Gillen to stay at Virginia

It’s an odd thing to put out a press release announcing that nothing is changing. It’s odd to make a big deal about a ten year contract continuing into its fourth year. But then, Pete Gillen’s tenure at Virginia has been nothing if not odd.
When Pete Gillen was hired at UVA in 1998, he was one of the more established coaches to ever enter the ACC. Usually, new coaches are young up-and-coming guys. Gillen was not young and was already established. He had a very good nine years at Xavier, reaching the NCAAs seven times. Then, he coached Providence for four more years, including a sensational run to the NCAA regional finals in 1997 behind point guard God Shammgod (who’s evidently been tearing up the Saudi Arabia league recently).
There were great expectations when Pete Gillen was hired to replace Jeff Jones at UVA.
His first team was a set of lovable losers. He had only six scholarship players, so he filled out his lineup with a set of walkons that Disney would be proud of, including former campus bartender Raleigh Harbour. Gillen got 12 wins out of that motley crew, leading UVA fans to levels of anticipation not seen since the Sampson days.
Gillen’s teams improved the next two years, and in 2001, UVA started the season in the top ten. They climbed as high as #4 before completely falling apart and finishing 17-12. It’s been all downhill from there – big losses, off-court incidents, disgruntled players – the works.
So, what happened? One theory has it that he’s just reached a level where he’s a bit over his head. College basketball’s Peter Principle. Gillen dominated the A-10 and did well in the Big East, but the ACC is a different beast. Recruiting against Syracuse and UConn is tough, but it’s not the same as butting heads with UNC and Duke every year.
Another theory, and one I put more credence in, is that Gillen’s simply lost too many talented assistants over the years. Coaching at the college level is not the work of one man. Coaches rely heavily on their assistants for everything from recruiting and breaking down film to running practices and offseason workouts. A strong staff has several talented, dedicated coaches. When those coaches leave, it takes time to rebuild the staff.
Consider the coaches that have left Pete Gillen’s staffs over the years:
Skip Prosser – head coach at Wake Forest (left Xavier staff in 1993)
Louis Orr – head coach at Seton Hall (left Providence staff in 1996)
Bobby Gonzalez – head coach at Manhattan (left UVA staff in 1999)
Tommy Herrion – head coach at College of Charleston (left UVA staff in 1992)
That’s a pretty impressive list. Prosser, Orr and Gonzalez all led their teams to the NCAAs this year, while Herrion’s Charleston team won 20 games (and 25 in his first season).
It’s entirely possible that much of Pete Gillen’s success was due to his strong assistant coaches. Surely he knows what he’s doing, but he may be the kind of coach who needs capable guys underneath him. That’s not to say that his current assistants aren’t capable, but odds are he hasn’t continued to hire guys as good as those four above. Not many coaches in the country have put out a coaching tree like that.
So where does this leave Virginia and coach Gillen? On the plus side, he has nearly his whole team back next year along with a pretty good recruiting class. In addition, the ACC is adding doormats Virginia Tech and Miami next year.
On the flip side, the ACC was very tough this year and all the teams have nearly everyone back. Chris Duhon was really the only senior of note in the conference and there aren’t too many underclassmen who appear ready to leave for the NBA.
Even worse for Gillen is the (accurate) perception that his job’s in jeopardy. It sounds like, despite his long contract, he’s on a year-to-year basis. You can bet that rivals will use that tenuous standing against him in recruiting battles. Top recruits don’t want to hear that the guys recruiting them are likely to be gone in a year or two.
It’s a vicious cycle. You need to get good players to improve your team, but until you improve your team, you don’t have job security. Without job security it’s nearly impossible to get good players.
One ray of hope for Pete Gillen is what has happened with Herb Sendek at NC State. Sendek has been going year-to-year for several years now. He has one tenth the charisma of Gillen, but has still managed to stay alive. After making the NCAAs two years in a row, Sendek seems to have turned the corner. If Herb Sendek can do it, so can Pete Gillen.
Herb Sendek as a model for Pete Gillen. Odd.

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