Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: Spring Cleaning
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.)
Once again, Ohio State has left us to sort through the rubble on our own when it comes to the ouster of a longtime coach. What is it about this school when it comes to media relations?
Jim Tressel’s job supposedly was so secure that Gordon Gee chuckled at the thought of Tressel’s demise and Gene Smith chided reporters for suggesting it may have been in jeopardy. A few months later Tressel is run out of town and the announcement is made on, wait for it … Youtube.
Last month, Jim Foster and his sterling 11-year record were gone and associate AD Michelle Willis addressed reporters before she even knew how to characterize the dismissal. Was Foster forced out? Did he retire? Willis – and no other official at Ohio State for that matter – couldn’t say.
Then there is the quiet and mysterious exit of men’s hockey coach Mark Osiecki.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“Oz” had a losing record in his three years at OSU (46-50-16) and this past season (16-17-7), but the Buckeyes overcame a front-loaded schedule and injury-riddled campaign well enough to make the CCHA playoffs and advance to the semifinals at The Joe in Detroit for the first time since 2005.
Osiecki had some big-time recruits on the way and was coaching a young squad. The signs still pointed to hopeful, even promising. Then the hammer came down.
Ohio State announced his contract would not be renewed in one of the most terse press releases I’ve ever seen – six sentences.
Here were two of them: “We are making a change in our head hockey coaching position,” Smith said. “There was a difference of opinion over the management of the program that could not be resolved.”
The reason could be as simple as OSU feeling it finally had an avenue to former Denver coach George Gwozdecky, who was consulted the last time the job was open. He won a pair of national titles for Denver – one of them coming at The Schott in 2005 – but his contract was not renewed at the beginning of April because of an apparent power struggle over the language and provisions in the deal.
Still, rumors continue to fly. We are hearing that Osiecki was a bit of a tyrant and his act was wearing thin. It also appears he became disgusted with having to conduct practices across the river at the dinky OSU Ice Rink instead of the Schottenstein Center, which prioritizes basketball and events such as concerts and high school tournaments in the winter.
It appears he tried to stand up to management and didn’t have strong enough footing to do so, but this story gets weirder if Gwozdecky isn’t brought aboard.
The Crime Dog
Going back to Foster, we know there was some grumbling about him. Despite winning at a high rate and raking in Big Ten titles in basically an equivalent manner to that of Thad Matta, Foster lost favor with fans for not bringing in more Ohio talent and failing to get past the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
That led to Ohio State’s real concern – and just about the only concern this administration has anymore running such a mammoth athletic department and 36 varsity programs – money.
When Andy Geiger put Willis into power at Ohio State in the mid-1990s, one of her immediate jobs was to assess the basketball programs. She saw that St. John Arena was lively on gameday, especially with Katie Smith an all-time idol for the women’s team.
But after Nancy Darsch was fired the same day as Randy Ayers in 1997 and both teams moved into the Schottenstein Center, the programs had the task of pulling in fans to the new, NBA-like venue. The men succeeded; the women not so much.
The Beth Burns era was a bust and even though Foster brought instant credibility and welcomed the likes of Jessica Davenport, Jantel Lavender, Samantha Prahalis and Tayler Hill – who were all WNBA first-round draft choices, by the way – attendance dwindled for women’s hoops at The Schott.
New coach Kevin McGuff, who just signed a lucrative contract as Foster’s replacement, knows he has to turn that around. In fact, he made a plea to the reporters on hand for his introductory press conference Wednesday evening, saying that exposure will be key to bringing in more fans and, hence, a more vibrant gameday atmosphere.
“I need your help,” McGuff said to the media. “This needs to be one of the toughest environments in college basketball.”
McGuff later admitted to a handful of reporters (including Tony Gerdeman and myself) that he was asked to ramp up promotion of the program. Foster was reluctant to play that salesman role and even insisted that school officials release accurate attendance figures, which were going in the wrong direction.
“Attendance is always a concern,” Willis admitted. “That’s not why we implemented a change, but when I started here 19 years ago we led the country in attendance and we were averaging about 6,000. Other schools like UConn have jumped to 10,000 (or) 9,000. Well, we’ve not even kept pace with where we were 19 years ago.
“It’s hard to have an intimidating environment in a 19,000-seat area when you have 3,000 people in the stands.”
Going off reports that claim everyone from Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma to Toledo’s Tricia Cullop were contacted about the job, McGuff may about choice Q. However, he’s an energetic 43-year-old coach who understands the tradition and importance of getting the word out when it comes to OSU women’s basketball. He also likes to display an up-tempo, almost daring brand of basketball.
If that leads to success and a nice deep run in the Big Dance, the selection of McGuff could turn out very favorably.
“I think winning does that or certainly helps,” he said. “I think having a presence in the community, myself and the team, helps. I think that’s an important part of growing a program. We have such great fans and this is such an Ohio State town. It’s going to be something we’re going to try to do to help create buzz in the program.”
Queen Of The Hill
McGuff will have a tough time at first. The program is a quart low on talent right now, especially with Hill joining her former running mate Prahalis in the professional ranks.
Photo by Jim Davidson
In fact, I’m not quite sure many Ohio State fans realize what just walked out the door.
Not only was Hill a model citizen and outstanding player, she should go down as one of the all-time great gets for the program. Granted, her older brother, P.J., was already on campus playing point guard for Matta when Tayler decided to follow suit.
However, she was nearly set on going to Duke and easily could have pulled the lever for Texas, Marquette or her hometown school, Minnesota.
She would have been a standout at any of those schools but chose Ohio State and became a 2,000-point scorer at the collegiate level.
Hill was a phenom in Minneapolis, good enough to make the varsity at South High School as a seventh grader and lead the state in scoring as an eighth grader, which had never happened before in Minnesota.
By the time Hill left South, she had pumped in 3,888 career points, the most for a prep player, boys or girls, in state history. She also helped South post a 31-2 record and win the Class 5A title as a senior while averaging 31.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 5.7 steals per game.
In one postseason game in that march to the state championship, a 68-61 win, she poured in 47 points and made 20 of 23 free throws.
Major accolades and lofty recruiting rankings accompanied all the success. Hill was a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in the state and ranked as the No. 12 prospect on ESPNU/Hoopgurlz Top 100 recruits for 2009. She also was identified as a McDonald’s All-American.
While Deshaun Thomas was leading the Big Ten in scoring on the men’s side, Hill won the women’s scoring title this past season by scoring 21.1 ppg. She then went on to be selected fourth in the WNBA draft.
Brittney Griner of Baylor first, Elena Delle Donne of Delaware second, Skylar Diggins of Notre Dame third, Hill fourth. That’s kind of like (if you can accept the comparison to a much more popular sport) the 1992 NBA draft – a 1-2-3 of Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning and Christian Laettner followed by Ohio State’s Jimmy Jackson.
The only thing is, Hill never received remotely as much fanfare and was overshadowed by both the stars of the women’s game and the recent success of the OSU men.
Nearly 4,000 points in high school, a state championship, an outstanding college career, a winning smile and a lofty pick of the pro ranks – if Hill were a male athlete someone would be commissioning a deal to write a book about her and the endorsement offers would be pouring in right about now.
As it is, she at least deserves a few extra kudos from a schlub reporter like me. Well done, Ms. Hill.
Professional coaching firings sometimes are head-scratching even when they occur after unsuccessful seasons.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Take the situation in Cleveland, for example. Byron Scott was brought on board and said yes to the organization after he was given some assurance that LeBron James would be there. James bolted and – who knew? – the Cavs couldn’t cover up the wound. Scott struggled with a young team whose lone standout player is still learning the pro game and he was promptly fired this past week.
Similarly, Philadelphia ownership decided to let go of 76ers coach Doug Collins, one of the best minds in the game and a former standout player in Philly. Actually, it was portrayed that Collins resigned and will stay on in a consultant role but those close to him believe he was vastly underappreciated.
Collins worked miracles in Evan Turner’s rookie year by leading the Sixers to a break-even season. Last year they squeaked into the playoffs and knocked off the top-seeded Bulls. This offseason Collins orchestrated a bold move to trade All-Star Andre Iguodala and landed former Lakers center Andrew Bynum in an attempt to put the proper pieces in place around ET, Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young.
It didn’t work, mainly because Bynum was never healthy, and the 76ers went just 34-48. That, of course, made Collins dumb somehow.
His loss is our collective gain, however, because I think he’s the best NBA television analyst out there. Eventually, I suspect, he’ll return to that role, but this could be a blow to Turner since Collins, in my view, was an ideal coach/mentor for him. We’ll have to wait and see.
Who knows? Maybe Scott will get the next phone call.
* This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.