Dear Mr. Chun,
It’s time for Ernie Kent to go.
I know you don’t know me; I’m just a WSU alumnus and crazy basketball fan whose heart breaks just a little more every time he sees photos such as this, in which there are far more empty seats in Beasley Coliseum than actual fans:
I know you’re new around here, I know you’re likely still trying to get the lay of the land, and I know there’s the pesky matter of that onerous contract (which we’ll get to in a minute). However, I’m sure it didn’t take you long to figure out there was a problem with men’s basketball at Washington State. Even if you knew nothing about how we ended up in this spot, images such as these lay bare the current state of the program.
So, Mr. Chun, let me catch you up, and explain why it’s important to move on from Ernie Kent — immediately.
When Ernie was hired in April 2014, he told the world, “I pride myself on building basketball teams and I think you have a terrific environment to build a basketball team.” He said that WSU was a place he could win, that his recruiting connections were still alive and well, and that defense was going to be an important component of his program. (Yes, he really said that.)
After four years, he not only has failed to live up to those expectations he set for himself, he’s often produced quite embarrassing results along the way.
A place he could win? Kent has lost more than than 60 percent of his games overall and 75 percent of his Pac-12 games, never finishing higher than 8th in the conference — and that high-water mark came in his very first season with his predecessor’s recruits. Since then, Kent has finished 12th, tied for ninth, and — finally — 11th this season, his first with a roster completely of his own construction. He is 0-4 in Pac-12 tournament games.
Strong recruiting connections? He has failed to land even a single recruit thought to be in the top 200 nationally, and he has yet to recruit a player who has become all-Pac-12 first or second team.
Defense? In four seasons, the Cougs have finished 12th, 12th, 11th and 12th in the conference in defensive efficiency.
Beyond Ernie’s own benchmarks, there are other objective ways to measure the lack of progress in the program. One way is through the metric created by analytics guru Ken Pomeroy for measuring the actual quality of teams, since wins and losses are dependent on competition. By that measure, Kent has taken a program that was ranked 190th nationally in Ken Bone’s final season and “built” it into a program that has been ranked 186th, 186th, 193rd and 182nd. Statistically speaking, that is no improvement at all.
Kent has failed to deliver on nearly every promise he has made to WSU, save for one — the promise to make academics a priority. That’s happened, and for that, he is to be commended.
But let’s be frank: While that’s nice, the school hasn’t paid Ernie $5.6 million over the past four seasons to produce academic all-conference players. He’s been handsomely compensated in anticipation of forthcoming wins that would put butts in the seats at Beasley Coliseum.
And yet, the arena is practically empty — even more empty than it was at the end of Bone’s tenure, if you can believe that, and it’s a direct result of the dreadful product Ernie has produced. (Try not to laugh when Ernie makes one of his “chicken-or-egg” arguments with the crowds, whose presence he seems to think will propel his team to new heights.)
It’s possible you’ve already had your end-of-season meeting with Kent. If you have, he likely told you that the Cougs are going to be much, much better next season; only graduate transfer Drick Bernstine departs (as of now), and the two stars of the team return (as of now). Although Kent’s famous for spewing nonsense in that regard — and if I’m being honest, his insistence on spewing nonsense is a big reason why I’m less inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt at this point than I might be with other coaches — this actually is true.
But how much better? Are they suddenly going to be in the NCAA tournament?
You certainly wouldn’t know this, Pat, but in WSU’s recent history, a big jump has been roughly 70 spots in the kenpom rankings and 6 additional wins. That means, if we assume a typical jump, we’re looking at a team next season that wins 18 games and is ranked around 110 in the kenpom rankings — basically, we become this year’s Colorado (17-15, 110). For what it’s worth, the Buffs missed out on the postseason.
Kent will want credit for getting the program to the point where a season that’s just a tad over .500 is celebrated, but don’t fall into the trap: It shouldn’t be considered some kind of major achievement for him to simply exceed the low bar he himself established.
Now, WSU fans will tell you about an outlier in terms of improvement: WSU’s 2007 squad, coached by this “Tony Bennett” guy you might have heard of — they improved by 11 wins. Here’s the thing about that jump, though: Those guys had lost a bunch of close games in 2006 as sophomores, and turning around most of those close results while picking up some wins as a byproducts of the maturation of a young squad is how they surged into the NCAA tournament.
It would take a real stretch for you to honestly look at this season’s results and think a similar breakthrough is on the horizon. The 2006 squad was outscored by just 87 in conference play with six Pac-12 losses by five or fewer points and four by just two; by comparison, WSU was outscored by 184 points in conference play in 2018, with just two of their 14 conference losses coming by five or fewer points.
But what if the 2019 team makes a bigger-than-expected jump? Even if you assume that, it still actually makes the most sense to move on from Ernie right now.
One of the hallmarks of 2007 was that it was easy to see how 2008 would be just as good or even better; unfortunately, it’s really, really difficult to see how 2020 is going to build on the presumed success of 2019.
Here’s WSU’s scholarship allocation going forward:
I’m sure Kent would tell you that he’ll recruit at a high level to fill those holes for 2020 and build on 2019, but that would go against everything he’s done for the last four years. If history tells us anything, it’s that Kent probably will sign one high schooler and a trio of junior college kids to fill those four open spots in 2019-2020.
Do you realize that Ernie Kent has signed just one high school player who has made it to campus in his past two recruiting classes? In the same time frame, Kent has signed four junior college players and one graduate transfer.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, Pat, that loading up a roster with underwhelming transfers who have limited development windows is no way to build a Power Five program — it’s what bad midmajor teams do. It’s certainly not how Dick and Tony Bennett pulled WSU out of the mess left by Graham.
And to be honest, I’m pretty sure Kent knows that’s not the best way to build, which just underscores how disastrous his recruiting has been. And this is a guy was hired precisely because of his recruiting reputation.
If you make the change now, the next coach can have a soft landing while figuring out how to fill those four open spots. However, if you keep Kent around for another year or two, the inevitable rebuild under the next coach will just be that much further behind.
Any way you look at it, this has been a disastrous four years. The only way this could be bigger disaster is if academic fraud or NCAA violations were involved.
Check that. If those things were involved, at least you could get out of Ernie’s contract scot-free. (Sorry, but I’d actually prefer that to our current situation.)
Ah, that contract.
As you well know, the biggest problem for you here is that Kent was given a fully guaranteed contract worth $7 million over five years, then unconscionably handed $4.2 million in fully guaranteed extensions by your predecessor Bill Moos. Whether it was stubbornness by Moos or simply outright cronyism, you’re stuck with the bill for a contract that even Kent would have to admit — if only when alone with his own thoughts — that he didn’t earn.
That means you’re on the hook for $5.6 million over the next four years.
When put in the context of the overall deficit in the athletics department, I recognize that’s not exactly the recipe for letting go of a non-football coach. But you were hired because you’re a guy who can get things done — and maybe even work miracles in financial matters. And that’s what I’m counting on right now.
I don’t know how you do this. It seems to me the solution probably doesn’t involve eating all of the contract; beyond the budget deficit, you and I both know there are better things to do with $5.6 million than paying Ernie to go drink margaritas on a beach in Mexico. (Hello, IPF.)
But maybe a win/mitigated loss can be proposed to Ernie. Maybe you offer him the chance to publicly retire and have a nice press conference where you and President Schulz say some very nice words about how Ernie has put the program back on the right track, and how he “did it the right way” by putting student-athletes and their academic wellbeing first. (Everyone has forgotten about that whole Que Johnson/Valentine Izundu thing by now, I’m sure.)
He shouldn’t be expected to give up the entirety of what he’s owed, but maybe a reduced buyout can be negotiated? Say, half of what he’s owed — after all, that amounts to the last year of his original deal plus one rollover, a reasonable amount — to be paid over the next four years? At that point, if you hire a coach for $1 million (below the going rate for an established coach, but not insulting), you’ve added just $300,000 to the bottom line.
We both know Ernie’s not going to jump at that. But I’m sure there are ways you can exert some subtle pressure on him to nudge him out the door.
I don’t know. I’m just spitballing here. But if there’s anything my years of following college sports have taught me, it’s that when there’s a will, there’s usually a way — especially when it involves making a bad coach go away under a new athletics director.
Make it happen, Pat. It’s time for Ernie to go.