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Commentary: Saul Phillips needed time, and support, but got too little of each at Ohio

saul phillips1.jpg
Former North Dakota State head coach Saul Phillips was fired last week at the University of Ohio's men's basketball coach, after compiling an 81-77 record in five seasons. Brett Davis / USA TODAY Sports
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Athens, Ohio

A good man lost his job last Wednesday. A job he wanted, a job he called a ‘dream,’ a job he and his family threw themselves into.

A good man lost his job — in large part — not to some personal failing or defect, but a crass collision of horrific luck and the business of college sports.

It’s 2019, and good people lose their jobs every day through no fault of their own. And if you asked him, Saul Phillips would declare your sympathy is better served by placing it elsewhere, to those that do the “really important work” like saving lives or defending those preyed upon by others.

And he’s right. Saul Phillips will be fine. His family will be fine. In the grand scheme of things, the work history (or future) of one Division I men’s basketball coaching staff amounts to less than the meme of the day sweeping across social media.

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But that doesn’t mean you don’t, or shouldn’t, feel terrible about it.

Saul Phillips, the former North Dakota State head men’s basketball coach, was told Wednesday morning that he would not be retained as the Ohio University men’s basketball coach moving forward. Jim Schaus, Ohio’s Director of Athletics, finally gave his coach an answer after 18 months (or there about) of giving him a wall of silence.

Ohio, apparently, made the decision to move on from Phillips just after the start of Phillips’ fourth season. The lack of communication about the future of the program since that point makes it clear in hindsight. The fact that Ohio was too cheap, or too apathetic, to make the change earlier doesn’t reflect well on a department that prides itself on doing more with less.

Phillips came to Ohio facing a roster ill-equipped to play to his style, chafing at the coaching turnover, and more than a little miffed at the previous regime. The resulting gumbo of new and old resulted in a 10-20 season.

Phillips and his staff pressed on. They developed players already on the roster, and brought in those they felt fit their plans better. The Bobcats added 12 wins to the total over one season, from 10 to 22, and advanced to the MAC Tournament quarterfinals.

No extension.

Ohio seemed poised to be the best team in the conference in Phillips’ third season, but an injury to Antonio Campbell — the reigning MAC Player of the Year — resulted in a midseason hiccup and the Bobcats again lost in the semifinals after a second straight No. 2 seed in the MAC.

Again, no extension.

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In the months that followed, incumbent point guard Jaron Simmons transferred to Michigan. Blossoming All-MAC talent Jason Carter broke his leg, and missed all but three games of the season. Injuries hit the roster, hard, at nearly every position.

Ohio entered that season with two preseason All-MAC East picks — Carter and shooting guard Jordan Dartis. In the two seasons since that poll, the duo has played in exactly three games together.

And somewhere between Simmons’ transfer, and Carter’s decision to sit out the rest of the year, Ohio broke off contract talks with its current head coach. Ohio broke off extension talks with its coach at that point, who had two 20-win seasons in three years.

It didn’t make sense then. Still doesn’t.

In the time since, Ohio continued to see players injured. The Bobcats haven’t had a fully constituted roster in more than two seasons. Depth was an issue, but more importantly the Bobcats’ core was unable to stay intact physically.

It was a string of bad luck as rotten as you could ask for. A full accounting would be depressing, and long enough to make one pine for ‘Moby Dick.’ The point is the wins and losses were directly related to, and a result of, things outside the normal realm of control.

And through it all, Phillips continued to be himself. He coached with the same positive energy. Even with Ohio leadership effectively turning its back on him, he and his team continued to represent the university in an upstanding manner.

Schaus has admitted there’s little more he could’ve asked for from Phillips or his staff. Culture? Academics? Behavior? The ability to engage with alumni and boosters? A desire to acclimate to the community and build something? No complaints, not a one.

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But Phillips, and the Bobcats, didn’t win enough games. It’s that simple.

“It’s a business decision,” Schaus said Wednesday evening. “It’s a wins and losses decision entirely.”

Ohio wasn’t winning enough games, or competing at a level within the MAC that Schaus felt was appropriate for the program. You can graduate your players, and they can rave about the culture within the program. You eliminate behavior issues as a concern. You recruit and develop players who you normally would be proud to have to represent your university.

But you got to win, and judging from the time table employed by Ohio over the last five years, you got to win now. It doesn’t matter if you lose the Player of the Year to injury within the first two weeks of the conference season. It doesn’t matter if you lose starters, rotational guys, or an entire front court due to an unprecedented run of injuries.

You don’t get an extra year to figure it out, or smooth out the roster due to the injury crush. You don’t get credit for rebuilding a program culture on the verge of revolt. You don’t get credit for being a good person.

You have to win. Now.

Phillips never changed in his five years at Ohio. He’s still a brilliant basketball coach, still a people person, and still someone who makes you feel better about your day most of the time by just crossing his path.

He’ll find another job, he’ll make it better, and he’ll do it with a smile on his face the whole time. He’ll continue to be one of the happiest people in the world who still loves the game and his job with a fervor that most wish they could replicate with their own profession.

He didn’t need Ohio. The pay was nice, but he didn’t need the money, the notoriety or any measure of fame to make him happy. He came to Athens that way, and he’ll leave the same way.

What he needed was patience, and an athletic department in his corner. He didn’t find either at Ohio.

Phillips didn’t need Ohio, but Bobcat basketball needed him five years ago. In terms of stability, the Bobcats’ situation right now is a 180-degree from where it was then. Ohio needed a culture change, and got one.

And Phillips didn’t change over the last five years. He remains true to what he believes, and who he is.

It’s Ohio, or rather the expectations within the athletic department leadership, that have changed.

You have to win. Now.

Keep that in mind the next time the Bobcats push an academic accomplishment, or a community service project.

So keep your sympathy. Phillips won’t need it. Remember Phillips’ jokes and stories, relish them the same way his players will remember all the times he treated them like people instead of cogs in the machine.

You want to feel sorry about something? Lament the loss of the appreciation for all the other things involved in running a college basketball program. Wednesday was just the latest reminder that despite everything that college athletics likes to say it represents, it’s just window dressing. It’s winning games, selling tickets and making money for everyone but the players.

Ohio dismissed a coach who found joy everywhere, everyday, even when he had little reason to. And now the Bobcats’ future is written as a simply binary program.

You got to win. Now. Or you lose.

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