In a move that made perfect logical sense and yet still came as a bit of a surprise, Washington State Cougars basketball coach Ernie Kent will not see a sixth season in Pullman after being fired by athletics director Pat Chun. The move was first reported by Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports.
Sources: Washington State has parted ways with Ernie Kent.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 15, 2019
WSU confirmed the move a short time later.
“I met with Ernie earlier today and let him know I would be making a change in the leadership of our basketball program,” Chun said via news release. “We appreciate all that Ernie has done for Washington State but at this time we need a new direction to energize our fan base and return the program to prominence. I am optimistic that our returning students-athletes give us an immediate opportunity to move our program in a positive trajectory.”
It had been widely assumed that WSU didn’t have the financial wherewithal to eat the remainder of Kent’s contract, which still has three years fully guaranteed at $1.4 million each. It initially was unclear as to whether WSU had negotiated a buyout, but Theo Lawson of The Spokesman-Review confirmed rather quickly that the Cougars will be paying all of the $4.2 million.
There’s an argument to be made that Kent’s fifth season was his worst one. The season featured embarrassing non-conference losses to Seattle U., Montana State and Santa Clara; in the Pac-12, WSU got off to a 1-8 start. There was a brief uptick that featured a road sweep of the Arizona schools, a narrow loss to UW and a win over Colorado, but the season finished with giving up 92 at home to Utah, a 48-point loss to Stanford, a loss to Cal, a loss to OSU in which Robert Franks scored 37, and now two losses to Oregon. Meanwhile, attendance dwindled to depths once thought to be impossible.
This, despite having the Pac-12’s leading scorer in Franks, an NBA prospect.
Kent racked up 98 losses and a paltry .372 winning percentage across five seasons. That included a 22-68 record in Pac-12 play, despite coaching in the weakest iteration of the conference in at least two decades. His teams finished 9th, 12th, 10th, 11th and 11th, and they also produced zero Pac-12 tournament victories.
Only Paul Graham (2000-03, 31-79 overall) compiled a worse losing percentage than Kent among WSU coaches with more than five games coached at the school. Additionally, Kent’s five teams ranked 186th, 186th, 193rd, 186th and now 212th in Division I by kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency margin metric, an extended streak of futility that few high-major schools can match.
Kent was hired following the 2013-14 season by previous athletics director Bill Moos, who had employed him during their time together with the Oregon Ducks. Both Moos and Kent promised big returns on a big investment: Kent’s annual salary was nearly twice what his predecessor, Ken Bone, was being paid at the time he was fired, and the five-year, fully guaranteed contract was worth $7 million total.
Beyond the fact that the contract was the biggest in WSU basketball history by a long shot, it also seemed from the start to be an overpay, given that Kent had been out of coaching for four years after flaming out in Eugene. Despite quietly pursuing numerous openings during his time as a broadcaster, he had been unable to secure another coaching job until Moos handed him the lucrative contract.
Still, Kent tried to sell fans on his historical success at Oregon, where he took his alma mater to four NCAA tournaments, including a pair of Elite Eight appearances. When he was hired, Kent said, “I pride myself on building basketball teams and I think you have a terrific environment to build a basketball team.”
Also: “I’m fully confident you have a winning basketball team sitting over there. And it’s my job to bring it out of them.”
His first team — made up almost entirely of players recruited by Bone — was his best one, going 13-18 overall and 7-11 in Pac-12 play. Coming off a three-win league season under Bone, it appeared Kent might be on to something.
However, he followed that up in 2015-16 with a one-win Pac-12 season in which the Cougars lost their final 17 games. Despite that disaster, Moos exercised his one-year rollover option as he did the year before, expressing confidence in the direction of the program. Then after a 13-win campaign in which WSU lost 13 of its last 17 games, Moos surprisingly extended Kent again, bringing the contract length to a minimum of eight fully guaranteed years.
But the return on investment never materialized, as Kent was plagued by poor recruiting and a plethora of transfers. He never signed a player considered to be a top 100 prospect, and 13 players transferred out before completing their eligibility — an average of more than three each season.
And now, WSU is searching for a new coach. There’s little doubt that WSU is a tough place to win; can Chun find someone who can make it happen?
At the very least, it’d be hard to do worse.
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