything but quick to pull the trigger on Clark, at least in part because of the three years and $2.25 million remaining on the coach's contract. With Miami's athletic department financially strapped because of sizable obligations related to construction of the $48 million basketball arena, plus the school's exit from the Big East ($1 million) and entry into the ACC ($2 million), firing Clark was a luxury Dee was unsure he could afford. In the 20 days between the end of the regular season and Clark's firing, there was wide speculation that Dee was hitting up boosters for the funds it would take to make such a change. The AD did meet with some supporters during that timeframe, and basketball was one of the topics of conversation, but Dee said he didn't have his hat in hand. "It never happened," Dee said of the rumors. "I didn't ask one person for a penny." Dee conceded that he made a mistake by giving Clark a seven-year contract, instead of the five-year deals Miami coaches normally receive. Clark was given the lengthier pact, Dee has said, because Hamilton had a similar contract. But not having a greater say in the hiring of Clark may have been Dee's bigger mistake. Instead, it was Hamilton who spearheaded the search that reeled in Clark from Tulane. Hamilton, who left Miami for the NBA's Washington Wizards, was given that role after his resignation briefly led to a dispute over a buyout clause in his contract. In order to help soothe any hurt feelings, Miami officials allowed Hamilton to become an integral figure in finding his own
replacement. Hamilton's choice was Clark, an old friend, over Kent State's Gary Waters, who had no connection to Hamilton. Rutgers hired Waters in 2001, and he has posted records of 18-13, 12-16 and 20-13 in his three seasons with the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers advanced to the NIT championship game in April. "I'd like to thank Leonard for allowing me to be part of the coaching search," Dee joked on July 6, 2000, at the press conference to announce Clark's hiring. Shortly before he was fired, Clark asked Dee for another season to turn things around. Under the plan, Clark would be required to meet certain criteria or risk losing his job. But under tremendous pressure from boosters and others close to the program, Dee fired Clark on the morning of March 26. "This is very, very difficult," Dee said. "Perry Clark is a very good person, a very honorable person, someone that I enjoyed working with. We just decided it was in the best interests of our program to make a change." "It was surprising somewhat," Clark said. "As a coach, you think people see your same vision. But they didn't. You think people would see how competitive and young we were and say, 'Golly, they're close.' But that wasn't the case." Despite his firing, Clark retained a strong influence on Miami's program because of his contract. With Clark owed $750,000 over each of the next three seasons, Dee admitted that his search would be limited in scope. "There are some (big-ticket coaches) today that we couldn't afford," Dee said. "It's simply not going to happen." Instead of targeting established names, such as John Calipari ($1.5 million per year) of Memphis, Dee narrowed his sights on young head coaches at mid-majors or top assistants at bigger schools. The AD also eliminated from consideration any potential candidates who initiated contact with him prior to Clark's dismissal, noting that he couldn't comfortably work with anyone who would campaign for a job that wasn't even open yet. Dee interviewed five men. He began by speaking to Manhattan's Bobby Gonzalez in New York on March 30. Dee followed that by talking to a pair of head coaches, Jeff Capel of Virginia Commonwealth and Mike Anderson of Alabama-Birmingham, in Atlanta on April 6. The next day, Dee interviewed two prominent assistants, Frank Haith of Texas and Norm Roberts of Kansas, in Dallas. According to Dee, Gonzalez had a solid interview and left a strong impression. Although Dee declined to designate Gonzalez as the frontrunner, the job was widely seen as his to lose. And that's exactly what Gonzalez might have done, according to published reports. After Gonzalez met with Dee, he reportedly told Miami officials to hasten their decision because St. John's wanted to interview him for the Red Storm's coaching vacancy. As the story goes, Miami looked into Gonzalez's claim and found it to be untrue. St. John's never spoke with Gonzalez before naming Roberts, the Kansas assistant, to fill the position on April 13. Gonzalez denied he ever tried to play Miami off of St. John's. Dee also disputed those claims, but a Miami official with intimate ties to the coaching search said "issues" arose during the school's courting of Gonzalez. He declined to give further details. With Gonzalez out of the picture, Miami was left to consider Capel, Anderson, Haith and Roberts all African-Americans. That fact was not lost on Dee, whose athletic department roster of 11 head coaches was left without an African-American following Clark's termination. "We're sensitive to that," Dee said. Early in the search, Miami officials indicated that Dee also hoped to speak with Murray State head coach Mick Cronin and Florida State assistant Stan Jones, but those discussions (if any) never resulted in full-fledged interviews. Cronin and Jones, who are white, both have reputations as outstanding recruiters. Cronin served under Bob Huggins at Cincinnati and Rick Pitino at Louisville, Jones under Hamilton during the Miami renaissance (1996-2000) and for the past two seasons at FSU. Capel, the youngest head coach in Division
I-A at age 29, quickly emerged as the leader among the post-Gonzalez group of four candidates. A former standout player at Duke, Capel had everything Miami was looking for a young, energetic coach with a modest salary and a background in the ACC. But Capel took his name out of the running two days after interviewing with Dee, choosing to stay at VCU. Anderson, who led the Blazers to an upset of top-seeded Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament, followed Capel's lead by withdrawing his candidacy for the Miami job to stay at UAB. Capel and Anderson, who both also interviewed with Auburn, were rewarded with new and richer contracts at their respective schools. According to some reports, Capel even turned down a job offer from the Tigers, who ultimately hired Chattanooga head coach and former North Carolina star Jeff Lebo. With Capel and Anderson out, Miami was left to choose between Roberts and Haith. Roberts, an assistant on Bill Self's staff at Oral Roberts, Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas, was recommended to Dee by Kansas athletic director Lew Perkins, a long-time friend of the Miami AD from his Big East days at Connecticut. But it was Haith, the former Wake Forest assistant, who was the first candidate to visit Miami's campus. He was brought to Dee's attention by ACC associate commissioner Fred Barakat, and he later received glowing endorsements from Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, former Wake coach Dave Odom (now at South Carolina) and Texas coach Rick Barnes. Despite Dee's intentions to bring in Roberts and, possibly, Gonzalez, it never got that far. Haith arrived in South Florida on April 9. By the next morning, Dee said he knew the Hurricanes had their next coach. "We just all felt on his visit that he was the right person for us," Dee said. "Rather than continue, we decided to make him an offer. Everybody just believes he's the next generation. I saw in him something very special." Miami proposed to Haith a five-year contract worth approximately $450,000 per season. The 38-year-old coach couldn't say yes fast enough. Haith surely will have his work cut out for him at Miami, especially in the near future. Among Clark's most serious shortcomings as Miami's coach was his inability to attract top recruits, leaving the Hurricanes and Haith with a roster woefully lacking in talent. Of Miami's returning lettermen, only guards Robert Hite, a junior, and Guillermo Diaz, a sophomore, have proven ability, and both of them slumped badly down the stretch last season. Haith developed a reputation as a big-time recruiter at Wake Forest and Texas he helped bring in three McDonald's All-Americans for the Longhorns in just the past year and he'll have to be in order to save the Hurricanes' incoming class. One of Haith's first orders of business upon being hired was to persuade C.J. Giles, a 6-11 center from Seattle, to honor the letter of intent he signed with Miami in November. But Haith's trip to Seattle on April 19 turned out to be a waste of time. Giles, unhappy with Clark's firing, reiterated his desire to be released from the agreement and, according to university insiders, is more than likely to have his wish granted. With Giles out of the picture and most of the nation's top players already committed to other schools, Haith was left scrambling to fill three available scholarships before the May 19 end of the spring signing period. One appears destined to go to Anthony Ighodaro, a 6-8 Canadian whose nomadic past includes committing to three universities over the past four years. Haith also was searching for a point guard and another big man, but he said he was willing to keep the scholarships if he didn't find what the Hurricanes needed. The combination of little returning talent and slim pickings among potential newcomers seems certain to cast the Hurricanes in the role of league punching bags in their first season in the ACC. But as difficult as Haith's job will be on the court, it may be even tougher away from it. Haith will be asked to re-energize a fan base that stayed away in droves last season. The Hurricanes couldn't fill up the 7,000-seat Convocation Center even when tickets were given away for free. Even in the program's best seasons, Miami basketball games have been a bad draw. In
1999-2000, the Hurricanes won the Big East regular-season championship and reached the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season yet averaged only 3,995 fans for 16 home games. In 2001-02, Miami established a school record for wins and earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament but attracted crowds of less than 4,700 to its games. The construction and opening of the on-campus Convocation Center in 2002 was supposed to solve the Hurricanes' attendance woes, but apathy continues to reign. "It's a challenge," Dee said. "We have to accept that it's our responsibility. It's not the community's fault. It's not the boosters' fault. It's not anybody's fault. It's just that we have to create the connectivity for them to come and be with us." There would seem to be no stronger connection to the school than with its students. Yet few of them show up to games, even though 1,000 free seats are allotted for their benefit and nearly one-third of the student population lives on campus. Into that void steps Haith. "The biggest thing is we've got to somehow get our student body, our community, involved in the program," Haith said. "When you go on the road in the ACC, you are truly on the road. And we have to create that same environment at the University of Miami. Now I'm going to do my part. We'll do what we've got to do to get folks into the arena. And when we do that, we have to have a product that will make them want to come back again." That will take effort and persistence, which are two qualities Haith is said to have in abundance. Haith began his career at age 20, serving as a student assistant coach at his alma mater, Elon College in North Carolina. "Not a student assistant," Haith emphasized, "but an actual assistant coach." Haith was so committed to the profession that he took a job serving as the coach of a girls' basketball team at a middle school in order to earn gas money to recruit for Elon. "He's always been passionate about coaching," said Pam Haith, Frank's wife and a faculty member at Texas. "It's what drives him." Haith was born in Queens, N.Y., before moving at age seven with five of his 12 siblings to Burlington, N.C., to live with his grandmother. Growing up in ACC country, Haith said he was known as an "ABC" fan. "Anybody but Carolina," Haith said. Despite never having played basketball in high school or college, Haith moved up the coaching ladder quickly, working at UNC Wilmington, Texas A&M, Penn State and Wake Forest before going to Texas three years ago. He was seriously considered for the coaching vacancy at SMU earlier this year but withdrew his name from consideration. "We really went out and looked for somebody who could create change," Dee said. "I believe (Haith) is going to be the change agent." "Once this job opened, I knew this was a job I wanted, and I put all my efforts into going after this thing," Haith said. "I think I'm ready. I think I've been ready for a long time." ACC Sports Journal editor Dave Glenn also contributed to this article.
Brought to you by: