BOWLING GREEN - The smiles, handshakes and tension-free laughter flowed on that spring day of 2002. Bowling Green State University was in celebration mode about its men's basketball team.
There were so many successes to toast. Keith McLeod had just been crowned with the Mid-American Conference player of the year award. The Falcons finished with a 24-9 record, a fourth consecutive winning season, and a near-miss at a MAC title and NCAA tournament appearance. For the second time in three years, the team earned an NIT berth.
But most importantly and improbably, they had been able to do what so many of their fellow MAC schools couldn't, retain a highly successful and coveted coach.
Which is what made the press conference all the more special and different. The big news was that Dan Dakich was staying and the future of BGSU basketball looked brighter than ever.
It culminated a wild week in which Dakich accepted the job at West Virginia and BGSU began the daunting task of trying to replace him, only to have him change his mind and delight the fan base and many school officials by making an astonishing return. By the fall, Dakich had a five-year contract extension and a sense of permanence reigned.
Monday, the Falcons wrapped up their third losing regular season in the four years since. Their 9-21 record was the program's worst in 20 years. More unsettling than the losing has been the growing feeling of instability for the program, the very symptom Dakich's return promised to avoid.
After senior Steven Wright's departure from the team with two weeks left in the season, BGSU has seen 12 players leave the program early since Dakich returned. Each example has its own set of reasons and circumstance, but the culmination of it has no doubt undercut the Falcons' ability to compete annually for MAC titles.
The entire recruiting class that Dakich secured upon returning to BGSU, which could have been graduating this year, ended up leaving. In the past year alone, five scholarship players have departed.
This season was slated to be a rebuilding year for Dakich after last season's 18-11 team. But the constant turnover has made next year, the last on
Dakich's contract, appear to have the same mission.
This year's roster finished with one senior, Mawel Soler, a junior college transfer. And next year there will only be one senior scholarship player, Matt Lefeld, who has been in the program since he was a freshman.
"I understand people's concerns and I understand the perception of things, and I don't like it because I don't want any kid ever to leave," Dakich said. "It comes to maturity, and comes to understanding college basketball isn't the easiest thing in the world."
It might appear the continuing player exodus is an epidemic, but the reasons for the departures are varied and show no solid trend. Dakich has lost players for reasons including family problems, personal problems and desire to find more playing time elsewhere.
Across the college basketball landscape, nearly every team loses players for similar reasons. MAC East rival Kent State, which won the regular-season championship, lost five players last spring.
At BGSU, though, there is growing concern because the program has been dealing with multiple player losses on a yearly basis.
"The thing about being here, is if kids fight you, and they all fight you to start with, but if kids fight you, then it's difficult," Dakich said. "I can always tell when a kid has really bought into what we're all doing, and when they do that, they become special."
Dakich is proud of the players who have stayed with him for four or five years. Many have become all-conference performers, including John Reimold and Josh Almanson, seniors on the 2004-05 team.
Recently, there have been more departures than stars, which left this season's team threadbare.
"Our league tends to be a league where the successful teams are veteran teams," BGSU athletics director Paul Krebs said. "I don't think anybody associated with the university or the athletic program would suggest [turnover] is a good thing.
"Each time a player leaves there are specific circumstances. But at the end of the day, the fact of the matter is they're gone, and it reflects on our program."
That reflection has been dogging Dakich since his return from West Virginia. Known for his fiery style and intensity honed after more than a decade spent with Indiana coaching legend Bobby Knight, Dakich's persona has been accepted by some, shunned by others.
"I tell kids, I'm not going to coach you like a 'mid-major' basketball player," Dakich said. "You're going to be coached like Indiana when I was there."
Almanson, who is now playing professionally in Luxembourg, had both family issues and injury problems during his tenure at BGSU as well as periods of being in and out of Dakich's rotation. Yet he stayed for five years, even as some of his teammates left, and prospered.
"I think in college basketball there is a natural growth players go through from the time they are freshmen to the end of their college careers," Almanson said in an e-mail. "I always had different feelings when people left the team because people left for different reasons. Sometimes you knew it was good for the team, sometimes you knew a person had to make a decision for personal reasons."
One player who departed in the past year was Scott Vandermeer. After a promising freshman season, Vandermeer, a 6-foot-11 center from Dyer, Ind., transferred last spring. Had he stayed, he had potential to follow the same track as Almanson.
Instead, he's now at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he will play next season, while BGSU was thin and inexperienced in the post this year. He's one of eight former Falcons currently playing in other collegiate programs.
"At BG the coaches are really hard on you and it is good in small doses," Vandermeer said in an e-mail. "But during the long season it gets to you. A lot of people are not used to the long practices and film every day and having the coaches being on you all the time.
"It is rough to play for someone that whatever you do doesn't seem good enough for the coach."
There are no apologies coming from Dakich over such issues.
"You're going to be coached to be a pro," Dakich said. "You're going to be pushed to where you may not even know you have this level. That's a big deal with me. You're not always going to like it, but you're going to be treated honestly and you're going to be treated fairly."
Dakich is optimistic he can survive all the losses and return the program to its old winning ways. He's hopeful the current freshmen class, especially developing prospects Erik Marschall and Darryl Clements, will join the likes of Almanson, McLeod and Reimold. Two other players sitting out this season, Lionel Sullivan and Nate Miller, also have potential to be long-term mainstays.
Retaining such talented players is all the more crucial for Dakich now because that celebrated contract extension has just one more season on it. Krebs said he will meet with Dakich soon, as he does after every season, to discuss the program's future and his contract situation. The roster turnover will certainly be a major subject.
"I think the future looks very promising," Krebs said. "If you look at Dan's track record when he's had veteran leadership, his teams have done well. There's reason to be optimistic."
Those positive feelings despite the recent struggles will likely be put to the test over the next year. The pressure is rising to stop the bleeding. Dakich plans to stick to his methods and his message.
"I'm incredibly passionate about every guy here being very good and being better," Dakich said. "I've had a number of parents tell me, you've made my son better than I ever thought he could be."
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