Paul Hewitt, who arrived at George Mason with a Final Four coaching portfolio but won just four conference games in each of the past two years, was fired after four seasons and no NCAA tournament berths, the university announced Monday.
Hewitt had one year remaining on a contract that paid him about $750,000 annually, one of the highest salaries for a Virginia state employee.
His record in Fairfax was 66-67, including 20-42 the past two years. The Patriots were 9-22 this season, marking the first back-to-back 20-loss seasons since the early 1990s.
“Mason made a significant commitment to its athletic programs, especially men’s basketball, when the university moved to the Atlantic 10 Conference two years ago,” Athletic Director Brad Edwards said. “The university has high expectations for the program and thus determined a change was needed.”
Through a spokesman, Edwards said he would not have any further comment at this time. Hewitt did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Boston Celtics assistant Jay Larranaga, son of former Mason coach Jim Larranaga, is a candidate to replace Hewitt, Yahoo Sports reported.
Chris Caputo, Jim Larranaga’s assistant at Mason and Miami, might also enter the mix. Caputo, a finalist for the UNC Wilmington job last year, has strong ties in Washington’s rich recruiting circles. Anthony Grant, a former Virginia Commonwealth head coach who was fired by Alabama over the weekend after six seasons, is also on the market.
Other possible candidates include High Point’s Scott Cherry, who, like Caputo, was part of Mason’s staff on the 2006 Final Four squad; and Virginia assistant Jason Williford, a finalist for the American University job two years ago.
In replacing Jim Larranaga, who oversaw George Mason’s rise to national stature before moving to Miami (Fla.), Hewitt posted a 46-25 in his first two seasons in the Colonial Athletic Association.
But the university’s upgrade to the Atlantic 10 in 2013 did not go smoothly. Mason was 8-26 in conference play over two seasons and lost to Fordham in the first round of the A-10 tournament both years. This season came to a close last Wednesday with a 71-65 defeat to the Rams at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., the 10th defeat in the last 12 outings for the 13th-place Patriots.
While the Patriots have struggled to adapt to a better conference, former CAA rival Virginia Commonwealth has sustained a high caliber over three A-10 seasons. And in its debut since leaving the Southern Conference last fall, Davidson finished atop the 14-team standings and earned an NCAA tournament at-large berth.
Along with the record, George Mason’s attendance has sagged: During Hewitt’s tenure, the average turnout dropped from 5,161 in 2011-12 to 4,082 this season, a 21 percent dip further amplified by a 9,800-seat arena too large for the program’s needs.
Hewitt, 51, guided Georgia Tech to the 2004 NCAA final and won 190 games over 11 seasons but recorded just one winning record in ACC play. He was fired in spring 2011 following a 13-18 campaign, resulting in a buyout estimated at $7 million.
Under the terms of his George Mason contract, Hewitt received a “longevity related bonus” of $85,000 if he remained in his coaching position through each March 1, a clause of odd timing because it fell at least a week before each season ended. (A similar bonus in Larranaga’s Mason contract did not kick in until March 30.)
Hewitt was hired by former university president Alan Merten and retired athletic director Tom O’Connor. Angel Cabrera succeeded Merten in 2012 and Edwards, a former NFL defensive back who won a Super Bowl in Washington, arrived from Jacksonville University last summer.
Throughout this trying season, Edwards said he would evaluate Hewitt at the end of the campaign and decide what was best for the program moving forward. Both he and Cabrera were together at most home games.
Without a football program, men’s basketball is the flagship of Mason’s athletic department.
But since their magical run to the 2006 Final Four, when they defeated Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut, the Patriots have won just one NCAA tournament game: a 2011 upset of Villanova, which turned out to be Larranaga’s final appearance in 14 seasons at Mason.
The only national postseason competition in Hewitt’s term came in 2013, when the Patriots advanced to the three-game finals of the third-rate College Basketball Invitational.
This season began ominously with a home defeat to Cornell and six losses in the first eight games.
Erik Copes, a senior forward who never fulfilled his potential after a promising freshman season, left the program in December for personal reasons. At the start of the previous two campaigns, he served multi-game suspensions. The program also lost starting forward Jonathan Arledge to Old Dominion last year.
The only high-quality victories this season came against Iona and Richmond, although the Patriots did push Northern Iowa and Davidson into overtime and tested Old Dominion.
Mason’s best player was Shevon Thompson, a 6-foot-11 junior college transfer who was among the nation’s leading rebounders with an 11.3 average. He also topped the team in scoring at 12.5 ppg.
Junior guard Patrick Holloway (10.9 ppg) made a team-high 40 three-pointers despite missing several games with a blood disorder; sophomore guard Marquise Moore started 28 games and led the Patriots in assists; and freshman swingman Isaiah Jackson and sophomore forward Jalen Jenkins started most games in combining for 16.7 points.
The squad will lose two seniors: guards Corey Edwards (4.9 ppg) and Vaughn Gray (3.6).
The Patriots were last in the conference in assists and three-pointers, and committed the most turnovers.
Hewitt’s 2015-16 recruiting class includes Ahmad Gilbert, a 6-6 forward from Philadelphia.
“Paul has always been a tremendous advocate for the sport of college basketball and we are extremely appreciative for the manner in which he has represented the university and for his service to the student-athletes and to the program,” Edwards said.