Zags' neighbor to the south needs a soul-search
04-27-18

I don’t get it. But there’s a lot I don’t get about Washington State basketball.

I don’t get why WSU finds itself owing Ernie Kent a ton of money. I don’t get what he’s done to earn it. I don’t get the utter lack of a road map at my alma mater to be competitive in basketball.

First, an explanation: This is predominantly a blog about Gonzaga basketball, but on occasion, we veer into matters of interest related to the Zags, especially their opponents or in-state neighbors.

Some of the Gonzaga faithful would prefer their team play WSU annually, hell or high water, deferring to a tradition that began more than a century ago. I’m not in that camp, but virtually everybody would at least relish a day when the Cougars are salty enough to revive the series.

Until then, forget it. All you need to know is this: Since the Cougars last won a game in their conference tournament (2009), Gonzaga has won 19 games in the NCAA tournament.

So I’ll tell you what’s going to happen, and what ought to happen.

In a year or two, WSU’s new athletic director, Patrick Chun, will stand in front of a news conference and extol the “vision” of his new coach for Cougar basketball. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What ought to take place at WSU is a complete examination of all things basketball, an unvarnished hard look at whether the Cougars can attain some level of consistent competitiveness, or whether they’re forever destined to be a laugh track in the Pac-12. Over the past 22 seasons, going back to 1996-97 under Kevin Eastman, WSU is 160 games under .500 in conference play.

WSU hoops reminds me of the business concept “loss leader” (now there’s a haunting appellation). You take a hit on some commodity, but it aids in the overall development of the enterprise. Where’s that salvation with WSU basketball, which never played in front of a home crowd of 5,000 last season? To be brutally honest about it, what’s the point, other than 11 other schools in the Pac-12 also have a program?

So put together a committee, or an advisory team, and pick some brains. Go talk to people like Tony Bennett and Kelvin Sampson, and some of those who played there. Brian Quinnett lives nearby. See what Klay Thompson thinks. Surely some of the wise heads of the Bennett regime, people like Robbie Cowgill or Derrick Low or Kyle Weaver, have ideas.

The point is, the Cougars have to do something different, whether that’s hiring an alum who bleeds crimson or somebody willing to die before allowing an uncontested layup. And no, firing up random threes and playing zero defense doesn’t count.

In some measure, it could be a facilities issue. Many schools now have a building dedicated to basketball, with a practice facility and auxiliary functions. Meanwhile, when Ken Bone exited the program after 2015, he lamented the decaying state of Beasley Coliseum (a place that’s too big, but that’s another story).

Of course, at the time Bone was cashiered by Bill Moos, the WSU athletic director had poured resources into football, not unjustifiably. He brought on Kent, and then Moos did what Moos does, which was (a) spend money and (b) tell the world that WSU isn’t going to take a back seat to anybody. He settled on paying Kent $1.4 million a year, when $1 or $1.1 million or would have done nicely. Kent was out of coaching, longing to get back into it, and besides, Bone was making $850,000.

Kent’s first two coaching hires were Greg Graham, a solid Xs-and-Os guy with whom he played at Oregon in the 1970s, and veteran Silvey Dominguez. I didn’t get that, either. At probably the toughest place to win among the power conferences, three 60-ish guys were going to go into living rooms and preach WSU's gospel to recruits?

WSU had the predictable growing pains, and for reasons known only to Moos, he kept rolling Kent’s contract over, never letting it dip even to three years. You suppose rival coaches would have been sitting in recruits’ homes, saying, “Yeah, you really want to go to a school where the coach only has three years left on his contract?”

(Meanwhile, Moos was fond of telling alums they needed to “have skin in the game.” Would some fiscal responsibility in the game have been too much to ask?)

So now the Cougars are apparently without both 1-2 scorers Robert Franks (pro-bound) and Malachi Flynn (transferring) for next year, hardly a good look. That’s a combined 33 points, 10 rebounds and Flynn’s 2-1 assist-turnover ratio walking out a door which has been swinging open regularly during the Kent regime. Guard Milan Acquaah just joined the serpentine.

In a wider picture, college basketball’s trend toward greater player mobility hurts schools like WSU more than it helps.

The money owed Kent dwarfs anything WSU has ever paid a coach to go away, in any sport. Bone collected $1.7 million on the two unserved years of his contract. When Moos canned football coach Paul Wulff after the 2011 season, he owed him only about $600,000.

“It takes time,” Kent told me a few weeks ago.

Right. It also takes a plan. I don’t think Washington State has one.


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