Washington State Cougars athletics director Pat Chun made his weekly radio show appearance on “Cougs in 60,” and when asked about the decision to fire men’s basketball coach Ernie Kent, Chun offered a level of candor that can really only be interpreted as a fairly scathing indictment of the Cougars’ previous coach.
“The reality is that our program has been eroding,” Chun said. “This dates back to before Ernie got here, but I know under Ernie we’re averaging 11.5 wins overall and 4.5 wins in the conference. And transfers are a part of Division I men’s basketball, and the volatility of that marketplace does affect us — almost 60 percent of our recruits have transferred. ...
“The reality is that if we kept status quo, based on the numbers, we would probably be around 11 wins next year and around 4 in conference play and 60 percent of our recruits would have ended up transferring. And looking down the pike in recruiting, you have to wonder where the next CJ (Elleby) or the next Robo (Robert Franks) is coming from.”
One thing Chun lamented was that the Cougars couldn’t win more with a superlative talent such as Franks, and he clearly laid the failure to win more games at the feet of Kent, pushing back against the notion that there is a talent deficit on the team.
“This isn’t a traditional rebuild, because you have a really talented group of young men that do things the right way,” he said. “We just gotta figure out ... how do you get five guys to play as one on the court? But a lot of that happens on how you team build, how you leadership develop, how you care for each other, and those are the things I think we gotta fix in the culture and foundation of the program. ...
“Our guys want to win. For whatever reason we’re underperforming on the court. It’s not a talent issue at Washington State, so right now it was just time for a new voice and new leadership.”
Host Derek Deis asked Chun fairly directly about the decision to fire Kent with so much money left on his contract — three years and $4.2 million — and Chun had a pretty matter-of-fact-answer.
“There’s always a cost. And there’s a cost with action, and there’s a cost with inaction. And we made the decision the cost of inaction was going to be higher than the cost of action,” he said, going on to say that ticket sales are down approximately 60 percent from the peak of the Tony Bennett days and 50 percent from the peak of the Ken Bone days.
He also said WSU has a responsibility to the Pac-12 to field a strong basketball program because the strength of the conference comes back to benefit WSU financially in terms of NCAA tournament win shares.
“Look at the big picture — if the Pac-12 has seven or eight teams in the NCAA tournament, there’s bigger distribution for every team, including us,” he said. “If we’re selling more tickets at the gate, that affects us at home. So, there are other things absolutely that go into it.”
An interesting part of the interview was the implication by Chun that he maybe had made up his mind a long time ago.
“Even after last year, after four years, that’s a long enough sample size that you knew that the program was not trending in the right direction,” Chun said. “You also had hope, because you knew the quality of recruits that were coming in, specifically with CJ, and you knew once Robo was coming back, you knew, all right, there’s some talent here. But after going through the season, the erosion of the program, when I talked to President (Kirk) Schulz, I just decided this was going to be the time to make the move.”
Chun prefaced the previous quote by saying, “It was never a matter of if, it was only a matter of when,” but it wasn’t clear if he meant he had made up his mind a year ago to fire Kent, or if he was talking about how quickly after the season to fire Kent.
Chun said he believes this move is also about setting expectations for the athletic department.
“This is a different Washington State. I mean, you look at football, volleyball, soccer, tennis, cross country — the expectation here is to win, win the right way and compete at the highest levels,” he said. “Football is enhancing the brand, and we have to make sure men’s basketball is doing what it needs to do.”
Other factors Chun cited included a responsibility to the players already on campus (“they only have four years, and it’s our job to help transform them”) and the general apathy on campus regarding basketball attendance (“we have the largest freshman class in WSU history and we didn’t program them to want to come to WSU basketball games”), particularly when compared to the standard set by other programs.
“You see it at football, you see it at volleyball, you see it at soccer,” Chun said, referencing student attendance. “We’ve got to get our students to want to come to basketball games.”
It seems like the center of Chun’s pitch to any prospective new coach is going to be that this is a turnkey operation, particularly with the presence of Elleby. He also described what WSU needed in a way that, again, can really only be interpreted as another indictment of Kent.
“The most important thing for me is when you look at the history of our place, whether it’s George Raveling, Dick and Tony Bennett, Mike Price ... and currently Mike Leach, Jen Greeny, Todd Schulenberger — our coaches that have been the most successful here have a belief system of what their program needs to look like,” he said, “and a conviction that no matter what the adversity comes, no matter what the world is telling you, we are going to do it our way and we’re going to be happy with the results. But we are not going to blink, and we are not going to waver, because this is how we do things.”
Chun said he’s not going to put a timeline on naming a replacement, and did say one nice thing about the coach he recently fired.
“Ernie has done a great job off the court,” he said. “I really enjoyed what he did to try and develop young people, but the challenge was what was going on wasn’t showing dividends on the basketball court and our guys want to win.”
Listen to the entire interview: