Men’s basketball column: Firing at George Washington may change NCAA coaching culture

(Photo Credit: Dan Rich/GW Hatchet)

By Chuckie Maggio @chuckiemaggio

When the story of George Washington firing men’s basketball coach Mike Lonergan for “conduct inconsistent with the university’s values” first broke on Friday evening, it was easy to think about the Atlantic 10 ramifications first. The 50-year-old led the Colonials to three postseason appearances and a National Invitation Tournament (NIT) Championship in five years in D.C., making him difficult to replace, especially with practice starting on Oct. 1.

The pink slip, which may become a very expensive one since GW has to buy out Lonergan’s contract and faces a wrongful termination lawsuit, doesn’t just shift a part of the A-10 landscape, however; the entire NCAA coaching culture continues to be affected as well.

A 74-32 record over the past three seasons should be enough to garner contract offers from power five conference schools, let alone job security at your current position. But the fact that 13 players transferred over Lonergan’s tenure was hard to ignore, and the allegations of verbal abuse were even tougher to excuse.

“A lot of players transfer because they have delusions of grandeur,” one former member of GW’s basketball staff told the Washington Post in July. “Nobody transferred from GW with delusions of grandeur. They just transferred because they hated him. They couldn’t stand another second of him.”

Lonergan allegedly told a player in front of the team that he should transfer to a “transgender league,” according to the Post report. He said another player’s son would always be on food stamps. One former player said he attended therapy and considered quitting basketball because of Lonergan’s language and actions towards him.

The coach-athletic director relationship was far from pleasant, either. Lonergan was accused of making explicit remarks about AD Patrick Nero that players found shocking, offensive and untrue.

When I tweeted out the URL to this report the day it came out, a couple Bona fans who responded seemed to take the side of the coach, writing the players off as soft Millennials. A man emailed me and said that he lived in Indiana when Bobby Knight was coaching the Hoosiers and “no one said anything about how he acted because he won games.” He somehow thought Lonergan was entitled to the same treatment.

Whether you think the young student-athletes are being too sensitive or not, Lonergan’s termination could be the start of a new status quo for college coaches.

Coaches will always yell; that’s never going to change, nor should anyone expect it to. However, the verbal abuse some of these old-school, Knight disciples have been doling out over the years is quickly going by the wayside. Ridiculing an athlete for hours on end isn’t just “mean” anymore; college kids these days don’t usually respond to it the way coaches want them to, opting to either tune out the criticism or shut down because of it.

Many fans pointed to the Colonials winning the NIT as a sign that things weren’t as turbulent as the former players made it out to be. Those fans aren’t considering the possibility that the team achieved the postseason success in spite of its abusive leader. Perhaps, the talent of players like Tyler Cavanaugh and Patricio Garino (who were named to All-A-10 teams at the end of the season) was enough to overcome Lonergan’s disparaging coaching style. Maybe the team’s intelligence (Cavanaugh, Garino and Alex Mitola were conference all-academic selections) was a major factor in weathering the storm.

The termination doesn’t just affect Atlantic 10 basketball; it sends yet another message to coaches and athletic departments across the country that this behavior is no longer acceptable in college athletics. GW isn’t the first school to fire a coach this summer after an investigation into the coach’s conduct. Former SBU athletic director Steve Watson made a similar move at his current post at Loyola Chicago, firing basketball legend Sheryl Swoopes in July after her players made allegations of mistreatment.

When Mike Rice was fired at Rutgers in 2013 for abuse towards his players, there was video evidence to support the university’s decision. Rice was even throwing basketballs at his players during his tirade. At this point, there is no video of Lonergan’s abuse, so GW is in for a longer, murkier legal battle as Lonergan files for wrongful termination. But no matter how much money is exchanged over the coming months, the damage has been done to his legacy.

Rice hasn’t scored a head coaching job since he left New Jersey, and he led Robert Morris to two NCAA appearances in 2009 and 2010. Lonergan led Vermont to the NCAAs in 2010 and the Colonials to the big dance in 2014, but he will need to hope that no video is leaked and no damning documents are released. ESPN’s Outside the Lines is likely working to find some concrete evidence to support his axing.

The old guard of vicious coaches is becoming extinct in college sports. While some will bemoan the “coddling” nature of the new guard, that generation is here to stay, because more and more athletes are responding to it.

Even Knight, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame who won 679 more Division I games than Lonergan has, was fired by Indiana in 2000 for his conduct with players. What makes any coach today, especially one at a mid-major, think they’re going to get away with it?

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