UTA Makes A Crucial Mistake


Let’s take a look at the stats of three different coaches over the last three seasons, and let me know if any of these coaches deserve to be fired:

Coach A: 68-33, two NCAA tournaments, one regular season conference championship

Coach B: 72-33, one NIT, one regular season conference championship

Coach C: 81-26, three NCAA tournaments, one regular season conference championship

Outside of the number of tournament appearances, the records are fairly similar, and the number of conference championships are identical. Coach A is Dan Hurley, who recently accepted a new six-year deal from UConn after spending some time at Rhode Island. Coach C is Chris Mack, recently hired from Xavier to a seven-year deal at Louisville. Coach B is Scott Cross, from the University of Texas at Arlington, and he was fired by the school on March 26th, and the rest of his staff will not be retained either.

Without a doubt, there is a difference in conference quality here. The Big East and A10 have higher levels of quality opponents than the Sun Belt, but the fact remains that Cross was winning games with the Mavericks, something every other coach before him has had problems doing. He was the most successful coach in the program’s history, and the only coach at the school that had a winning percentage over .500.

UTA has been playing D-I basketball since 1968, and yet before Cross became head coach in 2006, they hit 20 wins only twice, in 1980-81, and then again in 90-91. They have done it in five seasons since, all since 2006. He has also led the Mavericks to five postseason tournaments, which had only been done once in program history before he became head coach. Not only did Cross do about as well as he probably could at UTA, but he truly loved the program. He played on the basketball team from 1995-98, and was an assistant coach there from 98-06, not to mention even his wife was a volleyball player at UTA. The Mavericks have had to deal with three conference changes since 2010, and Cross has guided them through every one.

The timing of the move certainly seems strange, as Cross had just led his team to another 20-win season, as well as the Sun Belt conference tournament final, upsetting #1 seed Louisiana Lafayette on the way.  Over the last three seasons, Cross has also led his teams to a 72-33 record, which includes wins at St Mary’s, Texas, Ohio State, and Memphis. He also has a Sun Belt regular season championship in 2016-17 to his name, but his team has not made the NCAA tournament since 2008, which is a product of playing in the Sun Belt, perennially a one bid league. UTA is also one of only two D-I basketball programs in the state of Texas that has won more than 20 games in each of the past three seasons, the other being Houston. Yet, AD Jim Baker thought they could do better.

“Some people say, ‘Well, you’re UTA, you should be happy,'” Baker told the Dallas Morning News. “That’s not our president. That’s not me. We want to be the best at what we do. Your aspirations have to be that you can get to the NCAAs every year. That’s what we want.”

That comment may be seen as a surprise to some, but those familiar with UTA may have been able to see it coming. After a 2016-17 season with 27 wins, a conference championship, and an appearance in the NIT quarterfinals, arguably the best season in UTA history, Baker told Cross at the end of season meeting that he wanted the Mavericks to be “the next Gonzaga.”

UTA is not Gonzaga, and it’s not even close. According to attendance statistics from the NCAA, in 2017, the Bulldogs had an average of 6,000 fans at their 16 home games, which may not seem like much compared to other mid-majors such as Xavier (who averaged over 10,000) or Villanova (9,772), but there would still be a sellout crowd for every Gonzaga home game. UTA on the other hand? They opened the 7,000 capacity College Park Center in 2012, but their average attendance for their 15 home games in 2017 was a measly 2,798. It is far from being the worst number in the nation, but for the stadium to be less than 50% full, while trying to compare yourself to Gonzaga; it just doesn’t work.

The budget for both schools is a big difference as well. Gonzaga spends around $7 million annually on their basketball program, whereas UT Arlington only spends around $1.5 million. This difference in dollars can create a world of difference between competing schools in aspects such as practice facilities and recruiting. Between schools such as these two, the difference can even be greater. Gonzaga is coming off a national championship appearance, while UTA hasn’t even seen the NCAA Tournament since 2008.

Another thing to consider when thinking about the firing of Cross is the fact that most of the Mavericks key contributors, namely Kevin Hervey and Erick Neal, are set to graduate and will be gone before the 2018-19 season. More than likely, UTA will need to go through a complete rebuild before they become competitive again, and Cross definitely deserved a chance to help them through that. The man basically built the program up from nothing in order to win two regular season conference championships and lead the best stretch of basketball the team has ever been through, yet it still wasn’t enough.

It will be interesting to see what happens with UTA’s coaching search. Texas Tech assistant Chris Ogden is the early favorite to replace Cross, but would he be willing to take the job after seeing the soaring expectations set forward by Jim Baker? They are ambitious, or crazy, depending on how you look at it. UTA should be considered one of, if not the top job in the Sun Belt. On the other hand, most schools would be more likely to give their coach an extension following 72 wins in three seasons, but at UTA, it could just result in another firing.

Photo Credit: UTA Athletics Images 

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