Karl Hobbs deserved one more year to continue turnaround at George Washington

John Feinstein
Columnist April 26, 2011

If attendance figures are a measure of devotion, there are not a lot of people who are passionate about the men’s basketball team at George Washington. The Colonials averaged just 1,788 fans per game at the newly renovated Smith Center this past season.

That apathy and a new athletic director got Karl Hobbs fired on Monday. No doubt the small cadre of devoted GW fans who did come to the games during the Colonials’ 17-14 winter are dancing in the streets today. To some degree, their joy is understandable.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

No one can say Hobbs wasn’t given a fair shot at proving himself after 10 seasons in Foggy Bottom. The last four have been painful to watch. After a superb four-year run from 2003 to 2007 that produced a 90-32 record, three NCAA tournament appearances (plus a National Invitation Tournament bid), two Atlantic 10 tournament titles and a national ranking that soared to No. 6 during a 27-3 season in 2005-06, GW turned 180 degrees in the wrong direction.

The last four seasons produced a 52-64 record, including two years when the Colonials didn’t even qualify for the Atlantic 10 tournament. Attendance at Smith Center dropped almost 50 percent. Incoming Athletic Director Patrick Nero is entitled to a new coach if he wants one, especially after four seasons of mediocrity. Almost every number you can look at says this move should have been made sooner rather than this late.

Except that isn’t true. Hobbs had one more year left on his contract. He had earned the right to coach next season.

Clearly, Nero arrived in Washington last week with his mind made up about Hobbs. But Robert Chernak, the university vice president who oversees the school’s athletic programs, said Monday that Hobbs’s departure was “a university decision.”

If so, that’s a big mistake and, if you believe Chernak, didn’t come about because of Nero’s hiring. The timing — apparently — was coincidence.

If Nero wants his own coach, that’s fine. It’s his call now, even if outgoing athletic director Jack Kvancz is technically still in charge.

But it’s the wrong call.

Here’s why: There’s no doubting Hobbs made some serious missteps when the program was flying high in the middle of his tenure. By his own admission, he made some egregious recruiting mistakes, taking players who were stretches academically and had character issues. Some barely played, others transferred. Others simply didn’t pan out. Hobbs took a good hard look at himself a couple of years ago and dug in again on the recruiting trail. The results, as of this moment, are incomplete.

GW was better last season. The Colonials looked awful early after losing their leading returning scorer, Lasan Kromah, to a foot injury before the season began. Very few teams in the country can take that kind of preseason hit and not be affected. The team got better as the season went on and went 6-2 down the stretch in the Atlantic 10 to finish 10-6 in conference play — good enough for a fourth-place tie.

That’s improvement. Even if the season ended with a disappointing overtime loss to Saint Joseph’s in the Atlantic 10 tournament first round, there was reason to hope: Kromah was scheduled to return, as were most of the team’s key players. Hobbs appeared to have a very good recruiting class in place. Why then, as a new athletic director, would it have been wrong to give Hobbs that season to rise or fall once and for all and get to know him and the school before making such a critical decision?

The guess here is that the members of the selection committee tasked with finding a new AD asked Nero if he thought Hobbs should be fired. If not, they failed to do their due diligence. Thus, it is fair to assume that the committee was fine with the idea of firing Hobbs.

Regardless of whom Nero hires to take his place, GW has a chance to be very good in the new coach’s first season. The Colonials won’t play in the national championship game next year, but they might play in the NCAA tournament again. If so, the new coach will be hailed as a savior and Nero will be back-slapped all over Foggy Bottom. Both will deserve all the credit they will receive because the last four winters there have been pretty miserable.

That said, the Colonials will be winning those games with players recruited by Karl Hobbs. No one knows better than Hobbs that this is part of the coaching business. He’s seen it happen in other places. That doesn’t mean it won’t be tough to take.

There was evidence this season that Hobbs had GW turned back around in the right direction. There is also past evidence that shows he was capable of taking the program back to the top of the Atlantic 10. Now, we’ll never know if he was capable of doing it again. For Hobbs, that’s a shame. How it will all work out for GW is a question that won’t be answered for a while.

For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.

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