Change Of Direction

Rick Sarro Thursday, April 5, 2018 Comments Off on Change Of Direction
Change Of Direction

The simplest explanation for a question or problem is usually the best answer.

I didn’t come up with that. Credit Occam’s razor. It’s been around for centuries, and in most cases, it works.

I’ll apply that theory to the firing of Dave Simmons as McNeese’s head basketball coach.

After 12 seasons, Simmons simply didn’t win enough games, and college basketball on any level is a business about winning and losing. “In our profession, you have to win games, and we didn’t get to the tournament (this season). That would have been a big plus, to get to the tournament. We didn’t win enough games. It’s our job as a coaching staff to put together a good product and win basketball games,” Simmons proclaimed in an exclusive interview with Lagniappe.

In his first public comments to the media, Simmons told me he wasn’t really surprised by the decision “because you can’t control the things out of your control and out of your hands.” Following two straight seasons with under-10 wins (9-20 in 2015-16 and 7-22 in 2016-17), Simmons knew he was under the gun to win this season and post a record good enough to withstand the glare of critical inspection.

“We knew it would be a big year on the win and loss column going in. Obviously, that was McNeese’s decision. Some things I can worry about I can control and there are things I can’t control. Based on the administration’s decision, I am not the coach at McNeese,” Simmons said.

His Cowboys competed early in the season with non-conference big boys Houston and San Diego State — both NCAA Tournament teams — along with North Carolina Central, also in the tournament. McNeese hung close to NIT Tournament qualifier and 25-game winner U.L.-Lafayette in the CajunDome as the Cowboys were working their way toward the conference schedule. Simmons takes a measure of pride in pointing out McNeese notched a nine-point win on the road against SLC Tournament finalist Southeastern Louisiana, handing SLU one of their three league losses. (The Lions missed an NCAA bid themselves after losing to Stephen F. Austin in the SLC finals.)

“Probably the difference between me sitting here with or without a McNeese shirt on today is one or two losses. Two or three possessions. One or two free throws. We had opportunities to win more games. We were still young, and most coaches didn’t want to face us because when we played well, we were very good. I thought we had an opportunity if we got to the tournament, but we didn’t get there,” Simmons said flatly.

For some reason beyond me, McNeese athletic director Bruce Hemphill chose not to hold a press conference to announce the decision to fire Simmons and to use that forum to at least thank the long-time Cowboys coach for his 12 seasons and hard work. Instead, the university released a three-paragraph statement, which included this from Hemphill.

“We would like to thank coach Simmons for his commitment to McNeese and to his student athletes. Following a comprehensive evaluation of the men’s basketball program, I believe that it is time to move in a new direction. We appreciate coach Simmons’ work in improving our basketball team’s Academic Progress Rate.”

That’s a pretty cut and dried cutting of the cord and comes straight out of the AD’s handbook of clichéd statements on making a coaching change.

It was an unceremonious firing to say the least. Simmons deserved better.

That doesn’t mean the move and decision were unwarranted. The wins and losses didn’t add up in favor of Simmons, and the 58-year-old veteran coach knows that. His final season ended at 11-17 overall, with the team tied for eighth in the SLC, with an 8-10 record that left them just short of making the post-season tournament. His overall 154-211 record weighed against him in the end.

“Twelve years is quite a long time for any coach in the type of profession we’re in. It’s been good. No complaints. There are some things you can look at, and what you could have done differently and better, but it’s always like that when you look back with 20-20 hindsight.”

With that same hindsight, it could have been handled differently, and not with a press release under the cover of a Sunday night. A 30-minute afternoon press conference to face the microphones and cameras; show some appreciation after a decade-plus of coaching; shine a spotlight on the program by announcing a national search for a successor; would not have been that difficult.

What has been difficult is establishing a consistent winning culture — building a foundation of success that would springboard from one season to the next, and, of course, fill more seats at Burton Coliseum.

Simmons has been at the center of this culture conundrum at McNeese since being named head coach in 2006;  longer than that if you count his years as an assistant coach under Steve Welch in late 1980s and early ‘90s, when he helped guide the Cowboys to their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

He marked only two winning records over those 12 years, with the best season coming in 2010-11, when the Pokes went 21-12 and won the Southland Conference regular season title, earning Simmons SLC Coach of the Year honors.

It’s been a grind to win games year in and year out. But many in leagues like the Southland and Sun Belt struggle to get above .500 because they have to play a bevy of guaranteed money games against bigger schools on the road to help subsidize the budget. To get your team above water, you almost have to dominate your conference schedule to make up for early season losses. That’s hard to do consistently in the SLC, because the league teams tend to beat up each other and split home and away series.

The Southland also seems to have a winning bias toward the Texas-based schools because of their larger size and money to match. Bigger budgets do affect wins and losses; that’s evident with Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin’s recent success in football and basketball respectively.

Head coaches from SLC teams in Louisiana have to work harder and log more hours raising money and figuring out ways to beef up the budgets. Just ask McNeese’s Lance Guidry in football and Justin Hill in baseball. James Landreneau, heading up the highly successful, nationally ranked, Cowgirls softball program, is not immune, along with men’s and women’s golf, track and field and tennis coaches.

Simmons won’t come out and say that playing at Burton Coliseum was a heavy burden on the program, but he does admit he had to overcome challenges of inconsistencies about where and when the team could practice; scheduling conflicts at Burton; and, of course, those long stretches of road games.

That, coupled with internal and state cuts to an already depleted budget, didn’t help with trying to keep up with the Joneses in Texas.

“Every sport and coach at McNeese would say they need more money for their program, but with basketball, I would say they need more budget for salaries, recruiting and the whole gamut. For the next coach, they need to invest in that area. I know the administration knows that, but they need to find a solution,” advised Simmons.

The new multi-purpose, on-campus arena opening later this year will solve a number of issues — most notably by offering a consistent and nearby place to practice, play and market the basketball programs. Simmons is understandably disappointed that he will not have the chance to lead the Cowboys into a new era with the multi-million-dollar arena.

“Every coach will want to open a new facility. I know the impact of it. You’re close to campus. Your students can get there. You can create a culture involving the students and get a buzz from that. That was one of our goals at the beginning of the year — to be the coaching staff to enter the new arena and set the culture for that.”

Simmons, a native of DeRidder, smiled with pride, citing the fact he coached through three athletic directors (Sonny Watkins, Tommy McClelland and Bruce Hemphill), along with three school presidents. He will point to that SLC championship season in 2011 as a coaching milestone. But he’s prouder of the number of players he’s helped to successful careers in professional basketball overseas, in business professions, coaching, education and, of course, of the number of student athletes he’s guided through graduation, and the role he played in setting up the next chapter in their lives as productive citizens, husbands and fathers.

“It’s all about the kids. The passion they brought every day. You look back at that, and now they are not kids any more, they are men. So, when they come back in the office, it’s a hug and ‘How are you doing?’ and ‘How’s the family doing?’ We rarely talk much about basketball,” Simmons says.

You can sense the pride and glow this veteran coach possesses when he speaks of educating and coaching young men on basketball, and above that, teaching them life lessons they will carry long after their playing career ends. “It’s a bond you build. [You’re] brothers in arms. I tell them to always stay in touch with each other, because you never know when a call will help lift someone up. Those things don’t add up to wins and losses, but for me it adds up in life.”

To a person, everyone I have spoken to about Simmons will tell you what a nice guy he is and will talk about the class and grace he carries. He ran his program by the book for 12 years without a hint of controversy. Simmons benched or suspended players who needed harsh intervention, and offered a comforting shoulder for those in need of his counsel.

He’s philosophical about the decision to replace him, saying “the grass may be greener for you here or greener somewhere else.”

For Simmons, that somewhere else is still up in the air as far as his future in coaching is concerned. But he won’t be unemployed for long. “There’s opportunities out there, I’m sure. The good Lord will move me in a direction, and that’s where I’m going. If this is where he wants me to be, then that’s where I will be. Hopefully, it’s still in coaching and helping young men. The 12 years in being a head coach is a lot of valuable experience.”

You don’t spend that many years wearing the blue and gold without getting those colors embedded in your heart. Simmons was quick to note that McNeese and the area have been very good to him and his family, and the returning players will always be connected to him. He will leave here wanting and wishing the best for them.

“We are a fraternity in coaching, and chances are I may know the guy that comes in. We are still a fraternity, and I want them (the Cowboys team) in a good position. I am still part of those kids in the McNeese program, and I want them to do good and be successful,” Simmons pledged.

You can’t coach that kind of grace and class.

Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 nightly, Monday through Sunday evenings, at 9 pm; broadcast on Suddenlink channel 4.

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