Not that it probably matters, but let’s take a moment here to enumerate some of the positives about Jan van Breda Kolff’s six-year tenure as Vanderbilt men’s basketball coach.
VBK arrived from Cornell as a favorite son at an unfavorable momentjust after the huffed departure of Eddie Fogler. Since then, VBK’s teams have averaged a respectable 18 wins per season.
In five seasons, Jan’s teams have advanced to postseason play four timesthough only once have they peeked into the promised land of the NCAA tournament.
At least until this season, van Breda Kolff’s squads had performed respectably on the roadbetter, frankly, than their immediate predecessors. Under C. M. Newton and Eddie Fogler, the Commodores traditionally wilted when they strayed from the nurturing environment of Memorial Gym. Except for their 1992-93 SEC championship season, they rarely defeated even mediocre conference opponents on the road.
In recent years under VBK, however, the ’Dores have snatched victories off the home courts of good Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, and Oklahoma teams. They upset UCLA last year in Hawaii and nearly toppled mighty Kansas. They almost stunned a top-10 South Carolina team.
At the very least, van Breda Kolff’s recruiting efforts compare favorably to those of Newton and Fogler. In fact, you could make a credible case that Jan has brought more athletic players to Vandy than either of the two coaches before him. Compare Billy DiSpaltro to Todd Milholland. Or James Strong to Derrick Wilcox.
VBK is, in coaching parlance, a good X’s and O’s guy. He knows basketball and generally brings an astute plan into each game.
All of those points look good on van Breda Kolff’s resumé. Which is a fortunate thing for him, since right now you can find more sports fans who think pro wrestling isn’t fake than who believe the VBK resumé won’t be in circulation come late March.
More than a month remains in the regular season. Right now, fan excitement typically begins to peak as teams drive toward a berth in the NCAA tournament.
Around Vandyland, though, an uncharacteristically funereal air won’t stop wafting through Memorial Gym. It becomes stronger after every lossespecially recent, crushing defeats at the hands of rivals Kentucky and Tennessee.
Like the family of a terminal patient keeping a forlorn hospital vigil, Commodore fans seem to be waiting for the season’s end and the inevitable coaching change.
Going into this season, you could infer from the comments of Vandy Athletic Director Todd Turner that VBK would have to take his team to the NCAA to retain his job. The ’Dores appeared to be headed that way after a characteristically quick start that included wins over Providence, Ohio State, and Mississippi.
Now, however, the team is foundering with an 11-9 record and twig-thin prospects of recovering much ground during the second half of the SEC schedule. Road losses at LSU and South Carolina, two of the league’s weaklings, greatly dimmed whatever hope the Commodores may have seen for an NCAA appearance (and may have sealed VBK’s fate).
With perhaps the most treacherous stretch of their schedule yet to comeKentucky, Tennessee, Auburn, Florida, and ArkansasVandy may be hard pressed to win even two more conference games. At that rate, the Commodores would enter March with a losing record and not even receive the consolation of an NIT bid.
You can’t help but sympathize with van Breda Kolff, whose already Sisyphean task grows more onerous by the week. The coach is whirling within a particularly vicious cycle. Each new loss focuses more media attention on his precarious position. And each ratcheting up of media attention makes it more difficult for VBK to prevent his young team from becoming distracted.
Buffeted by the pressure, the coach last week almost pleaded with the media to write stories about somethingANYTHINGbesides his job retention prospects. And yet Vandy’s recent tailspincombined with a report (vehemently denied by Turner) of preliminary contact with potential new coachesinevitably directs everyone’s gaze to the sword dangling over van Breda Kolff’s head. It seems heartless to harp on this story. But with Vanderbilt basketball it inescapably is THE story.
At many schools with less basketball tradition and lower expectations than Vanderbilt, VBK’s job would be secure. He works hard, is loyal to the university, and has a respectable record.
At Vandy, however, the dynamic is different. Turner’s leeway to spare his coach is restricted. Basketball, in contrast to most large Division I schools, is the athletic department’s showpiece, the one highly visible men’s program in which Vanderbilt can spar regularly and successfully with giants.
Over the decades, the Commodores have won better than 80 percent of their games played in Memorial Gym, which gained a reputation as one of the SEC’s toughest roadhouses. Even top 10 teams (Indiana, North Carolina, Louisville, Kentucky) frequently fell to “Memorial Magic.”
In recent years, however, the magic stopped working. Memorial now is less a tomb for visitors than a tourist stop. Time and time again, crowds have left Memorial disappointed after big games.
Some of them haven’t returned. The throngs at Memorial are still sizable, but peer into the corners and upper reaches of the cavernous old gym on game night, and you’ll see a rarity: rows of empty seats.
This erosion in attendance in turn has washed away the last, strongest supports under van Breda Kolff. Though its top salesmen ostensibly are amateurs, college basketball is big business. A bottom-line business. And, at times, a cutthroat business.
The business of big-time college basketball coaches is to win frequently, pack in fans and generate revenue. Some Vandy watchers speculate that Turner, like many athletic directors, wants the opportunity to bring aboard a coach of his own choosing (VBK was hired by Turner’s predecessor, Paul Hoolahan). In the end, though, a decision to replace van Breda Kolff will not be based on personalities. It will be guided by the impersonal forces of the market and the invisible hand of Adam Smith.
An NCAA tournament bid might still save VBK’s job, but virtually no impartial observers expect that scenario to develop. Instead, the coach has taken on the look of someone whose fate is almost entirely beyond his influence.
We’ve seen the look before. Near the end of The Godfather, as he is about to be escorted away on a last car ride, the sad-eyed mobster Tessio asks the family’s consigliere to intervene on his behalf, for old time’s sake. But he already knows the answer.
Like Don Corleone used to say, this is nothing personal. It’s just business.