Ernie Kent is who he has always been. From a high-level view, he’s a coach pretty much unconcerned with defense, instead relying on the offensive superiority of his teams to win basketball games. When coaching the Oregon Ducks, he could go out and get the Aaron Brookses, Tajuan Porters, Maarty Leunens, and E.J. Singlers of the world, albeit with some help from Phil Knight’s pocketbook. Eugene had become a destination for football and basketball at almost identical times; convincing a young kid to come to the Willamette Valley wasn’t as tall of task as when Kent himself attended UO.
The Washington State Cougars and Pullman, Washington ... now there’s a different story.
Though the football team is certainly humming along on the Palouse, things are a little different for the basketball team. Training facilities aren’t up to par with the rest of the conference which, though they have had multiple horrid years on the court, still has two of the most prestigious programs in the country. Beasley Coliseum is better suited as a mausoleum than an event center, which is to say nothing of its distance from those aforementioned terribly lit gyms in the PEB that pass, barely, for basketball courts. The basketball has been so bad for so long that one, singular snowflake outside the window of a student bored on a January Wednesday evening is enough to send them straight to Valhalla for wing night without even so much as a detour to watch the Cougs on the way.
It’s all a very long winded way of saying it’s very tough to win at basketball in Pullman. That’s not to say it cannot be done though! Coaches like George Raveling, Kelvin Sampson and Tony Bennett have. But with a grand total of six NCAA Tournament appearances in the record books, it’s a task perhaps taller than Webster Hall.
Ernie Kent, to say the least, has not been a success at Washington State. Nary a postseason birth of any kind to his credit and not a single season of finishing above-.500 in conference play has left us all where we should be with him right now: sick and tired of it all. Hell, we even have an excuse tracker for a man more apt to blame players who should not be playing in the Pac-12 than himself.
Ernie Kent should not be the coach of the Cougars, this much we know. But short of him throwing in the towel Gary Andersen in Corvallis style, he will almost certainly be back on the bench for WSU next season and perhaps the one after that.
Who’s to blame for it all? It’s not him.
Bill Moos was a revelation from the moment he stepped on the WSU campus as the newly minted athletic director in 2010. Elson Floyd had managed to get Jim Sterk to turn tail and run for San Diego State and hired the only man he wanted to do the job. Moos certainly looked and spoke the part; a former All Pac-8 offensive lineman at Wazzu, he’d overseen tremendous growth and athletic success at the University of Oregon. After things went south between him and the hand that feeds UO, Moos headed northeast to tend to a cattle ranch, more concerned with his beef than the goings on of the Pac-12 Conference. To say the least, he was perfect for Pullman.
It’s not as if his time at Washington State was without successes either. Hiring Mike Leach was an absolute master stroke, he finally got $150 million in renovations to Martin Stadium off the ground and finished (though WSU will be paying for them for a long time), and he managed to hit home runs with just about every other coaching hire he had, volleyball coach Jen Greeny and a myriad of women’s soccer coaches, including current coach Todd Shulenberger among the most notable. On a more macro level, Moos is the man who got the even revenue split set in stone on the Pac-12’s television contract. Without Moos pressuring UCLA, USC and, for God knows what reason they were on this side of the fence, Washington, into giving in to the remaining schools, with some caveats, the money would be even less than what we are getting now.
After all that ... what the hell led Bill Moos to Ernie Kent? And why did he give him such a remarkably coach-friendly contract that he inexplicably rolled over not once, not twice, but three times?
Ernie Kent had been out of basketball for four seasons before his introductory press conference in Pullman. He’d spent his final two seasons at Oregon going 24-39 overall, including an atrocious 9-27 in Pac-10 play. He spent the intervening years getting turned down for mid-major jobs at schools well out of his recruiting comfort zone. To say the least, in March 2014, there’s a reason why Ernie Kent’s only employ was with the Pac-12 Networks.
So Bill Moos saw fit to give him a fully guaranteed five-year, $7.0 million contract with an option for a rollover. Far from the master negotiator that got Scott Woodward off his high horse.
It has been nearly five years to the day since Washington State officially announced Kent’s hire. Ever since then, I have tried to find a reason why Moos would do three things:
- Hire Ernie Kent
- Pay him $1.4 million per year
- Roll him over three times
The answer to all three remains: I haven’t the foggiest damn clue.
Bill Moos had been an athletic director at three institutions for going on two decades by the time he made the hire and Kent remained the only men’s basketball coach he had ever put pen to paper with. Whether it was a comfort level issue with Kent or whether Moos truly believed the 59-year old broadcaster could actually turn the program around, we’ll never know and I’m not sure I’d want to; neither answer is particular appetizing.
Did he just give up after swinging and missing with Leon Rice at Boise State? Were overtures made to Eric Musselman or Kelvin Sampson? Or did Moos’ coaching search consistent of a cursory call to Boise before waiting long enough to make a hire so as to try to not make it obvious he wanted Kent all along?
Equally baffling is the choice to pay him $1.4 million on an annual basis. Tad Boyle at Colorado made just a few extra bucks last year and Kent isn’t far behind Mike Hopkins who has produced far better results in Seattle. But those two had also been coaching immediately prior to their tenure at their current institutions, including more than 20 years under Jim Boeheim for Hopkins.
What had Ernie Kent done in the previous six years, let alone four years, to deserve a salary that was nearly double that of predecessor? The short answer is nothing which, conveniently, is also the long answer.
Which brings us to our final question, the one that we are perhaps the furthest away from an answer on. Even if you can forgive any answer Moos were to give you on the previous two, I’m having a hard time thinking of anything that I could get for this one that I would not view as colossally stupid. Kent deserved a rollover after the first season to be sure, but after 13-18 and 12-19 finishes with just ten Pac-12 wins to boot to go with near basement finishes in the conference? That borders on perhaps the most financially irresponsible decision any Washington State athletic director has ever made and is a dereliction of duty to one’s alma mater so severe it is almost unforgivable.
I do not blame the players. For the vast majority who arrived at Washington State under Ernie Kent, an offer to play at a Pac-12 institution is one they likely never saw coming. If given the choice between going to those smaller schools or playing in a Power Five conference for a coach who at least had a history of success, I too would make the same decision. Though many have departed as quickly as they arrived, I can at least understand why they decided to head to Pullman.
I do not blame Ernie Kent. Multiple coaching search rejections, years out of the sport and an old boss comes calling with $1.4 million per season, who says no? Especially if you believe in your ability to turn it around as Kent at least outwardly does. I’ve grown sick of Kent’s excuse making, his inability to recruit, his refusal to adjust, his treatment of departing players as much as the next person. Perhaps though, this is just who Kent is: a coach whose deficiencies were well hidden in a place where they could be kept in a dark corner of Mac Court where only the light of souring relationships with your institution’s donors and powers that be could bring them any light.
I blame Bill Moos. He knew what kind of coach is needed to win in Pullman and he knew that Kent wasn’t and isn’t it. He knew that the likelihood of Kent recruiting the type of players he needed to run his system to be successful at Washington State was slim to none. He knew Kent had swung and missed at multiple jobs at smaller and less prestigious institutions since being let go at Oregon and yet offered him the job anyway.
Washington State will lose to the Oregon Ducks in Las Vegas Wednesday night. They will finish the year 11-21, Kent’s second worst record in Pullman in a season that included loses to the Seattle Redhawks, Montana State Bobcats, Santa Clara Broncos and, most egregiously, the Cal Golden Bears. The beat of the drum will likely not change next season with Kent, again, on the sidelines as the Cougs slog their way through yet another season.
Because in the end, Pat Chun simply can’t afford to rid himself of Ernie Kent. He’s owed $4.2 million and, by the end of his contract, will have been paid $11.8 million to coach at Washington State.
Thanks, Bill. Hope the one hire you had to make at Nebraska got you the golden parachute you handed Ernie.