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Program Shunned Nit, Began Crucial Search

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

March 24, 2003 CLEMSON — We told you the end was near. But when Clemson was left out of the NIT, to the surprise of most observers, it was obvious that Larry Shyatt was done with the Tigers. Shyatt's last team didn't even limp to the end. They crawled and barely made it to the finish line. Clemson closed with five straight defeats, including a humiliating loss to Florida State in the final Larry Shyatt Invitational at the ACC Tournament. The Seminoles out-scored the Tigers 20-1 in the second half to wipe out an eight-point halftime deficit.

Clemson left Greensboro with a 15-13 record, confident it would have at least one more game, but it didn't happen. The NIT committee left the Tigers at home, and believe it or not, the university administration had something to do with it. School officials refused to get involved financially in a bid with the Bi-Lo Center for an NIT game in Greenville. The NIT committee took that as a sign that there was not enough interest at Clemson in participating in the tournament.

After getting left out of the NIT late Sunday night, the wheels started spinning Monday morning. Both parties publicly claimed it was a mutual decision, and there's no doubt that Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips wanted to make a change. The official announcement was that Shyatt resigned, while Phillips referred to it as a mutual parting. Shyatt got his $180,000 buyout, which under his contract's language was due only upon termination (not resignation), and a low-key send-off.

According to some reports, the decision really may have been more mutual than most imagined. Shyatt indicated to several media outlets that he and his wife Pam had decided in his final month at Clemson that the school may not have been the right place for their family any longer.

Meanwhile, the few Shyatt backers who remained finally had to admit that their man had failed. In five years, he took the Tigers to one NIT and had four losing seasons. He won just three ACC road games during his tenure. Some Shyatt backers screamed that he had not received the support he needed to build a winning program, and the coach implied as much in his parting remarks.

But it was obvious to almost everyone that more support, financial or otherwise, was not going to make Shyatt a better coach or a remarkable recruiter. For five years, his teams played the same way, with lousy half-court offense and inconsistent defense. Outside shooting and offensive execution always were problems. The main reason the Tigers made the NIT final in the coach's first year was that his four seniors finally decided to play late in the season.

The next step for Shyatt, if he wants it, is going back home. (He was born and raised in Cleveland.) Numerous published reports linked him to the Cleveland State job, where he was an assistant from 1976-82. The athletic director at CSU, Lee Reed, was a basketball player at the school while Shyatt was an assistant coach there. Reed and Shyatt later were on the same coaching staff for three years at New Mexico.

Interestingly, some mid-major head coaches these days are making as much as 75 percent of the $420,000 a year package Shyatt had with the Tigers.

Phillips: One Man, Enormous Task

Compared to other firings in Clemson's history, this one came swiftly. Phillips is ready to move. He is ready to take his shot at changing the dynamics of Clemson basketball. He certainly faces a challenging environment as he tries to pull the program out of a ditch.

Of the original members of the ACC, there's no doubt Clemson has had the least success in men's basketball. The Tigers have never won the ACC Tournament and have appeared in just one ACC Tournament final.

Almost everyone has heard the standard excuses for Clemson's lack of success in basketball — location, lack of commitment from the administration, football mentality, lack of consistent ACC-caliber talent.

Location always has been excuse No. 1 at Clemson. It's a land-grant school, located in the foothills of upstate South Carolina. Translation: The rural location is not attractive to many talented African-American players.

The commitment from the administration and the football mentality go hand in hand. Before Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson played in Fike Fieldhouse, one of the darkest pits in the country. More than $30 million was recently spent on Littlejohn, but it's still far from a plush, big-time facility. The Tigers do have a new practice facility, but according to insiders, the gym in that facility looks nothing like the original plans. Football always has been No. 1 at Clemson, and it remains the sport the school's fans understand and appreciate most.

Some of Clemson's best basketball players through the years — Larry Nance, Horace Grant, Vincent Hamilton, Will Solomon, Edward Scott — have been afterthoughts. Clemson's best player of all-time, Skip Wise, stayed for just one season.

Phillips has seen basketball emerge as a successful sport in an environment similar to the one at Clemson. Stillwater, Okla., is in the sticks of north central Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State is another land-grant institution. But the Cowboys have had a lot more success in basketball than the Tigers. The biggest difference between Oklahoma State and Clemson is that OSU has benefited from two legendary coaches, Henry Iba and Eddie Sutton.

It isn't going to happen overnight, but Phillips must change the mentality of the Clemson fans, who love football and spring football. Clemson can win in basketball. Bill Foster did it. Cliff Ellis did it. Rick Barnes did it. That's why this hire is so important. Sure, this hire is about recruiting and Xs and Os, but it also is about promoting the program and building something successful that lasts.

Phillips is going to serve as a one-man search committee, which means this search could be a major undercover operation with very few reliable leaks. There was early confirmation that the AD had requested permission to speak with Western Kentucky coach Dennis Felton, a former Clemson assistant, but beyond that there wasn't much more than a fun-filled sea of speculation.

Because of Clemson's history and pressure from the NCAA, much of that early speculation had Phillips zeroing in on minority candidates, including Felton, Dayton coach Oliver Purnell, Maryland assistant Dave Dickerson and Duke assistant Johnny Dawkins. Purnell interviewed with the Tigers in 1998, when then-AD Bobby Robinson hired Shyatt. Dickerson and Dawkins are considered up-and-coming coaches, and Dickerson is a native (Olar) of the Palmetto State, but neither has ever been a head coach. In addition, they may not want to begin their head coaching careers going head-to-head against their mentors in the ACC every year.

Among the other names mentioned in the early going, former college/NBA coaches Lon Kruger and Tim Floyd indicated that they weren't interested in the Clemson job. Among mid-major head coaches, Chattanooga coach Jeff Lebo and East Tennessee State coach Ed DeChellis are among the hottest names in the business. Lebo, a former UNC player, already has been linked to openings at Penn State (he's from Pennsylvania) and Virginia Tech. DeChellis, a Penn State alum, also is being prominently mentioned with the PSU job.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma State assistant Sean Sutton, the son of Eddie, became well-known and well-liked by Phillips during their time together at OSU. Phillips perked some ears when he said he'd be consulting Eddie Sutton during his search, and Sean Sutton did nothing to discourage speculation about his potential candidacy for the Clemson job when he hid from inquiring reporters in a men's room at an NCAA Tournament site.

Football: Hall's Not Coming Back

Here's some more spin from Clemson football coach Tommy Bowden that's simply not true: Tight end Ben Hall missed winter workouts and will miss spring practice because of personal problems.

Hall may have some personal problems, but that's not the main reason he missed workouts and is missing the spring. He has been missing in large part because he doesn't like Bowden and is unhappy with his playing time. According to Bobby Bentley, his high school coach, Hall is planning to transfer. Bowden recently admitted in a couple of speaking appearances that Hall isn't coming back.

Coming out of Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C., Hall was rated the No. 1 tight end prospect in the country. But Clemson did to him what it always does to talented tight ends, converts them into third tackles. Hall also has told friends that Bowden has lied to him on many occasions. Obviously, if Hall is going to reach his potential, he's going to have to do it somewhere else.

In an interesting side note, insiders said Bowden offered the wide receivers coach position to Bentley, who has produced several big-time receivers at Byrnes, before hiring former Alabama assistant Dabo Swinney. Sources said Bentley declined the offer, in part because of the uncertain long-term future for Bowden at Clemson.