We know Ken Bone and Jeff Hironaka have known each other for a long time. We know they're friends. And we know that Hironaka is an immensely respected basketball strategist.
What we don't know, is what exactly caused Bone to pull the trigger on reassigning Hironaka now.
Here was Bone's explanation Thursday. Via Christian Caple:
[Bone] said the move is motivated primarily by the need to add a recruiter to the staff who has unique contacts in areas the Cougars currently don't. Bone, Hironaka and assistant Curtis Allen all have deep roots in the Seattle/Tacoma area. ...
"I just wanted to put people in the positions I think they can be most efficient," Bone said. "I think Jeff can do a great job in some other areas which he’s already done. He’ll still continue to be our lead scout."
That's all well and good, but as Brian wrote on Thursday, moving Hironaka off the sidelines isn't just a slight shift to maximize skill set -- this is a drastic move that has huge implications for Hironaka's career, not to mention his ego, which certainly has to be wounded. Coaches want to coach. And as we've clearly seen on Twitter, Hiro no longer sees himself as a coach in his new role. Bone can insist all he wants that it's not a demotion, but when a coach is no longer a coach and the move comes with a reduction in pay, I hope Bone understands why nobody is buying that.
I'm going to assume these are all things Bone knows, and because of that, I'm going to assume that this wasn't a move that Bone considered lightly. Working with friends can be both awesome and terrible, and having to make a decision like this that affects your friend is most definitely in the terrible category.
But on a fundamental level, Bone is right. This staff does, indeed, need to recruit better. WSU has secured just one commitment from a Recruiting Services Consensus Index top 100 player in Bone's four recruiting classes, and that player is 2012 commit Que Johnson, who is in danger of not qualifying.
This was the class that we were told to wait for, the one where Bone and his staff would finally have the time to network and the scholarship availability to recruit to their fullest potential. While it's dangerous to grade classes before they've ever stepped foot on campus, this class doesn't appear to live up to that expectation.
If this is the best that Hironaka, Curtis Allen and Ben Johnson can come up with, then yeah ... something had to change.
The big question, though, is why Hironaka? And secondarily, why now?
The answer to the first question would seem to be ... well ... when was the last time you heard Hironaka's name attached to a recruit? There's a belief that he's not much of a recruiter, so Bone seems to simply be replacing the weakest recruiter on the staff with a stronger one.
I don't think it's that cut-and-dried, though -- or, at least, it shouldn't be. Let's look at Ben Johnson. He has a reputation as a defensive coach and his recruiting niche is Australia. Well, the defense has been pretty terrible two of Bone's three years, and in nine recruiting classes at WSU, Johnson has brought in just four* players from that part of the globe -- Aron Baynes, Thomas Abercrombie, Brock Motum and Dexter Kernich-Drew. The last one, Kernich-Drew, arrived two years ago.
*I don't count recent commit James Hunter in this category. Even though Johnson's Australian contacts might have given WSU a leg up, this is a kid who has been in the States for years. His only other reported offers were all midmajors. If Johnson isn't on the staff and WSU offers him, I'd figure there's a pretty high probability he comes to Pullman anyway.
To take the point even further, while I like Kernich-Drew, if we're really being honest, there are a lot kids very similar to him in the United States -- you didn't need connections in Australia to get that kind of player. He may yet turn out to be great, so don't take this as writing him off. That's not what I'm doing. I'm merely pointing out that in eight recruiting classes, Johnson's uniquely Australian connections have basically yielded just two very good big men.
By contrast, look at a place like St. Mary's, another hotbed landing spot for Australians. Over the same amount of time Johnson has been at WSU, the Gaels have landed nine Australians to WSU's four, and WSU has landed only one guy (Motum) who approaches the ability of the two best Australians at St. Mary's, Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova. (Yes, Baynes was awesome, but he never was a fringe NBA player as those three are.)
The point is this: Given the relatively few number of guys who actually have made their way across the Pacific to Pullman, I'm just not sure you can flippantly justify Johnson's place on the staff by saying, "Well, he recruits Australia!" Maybe landing a great player every three or four years makes it worthwhile to Bone to keep him on staff. But with just three assistant coaching positions available, I'd argue that strategy is at least questionable. Maybe there's a stud Australian or two coming down the pike, and that's why Johnson wasn't let go. We'll have to wait and see, I suppose.
Then, there's Allen. He's the young, energetic recruiter. He wasn't really credited with landing anyone in his first two recruiting classes, but he is largely credited with landing DaVonte Lacy, which is fantastic. However, he also was the lead recruiter on the kids from Westwind Academy -- Johnson and Richard Peters -- and that has proved to be a giant academic mess. We already know Peters is not coming, and we know Johnson has yet to earn a qualifying score on the SAT. If Johnson didn't get it on the SAT he took two weeks ago, he's got one more shot in two weeks. If that doesn't work out, he's not coming, either. (Never mind the fact that it wouldn't shock me if Johnson ended up with NCAA Clearinghouse issues from his coursework at Westwind, which has an NCAA bullseye on its figurative chest right now.)
Essentially what you had with the way the previous staff was constructed was one excellent strategist who was a mediocre recruiter and two poor strategists who are average (at best) recruiters. If you're going to have one excellent strategist who doesn't really recruit, you better be filling those other two spots with stud recruiters. Bone didn't do that from the beginning, and it appears the overall quality of the team has suffered because of it.
So, Bone chose to replace the strategist with a guy who presumably ought to be the best recruiter of the three from the moment he steps on campus. If he's not, I think it would be safe to wonder -- if you're not doing so already -- just what the heck Bone is doing.
As for the timing of this -- and by timing, I mean after Bone's third year, not that it happened in May -- one has to wonder if Bone is feeling the effects of what is perceived as the mediocrity of the past few years. I say "perceived" mediocrity because by the program's historical standards, the past two seasons have actually been reasonably successful.
But one only needs to look at attendance figures (something surely not lost on Bill Moos) to know that historical context doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot to fans right now. Against the backdrop of a pair of NCAA tournament appearances by Tony Bennett -- including a run to the Sweet 16 -- there's just not a lot of fan excitement for deep runs in the NIT and CBI.
Fair or unfair, fans expected much more from these teams the last few years. And it's led to some pretty loud grumbling about the job Bone is doing. I don't want to put words in Moos' mouth, but would it surprise anyone if Bone was told, "OK, you need to do something"?
Some have suggested Bone should or will be on the hot seat this season. While I cannot speak definitively to that, I can tell you that all signs point to Bone getting at least two more seasons to prove his worth. He was given a guaranteed seven-year contract by Jim Sterk at $850,000 per year. He's completed three years of that contract; if Moos decided to fire Bone after next season, WSU would be on the hook for more than $2.5 million.
Given that Moos would also have to pay a new coach somewhere around $1 million, and given the $4 million-plus that's annually going to the football staff, and given the other capital improvement projects the athletic department is dealing with ... let's just say it's hard to imagine Bone's seat as anything but lukewarm at this point.*
*Unless next year is a mess and there's a sugar daddy we don't know about who is willing to foot the bill for a coaching change. That, of course, would change everything, although I imagine Moos would do anything in his power to encourage said donor to divert that money to a capital project.
But two years from now? That buyout number drops to $1.7 million -- certainly not chump change, but also not insanely prohibitive. Given the anticipated revenue streams from football stadium upgrades and the Pac-12 network, it's not crazy to think that Moos might eat the final two years.
I have no special insight into the mind of Ken Bone, but there's a nonzero chance he has taken stock of the current situation and concluded that he's probably got about two more seasons to prove he deserves a contract extension. And if he wants to make recruiting inroads that pay off in two years, now is when the change has to be made -- in a year, it will be too late. I suppose you could argue that he's already too late, given the state of this recruiting class, but in terms of coming up with something to save his job, this is probably the latest he could make the move.
Sometimes, coaches have to make hard decisions for the overall direction of the program, and while this doesn't appear to be some sort of desperation or last gasp move, it appears this move was likely made with a little bit of a sense of urgency.
I just hope it works.