There is only one thing that is absolutely certain about Virginia Tech’s dismissal of men’s basketball coach Seth Greenberg on Monday: It could not possibly have been handled worse.
When was the last time that someone scheduled a news conference to fire a coach — trumpeting it all over the Internet to make sure the entire world knew about it — without first bothering to tell the coach being fired? How about never?
Greenberg’s first inkling that he was in trouble came when reporters started calling his cellphone while he was speaking at a charity luncheon. The reason he cheerfully told people that the news conference had to be about something other than his job status was because no one he worked for had told him his job was in jeopardy.
That was three hours before he lost his job. The phone call apparently came not from Athletic Director Jim Weaver, who said later that day that he made the decision based on a “gut” feeling, but from Tom Gabbard, the assistant athletic director who oversees the basketball program. After being hired by Weaver nine years ago, didn’t Greenberg deserve to hear that he was being fired from Weaver?
Of course he did. And he didn’t deserve to have the school advertise what amounted to a professional public execution when he hadn’t yet been informed he was about to be shown the door. Weaver said he made the decision last week. Even if he didn’t receive approval to fire Greenberg until Monday morning, he still had time to contact him before announcing the news conference. Virginia Tech’s season ended on March 9. Weaver waited until April 23 to fire Greenberg. Would it have killed him to wait another 24 hours to give Greenberg a chance to sit down with his family and prepare them for what was about to happen?
The larger question, of course, is whether the firing was justified. Weaver claimed that the recent exodus of Greenberg’s assistant coaches and the fact that he wanted the basketball program to have “the kind of family environment that the other part of our department has” led to his decision. Apparently he was miffed because Greenberg didn’t show up at his athletic department workshop last week, something that happened because Greenberg was tied up with recruiting. Which is more important, getting better players or listening to someone drone on about how to fill out expense forms?
Let’s be serious. Family environment? What does that mean? Is Greenberg tough to work for at times? Absolutely. Does anyone think Gary Williams was easy to work for? Mike Krzyzewski? Anyone ever hear of Bob Knight?
Greenberg was probably tougher to work for in part because his assistants understood they were making far less than most ACC assistant coaches. A story in Monday’s Post revealed that Mark Turgeon’s four assistants at Maryland made about $800,000 last season — this at a school that is eliminating sports because of budget shortfalls. Greenberg’s four assistants made $405,000 last season. Assistant coach James Johnson was offered a 25 percent raise to leave Virginia Tech for Clemson after five years with the Hokies. By the time Weaver made a counteroffer to match that money, Johnson had already accepted the Clemson job.
In the end, Greenberg was fired because he hadn’t made the NCAA tournament for five straight seasons. If Virginia Tech had received bids in 2010 when it was 25-9 or 2011 when it was 22-12, Weaver wouldn’t be talking about a “family environment.”
As it was, Greenberg was given a four-year extension two years ago when St. John’s courted him. He was a two-time ACC coach of the year and won more than 20 games in four of his last six seasons. He only made the NCAA tournament once in nine seasons, which is the same number of times the Hokies had made the tournament in the 17 seasons prior to his arrival. He leaves as the second-winningest basketball coach in Virginia Tech history, and the winningest coach who was not investigated or sanctioned by the NCAA.
More than anything, Greenberg made Virginia Tech basketball relevant. The Hokies were consistently competitive in the ACC and, as disappointing as their near-misses were on Selection Sunday in recent seasons, the school was in the national conversation. The Hokies won at Cameron Indoor Stadium and at the Dean Dome, wins that would have seemed unfathomable when Greenberg took over for Ricky Stokes in 2003. Most thought that Virginia Tech would be a sacrificial lamb in the ACC, doomed to be a bottom-feeder in basketball while the football team flourished.
The football team has flourished in a notoriously mediocre league. The basketball team more than held its own in a very good league.
Somewhere along the line, Greenberg lost Weaver and Gabbard. Exactly why is hard to say. Virginia Tech struggled this past season, losing one close game after another and finishing 16-17. There was, as is always the case when a team has a bad season, some pressure from prominent boosters who no doubt thought that Roy Williams or Krzyzewski would love to leave their current jobs to coach in Blacksburg.
Greenberg had brought in a strong freshman class and with only one important player graduating, next season looked to have the potential to be a good one, especially in an ACC unlikely to have a dominant team.
Maybe that’s why Weaver made the move now. With Greenberg likely to have another good recruiting class, it might have been impossible to fire him after next season. The buyout, even with four years left on the contract, is a relatively cheap $1.2 million. Weaver decided that the assistants leaving gave him the opening he needed to get rid of Greenberg.
The bottom-line question for Virginia Tech is this: Can you get someone better? Weaver will not hire his next coach based on his ability to produce a “family environment.” He will hire him based on his ability to win games and get into the NCAA tournament.
As Weaver was leaving his news conference Monday, a reporter asked if he was looking for “Frank Beamer in sneakers.”
“I’ll take that,” Weaver answered. “Wouldn’t you?”
Sure. Beamer has won a lot of football games at Virginia Tech. His team has been the best of a second-rate bunch since arriving in the ACC. At the same time, whenever the Hokies have stepped out of the ACC and up in class, they have come up short. Virginia Tech football is always good, almost never great.
That might be a pretty good way to describe Greenberg’s basketball program. Playing in one of the country’s toughest basketball conferences, the Hokies were consistently good, never great.
It might well be that Virginia Tech already had Frank Beamer in sneakers on the payroll.
For more columns by John Feinstein, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein. For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.