How Gillen petered out

 In the spring of 1998, Pete Gillen inherited a Virginia basketball team with no stars and no pulse. Regardless, the new coach grinned. He cracked jokes. What else could he do?

   Charlottesville was then a basketball ghost town. The University had just cast out Jeff Jones, who, after coaching the Cavaliers to the Final Eight in 1995, crashed the program to hoops Hell—a losing season punctuated by a home defeat to the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. The town also had seen several players split after off-court troubles, as well as Melvin Whitaker, a top recruit who slashed a UVA student with a box cutter following an on-Grounds pickup game.

   So when the redheaded stranger from up north first strolled into University Hall, he could count few blessings besides his electric wit and his solid coaching resumé, which included a 1997 run to the NCAA regional finals with Providence. Like MacGyver rigging up an explosive from kitchen cleansers, Gillen built a competitive Cavaliers team of six scholarship players and a handful of walk-ons. In the 1998-’99 season, the scrappy mutt of a squad won 14 games and plenty of hearts. “Gillen will have better teams,” I told another fan after that hard-fought season, “but we’ll never like them as much as this one.”

   Only it was worse than that. As expectations soared, the men’s basketball team turned into an annual overhyped and underachieving enigma. Over six seasons, the Hoos won some big games, nearly all of them at University Hall. On the road, they piled up a heap of excruciating defeats: blowout losses, close losses, losses that inspired new cuss words. Throughout the Commonwealth, a generation of televisions bit the dust on game days, and Gillen went from genius to goat.

   This season, the coach who once remarked that Duke basketball was on TV more than “Leave It To Beaver” re-runs found himself trapped in the same bad episode—the one in which his team displays moments of brilliance, then ties itself to the tracks before a freight train of an ACC foe plows through it. The Hoos became a book of basketball mysteries, whose chapters included “Who Guarded the In-Bounds Play?” and “The Purloined Pass.”

   Through it all, Gillen did not give up. He coached his tonsils out in this month’s ACC Tournament, even after Duke had run away with a lead in what he knew was his final game. When he stepped down last Monday, Gillen—who received a $2 million buyout—was a much wealthier man than when he arrived in Charlottesville. But his big bag of quips was empty. The chatty coach’s last words came typed in the press release that announced his departure: “I am proud of the hard work of the players and assistant coaches I’ve worked with at Virginia…The University has always been a first-class operation and I wish them all the best.”

   A testament to the widespread opinion that Gillen was also a first-class operation came in the same press release: UVA’s president, John T. Casteen III, praised Gillen’s “compassion, personal ethics, and community leadership.” Presidents are supposed to say nice things when a coach gets the ax, but that did not mean his words were false. Casteen could have said anything about Gillen and he chose “compassion.” How many college coaches get props for that?

   In many corners of Charlottesville, people did not care about Gillen’s game-management skills, his postseason record, or that some head case of a basketball player might have been pissed off at the coach. They did care that Gillen volunteered for several charitable groups, that he took his team to visit sick kids at the Kluge Children’s Medical Center, and that he spoke to local elementary school students about character. Mac McDonald, WINA Radio’s “Voice of the Cavaliers,” says Gillen “shook every hand and kissed every baby.”

   “How many coaches,” McDonald says, “would go through a double-overtime win in December and then stand outside, in the cold, at a mall and ring the Salvation Army bell for three hours?”

   Some of Gillen’s supporters have wondered whether he was too nice to rein in the runaway egos of the modern college-basketball player. Todd Billet, the soft-spoken, sharp-shooting guard who played for Gillen during the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons, describes the coach as “down-to-earth” and “player friendly.” He adds that some of his younger teammates might have responded better to a disciplinarian. “Some of the players that have been in the program, they may not have been 100 percent compatible with his style,” Billet says. “You have to balance the type of player you want with your personality.”

   Billet, for one, clicked with Gillen, whom he credits for sticking up for his players when they missed shots or defensive assignments. “You didn’t feel like you were just being used for your playing time and the pushed out the door,” Billet says. “Coach cared about what your future goals would be.”

   But Gillen did not do enough of the one thing he was hired to do: win. As a coach, Gillen made mistakes that cost him both games and fans. But the program’s recent failures were not his doing alone: His players and his bosses helped, too. And Lady Luck often socked the guy in the jaw just when he needed her most. Here is a fan’s look back at the Gillen era and 15 days that doomed him.

 

March 12, 1999

Gillen loses his wisecracking, fast-talking assistant Bobby Gonzalez, who is named head men’s basketball coach at Manhattan College. The recruiting whiz kid had been instrumental in landing Gillen’s first—and best—class at Virginia, which included Majestic Mapp, Roger Mason Jr., and Travis Watson. Although Gillen later reels in some outstanding players, like Philadelphia’s Sean Singletary, the coach does not land another top-notch class. Gonzales’s exit foreshadows the departure of Gillen’s right-hand man, Tom Herrion, also a skilled recruiter, who later leaves to coach the College of Charleston. In a sport where assistant coaches play crucial roles, did Gillen lose too many sidekicks to maintain his success?

 

March 12, 2000

The NCAA Selection Committee snubs the Hoos, who finished with a 9-7 ACC record. A weak out-of-conference schedule—something that would plague UVA until the 2004-05 season—keeps the Hoos out of the big dance. Days later, the chance for a young, talented team to get some postseason chops evaporates when Georgetown University defeats the Cavs in a soul-draining triple-overtime game at University Hall. Charlottesville basketball fans, fed a morsel for the first time in years, begin to realize how hungry they are for a winner.

 

August 2, 2000

On perhaps the most fateful day of all, Mapp, Virginia’s prized point guard, tears his right ACL weeks before the start of his sophomore year at UVA. The Cavaliers lose a reliable floor leader and the program loses its potential savior. Setbacks delay Mapp’s return for two-and-a-half seasons, complicating Gillen’s recruiting plans. Without a classic point guard to run the show, UVA’s offense often turns chaotic: guards hoist shots from as far away as Ivy, big men get lost in a Siberia of zone defenses, and assists become passé at U-Hall. Mapp is not the same when he suits up again, and Gillen declines to invite the comeback kid back for his last year of eligibility. Some fans see pragmatism in that decision; others howl foul. The sentimental favorite with the sweet name and the even sweeter attitude leaves after the 2003-04 season. He takes the last blush of Gillen’s rose with him.

 

November 15, 2000

Gillen signs four high-school prospects that, he announces, “will be a great credit to our school both on and off the court.” Each flames out in his own way. Emergency point guard Keith Jenifer makes a name for himself by missing jumpers, pouting and punching an Indiana University player in the groin on national television; he transfers after an arrest for misdemeanor assault and battery. Guard Jermaine Harper leaves after numerous ill-advised shots and one DUI arrest. In his eighth semester, hardnosed forward Jason Clark drops out after academic troubles. Over four years, big man Elton Brown loses a lot of weight, but also his confidence, his infectious grin and his ability to hit free-throws. Senior Night ’05 feels lonely.

 

December 30, 2000

Al Groh signs on as Virginia’s new head football coach. While Gillen continues to elicit chuckles for his sharp one-liners, the straight-talking Groh, a UVA alumnus, speaks to fans’ inner drill sergeant. In his second season, he leads the Cavs to a surprising second-place finish in the ACC and re-establishes Scott Stadium as a house of pain for visiting teams (save those from Florida). Virginia’s gridiron success over the next three seasons coincides with the basketball team’s tailspin. In the collective unconscious of the Wahoo Nation, a troubling question surfaces: If Groh could change the fortunes of Virginia football after just two seasons, why can’t Gillen do the same for basketball?

 

March 11, 2001

Selection Sunday is unkind to the Hoos again. Fifth-seeded Virginia draws Gonzaga, a mid-major upset machine that had deserved a much higher seed than 12. Thanks to a late missed foul shot by J.C. Mathis, the Zags defeat the Cavs, who had won 20 games and seemed poised for a deep run. The premature postseason exit marks the official beginning of the Cavaliers NCAA Tournament drought, sponsored by Aquafina.

 

October 26, 2001

Virginia’s director of athletics, Craig Littlepage, extends Gillen’s contract, giving him a 10-year deal worth approximately $900,000 annually. That premature move handcuffs the University to a coach whose team begins to flounder the very same season. In a statement, Gillen says he hopes fans “will not place undue emphasis on [the contract], because there are a lot more important things in the world today, like the war on terrorism and finding cures for serious diseases.” Nonetheless, cranky sports columnists and some non-millionaire Hoos develop an outrageous obsession with the size of Gillen’s paychecks, which they link to rising gas prices, expanding waist lines and every conceivable on-court miscue by the Cavs. The pricey agreement becomes the program’s albatross, and in the eyes of some fans, turns a hard-working, hard-sweating guy from Brooklyn into a Rich Guy Who Is Not Producing.

 

January 31, 2002

Gillen has pumped excitement back into University Hall, which rocks as the No. 8 Hoos take on the No. 3 Maryland Terrapins. Orange-clad students and the usually blasé hand-sitters in the stands reach an ear-splitting crescendo as the Cavs take a nine-point lead with three minutes remaining. Then, taking advantage of Virginia’s missed foul shots, defensive lapses and turnovers, the Terrapins steal an impossible comeback victory and silence a thunderous crowd. Maryland goes on to win its first national championship; Virginia implodes. “That was devastating,” Gillen told The Washington Post last month. “It almost seems like we haven’t recovered since that night.”

 

February 23, 2002

Virginia holds a three-point lead over Georgia Tech with 19.5 seconds left when Gillen tells Jermaine Harper to intentionally foul the Yellow Jackets’ Tony Akins, who nails both free throws. On the ensuing possession, Watson whiffs from the line, one of Virginia’s four missed foul shots in the final minute. Tech makes a last-second three to win, 82-80. The coach defends his decision to foul based on the fact that the Jackets had been raining threes on Virginia, like so many teams had done before. Yet the unorthodox strategy alarms the Wahoo faithful, some of whom perceive that the perpetually animated Gillen coaches out of fear. The loss sinks Virginia’s NCAA hopes and cheapens its upset of Duke five days later.

 

March 13, 2002

A listless Virginia squad continues its postseason futility, losing a first-round NIT contest, 74-67, to South Carolina at University Hall. After the game, the normally eloquent Gillen inexplicably assures the crowd that the team would be “even better next year.” That promise seems dubious, especially after Roger Mason—the most explosive player Gillen ever brought to Charlottesville—decides to enter the NBA draft that summer. His departure leaves a scoring void that sharp-shooting transfer Devin Smith attempts to fill, but a string of injuries over the next three seasons hampers his brave-hearted efforts. The oft-hobbled Smith inspires Gillen’s frequent use of the phrase “he didn’t have his legs”—a mysterious malady that one or more UVA players develop every 1.5 games.

 

March 9, 2003

Following another disappointing run through the ACC, the Cavs upset Maryland, 80-78, on Senior Night at University Hall. After four years spent glued to the bench, center Jason Rogers gets the start, and finishes with 12 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots. Rogers’ stunning performance prompts reporters to ask why Gillen had not played him more. The coach quips, “We were saving him for four years for this moment.” The humor is lost on Gillen’s critics. Frustration with his allotment of playing time will continue to grow among fans and some players.

 

May 30, 2003

Virginia holds a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate the construction of the John Paul Jones Arena, a basketball palace that will replace the cramped basketball outhouse once known as the “Pregnant Clam.” The $129.8 million project had taken flight after Gillen’s early success at Virginia. It had also played a large role in the administration’s decision to extend the coach’s contract in 2001. But ultimately the costly venture puts unbearable pressure on Gillen and the University to build a winner. Time and again, the Cavs crack under pressure, perhaps because, as a former player says, Virginia’s offense “relied on players making plays.”

 

January 26, 2004

On Gillen’s weekly radio show, a malcontent caller questions the coach’s use of timeouts (namely, his irksome habit of burning them up midway through second halves) and suggests that Gillen had failed to stand up for a player in the previous weekend’s game. Gillen invites the caller to “go root for the Hokies.” The coach later apologizes for the remark, knowing what a sacrilege it was to tell a Montague Hoo to cast his lot with the Capulet turkeys from Blacksburg. Nonetheless, a mortally offended contingent of bellyachers lionizes the coach-baiting caller and refuses to forgive Gillen, what with his multimillion dollar contract. The retort echoes cruelly during the 2005 season when conference-newcomer Virginia Tech squad beats the Hoos in Blacksburg, en route to a fifth-place finish for which the basement-dwelling Cavs would have killed.

 

April 20, 2004

Virginia announces that swingman Derrick Byars—once among the most promising of Gillen’s recruits at Virginia—is leaving the University. Like other key players over the last seven seasons, Byars started strong, only to fade away, prompting questions about player development under Gillen. “He was one of the most talented players I’ve ever played with,” Billet says of Byars. “Being young, he would show you signs of being an all-league player in one game, and in the next he wouldn’t show that—it was kind of a puzzle.” Byars follows a half-dozen other players who had come and gone without exhausting their eligibility with the Hoos. The loss robs Gillen of his most athletic player who, when hot, could score at will. The following season, the Cavs often lack the will to score.

 

January 12, 2005

After dropping its first two ACC contests, Virginia fails to defend its home court in a must-win game against Miami. The 91-80 loss to a beatable team digs the Cavs into an insurmountable psychological hole as the team prepares for back-to-back games at Duke (loss No. 4) and Maryland (loss No. 5). The contest exposes Virginia’s glaring flaws, particularly its hibernating defense, which allows Miami to shoot 58 percent in the second half. Thereafter, University Hall begins to resemble a morgue—a half-empty one.

 

Eric Hoover, a 1997 UVA graduate and a former C-VILLE Weekly staff writer, is a senior editor for the Chronicle of Higher of Higher Education in Washington, D.C.

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