In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on May 14, 2011 at 9:12 pm

It’s been an interesting spring in the D.C. college basketball community. Three… count ‘em… three major coaching changes. Maryland, George Mason, and George Washington all have new head coaches for the 2011-12 campaign.

And I seriously doubt that anybody saw this coming. Oh sure, Karl Hobbs’ future at G.W. was in some doubt at the end of the season, but there were folks who felt he should have gotten at least one more go-round to try and right the Colonials’ ship. As for Gary Williams and Jim Larranaga, I think most folks pretty much figured they’d never leave Maryland and Mason respectively. In fact, I was pretty much convinced that Gary would coach right up until he either stroked-out or died from dehydration in the second half of a nail-biter with Duke.
The changes gave us a rare opportunity to see how three different athletic directors handled their toughest job – headhunting and hiring a head coach in their most visible, moneymaking sport. (Quick aside here – Maryland is a basketball school–sorry, Randy Edsall.) So, who did the best job? It could be 5 or even 10 years before we know the answer.
Theoretically, new G.W. athletic director, Patrick Nero, had the least pressure of the three. (Or is it outgoing Colonials A.D. Jack Kvancz? It’s hard to tell how much of a role he played in the firing/hiring process with newcomer Nero.) The Colonials aren’t as highly regarded as they once were. Mason has passed them on the “respect meter,” and even American U. has been in the NCAA Tournament more recently than G.W. All that means is that Nero didn’t absolutely have to hire a BLOCKBUSTER name like Maryland needed to hire, and like Mason seemed to think it needed to hire.
G.W.’s choice of Mike Lonergan was an easy one. Local guy. Local ties. Successful head coach at Vermont. National championship at Catholic University. Former assistant under Gary at Maryland. The Colonials could afford to take a chance on a “rising star” kind of guy to replace the former “rising star” Hobbs. Lonergan is old enough to understand where G.W. basketball once was, and young enough to have the time to get them back to their winning ways and regain the respect they once enjoyed in D.C. and among the mid-majors. Plus, the cupboard’s not bare. Lonergan will only lose one starter from Hobbs’ last group.
More critically perhaps for G.W. and Nero is that Lonergan sees G.W. in the “Dream Job” mold. That means if he’s successful, he could enjoy a long run in Foggy Bottom.  I’m not so sure that’s the case with the new guys at Maryland and Mason. Not yet, at least.
And, that brings us to the folks in Fairfax – George Mason.
Patriots A.D., Tom O’Connor, might have placed himself on the proverbial “hot seat” with his (mis?)handling of the Larranaga to Miami/Paul Hewitt to Mason deal.
O’Connor was clearly caught off guard by the obvious “win-win” situation for Larranaga with the Hurricanes, created, in part, by the quantum shift in the pay scale of coaches in the Colonial Athletic Association. (Please see: VCU/Shaka Smart new contract.)  At age 61, Larranaga was probably just angling for a way to cruise towards retirement at Mason, and unexpectedly, the Miami job fell right into his lap. But, rather than taking care of the man who put George Mason basketball on the national map, O’Connor gambled and lost him to a school that was willing to guarantee the money that O’Connor was only willing to dangle as a carrot. Money that would only have to be paid to Larranaga if certain incentives were reached.

So much for loyalty to the guy Mason higher-ups always called a “great ambassador.”  Where’s the love?  Where’s the money to show the love? You can’t just talk a big game. You have to back it up with cash these days. And, Mason seems content to leave the calendar and payroll set at 2006.
Sure, Larranaga has thrown himself into the jungle of the ACC, and at a football school to boot. But, this is the important part, EVEN IF HE FAILS, HE WINS. Four years at Miami will pay him the equivalent of 10 to 12 years of the guaranteed money at Mason. Jim could get bounced by the ‘Canes at age 65, retire to ESPN or the speaking circuit, and laugh all the way to the bank. Somehow, O’Connor missed that point, or more likely, just didn’t want to believe it was possible.
In an effort to recover face, O’Connor opted for the big name replacement in ex-Georgia Tech coach, Paul Hewitt. Tom crowed that Hewitt was willing to take the money that Larranaga passed on. Naturally, O’Connor avoided delving into the reality of the monstrous $7 million payout that Hewitt is getting from Tech to simply walk away. A payout that effectively allowed Mason to “offer” more money to Hewitt without actually paying anymore than they would have paid Larranaga had he stayed in Fairfax.  Nothing like living on someone else’s dime.
Money aside, there’s now a ton of pressure on O’Connor’s man, Hewitt, to deliver and deliver quickly. Mason must be careful not to slip into the second division of the extremely competitive CAA. (You know that VCU and ODU are lying in wait to replace Mason at the top of the conference heap.)  Hewitt will have to adjust rapidly to recruiting and coaching CBA-caliber players instead of the NBA-caliber guys he had in Atlanta. He’ll also have to adjust to recruiting in an area where he’s not the first, or even the second choice.

And, with the already dialed-in Lonergan at G.W., Hewitt might have been bumped into fourth place in the local recruiting wars. Sure, Hewitt has pulled some top talent out of this area like Jarrett Jack. But, the top talent from around here plays in the ACC and the Big East, not at George Mason.  And, Hewitt’s first order of business will be making sure he doesn’t lose the talent already on the Patriots’ roster. Luke Hancock is not a lock to be around next winter. And, then there’s that little detail about following in the footsteps of a legend. Good luck with that, Paul. Of course, Hewitt won’t be alone in wearing the legend’s shoes.

That’s also the fate of Mark Turgeon at Maryland. Gary Williams stunning decision to retire left first-year athletic director Kevin Anderson with his second blockbuster hiring decision in a matter of months, which, depending on who you ask, might have been his plan all along. Anderson pretty much forced football coach Ralph Friedgen out, and there are conspiracy theorists in the Terps community who think that Gary was kicked to the curb, too. Despite the happy face that everybody has put on the Williams retirement.
A larger factor in the Gary retirement decision, however, had to be Jordan Williams’ decision to turn pro early.  No Jordan. No serious run at the 2012 ACC Championship in College Park. No desire from Gary to build from square one. No desire to find a way to squeeze a winning season out of a .500, or worse, kind of team. That leaves us with a rather empty cupboard at Maryland for Turgeon. It kinda feels like 1989 all over again in College Park. Okay, 1989 with a lot less drama and no NCAA sanctions.
Gary ultimately made lemonade out of the lemon of a program he was left with in the wake of Bob Wade’s mishandling of the “post-Len Bias death” era.  Turgeon will be expected to do something similar. Yes, the circumstances are less dark than 22 years ago, but no less stressful for a new coach with no ties to Maryland, the local recruiting scene, or the ACC. And, add to that, the pressure from those Terps fans who didn’t see Mark as the first choice to replace Williams.
Still, Turgeon could actually be a shinier version of Gary himself. Mark “The Surgeon” Turgeon was Larry Brown’s gutsy point guard in the mid-80’s at Kansas. He was a winner as head coach at Wichita State. And, had the Shockers not lost to George Mason in the Sweet 16 in 2006… Wichita maybe beats #1 U-Conn… and… well… you can imagine the rest.
Back to reality!
Turgeon won at Texas A&M — a football school. He won at Texas A&M — a program and a state where he had no prior ties. He won at Texas A&M — a school that should never have been able to run with the big boys in the Big 12. He won at Texas A&M — four NCAA Tournament appearances in four years. He won at Texas A&M — of all places.
I suspect he’ll eventually be able to win at Maryland, too. But, as long as Coach K is at Duke and Coach Roy is at Carolina, winning ACC titles will be a real stretch. And, the bigger question for Turgeon is the same one we always asked Larry Brown, “Will you still be here in 5 years?”
Granted, Turgeon is nowhere near the coaching nomad that Brown was (is?).  But, will rabid Maryland fans give him the time to build a program and a comfort zone that could lead to a two-decade run in College Park? Can he build a team quickly enough that will be able to compete with and ultimately beat the likes of Duke and North Carolina. Can he deliver an NCAA Tournament berth every year like he did at A&M? Can he sprinkle in enough ACC Championships to keep the Terps faithful happy? Can he deliver the most coveted of all prizes — the NCAA Championship?
In five years, will Turgeon be the best of the three new hires of 2011? Or will it be Lonergan? Or Hewitt? The clock is already ticking on all 3 coaches… and their A.D.’s… .

Ross, the creator of Throwback Baseball 1.0, also blogs about sports memorabilia at:

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