Disclaimer: I have never doubted McDermott’s basketball knowledge or his ability to coach the game (under reasonably manageable circumstances). His resume prior to coming to Iowa State speaks for itself, and if you’ve ever listened to him break down a game or an opponent, it’s hard not to learn something about the sport.
So what’s gone wrong at Iowa State? As I’ve pondered this over the past several weeks, I came up with three key contributors: timing, talent, and translation. As I put my thoughts into type, this became something of a hypothetical (and hopefully premature) postmortem- a look back from the future. So here it goes.
If only McDermott could have been hired following a cordial retirement, or something along those lines, maybe things would have turned out differently. He arguably took over the Iowa State basketball program during one of its most tumultuous transition periods. The Eustachy situation was a debacle, to be sure, but Morgan at least had the benefit of having been on the staff and recruited some key incoming players. There was no such continuity as the program transitioned to the McDermott era.
Outside of simply being hired at a turbulent point in program history, the amount of time required to overcome the situation may have been too much for a majority of the fanbase to suffer through, at least under a single coaching regime. In other words, was the fanbase ever truly prepared for a three to five-year rebuilding project under a new coach? Being just five seasons removed from back-to-back conference titles, did the average fan ever believe that this was a real possibility? It’s a question that must be asked because, as we all know, expectations (realistic or not) play a huge part in determining fan satisfaction.
Realistically, it was illogical to expect a tournament-quality team in the first three years given McDermott’s true starting point after the dust settled. But by the time adequate talent was in place in year four, the fanbase was starving for winner, and understandably so. Unfortunately, while this team looked good on paper heading into the season, it proved to be lacking some of the critical intangibles necessary to push the program over the hump: chemistry, leadership, toughness, etc. Progress may have been made in some regards, but time had effectively expired and much of the good will that still existed heading into the season had dried up.
For a multitude of reasons – some beyond his control – McDermott had a hard time building and maintaining a solid base of talent. After being hired about 20 days before the Spring signing period, APR penalties, additional NCAA penalties, defections, transfers, dismissals, key injuries, and recruiting misses kept the program in a continuous state of flux. After losing Stinson and Blalock, Mike Taylor, and Wes Johnson in consecutive seasons, it wasn’t until year four that McDermott returned his top player from the season prior. To say that the program lacked consistency from year to year would be a huge understatement.
While McDermott would have some talent in place in year four, he would need to rely heavily on a couple of JUCO imports to upgrade the overall athleticism. Although there were plenty of familiar faces, this notable reliance on new incoming players would again contribute to those questions of team chemistry and leadership. Unfortunately, year four would be no different from the previous three in terms of roster stability, with one high-profile transfer and a couple of key season-ending injuries. Most of the Big 12 slate, in one of the conference’s strongest years, would be played with a seven or eight-man rotation.
Beyond player issues, the loss of a key coaching talent would also prove to be a critical blow. After two years under McDermott at Iowa state, Jean Prioleau would leave for TCU. Prioleau was instrumental in signing Wes Johnson, and his departure to Texas Christian probably didn’t help matters in that soap opera. Perhaps even more importantly, Coach Prioleau was very close to Harrison Barnes, and led this recruiting effort until his departure in 2008. The fact that TCU was ever listed as a player in Barnes’ recruitment is a testament to how strong that bond really was.
It seemed that some of McDermott’s methods, particularly his approach to managing his players, never fully translated to the Big 12. When adjustments were seemingly made, which many believe occurred following the departure of Wes Johnson, McDermott didn’t seem comfortable with this new approach. In fact, he would later revert to his old-school ways, at least temporarily, in his initial disciplining of Chris Colvin. Of course the departure of Lucca Staiger, which occurred in the middle of Colvin’s suspension, would again lead to some wavering in how McDermott handled his players.
It could be argued that two factors – separate but similar in nature – contributed to this difficulty in translation. Most would agree that the athlete required to compete in the Big 12 often comes with a set of baggage different from that of a Missouri Valley athlete, for example. The step up in athleticism often lends itself to more hubris, but that added self-confidence can come with more ego and bull-headedness. When a coach is used to insisting upon his way, with little regard for managing egos and meshing personalities, it can lead to conflict, a lack of buy-in, and coachability issues.
Similarly, it could be argued that the modern athlete in general comes with more of this baggage, regardless of whether you’re talking Big 12 or MVC. Clearly, successful coaches find a way to either overcome or manage these egos. Coaches from the old school would probably consider this a necessary evil in today’s environment as they begrudgingly work through it. Some simply fail to make the adjustment, and McDermott seemingly struggled in his area.
Timing, talent, and translation: Some will consider these things nothing more than a collection of excuses, which is to be expected. Anymore, real circumstances are routinely dismissed as excuses, and stand-up individuals are made to look like bumbling dolts as a result. As the cliché goes, it is what it is.
We’ve all watched the same games over the past four years, albeit with different interpretations at times. I believe a common misconception among some who have been more vocal in their dissatisfaction is that those who weren’t so quick to jump ship were somehow blind to the product on the court, or that these fans were accepting of mediocrity. Personally, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The question has never been one of accepting or rejecting/approving or disapproving the product on the court. As a lifelong fan whose four years at Iowa State (1999-2003) happened to coincide with the zenith of Iowa State basketball, I want more! In my opinion, the question is how long, given the circumstances, one is willing to give a coach to prove that he can and will turn this program into a winner. For some it was two years. For others, like myself, four years seemed fair. Still others may think that 5+ are needed.
So here we sit in year four. Some fans lost hope long ago. Some are losing it as I type this. Others remain strong in their faith. Regardless of what happens, my hope is that history will be fair, and that the man who said “this place was special enough to leave home” will not be regarded as a man who cheated Iowa State University.