Last season was beginning of the end for Joplin


Two years ago, when Stan Joplin was a lame-duck coach in the final year of his contract and his University of Toledo men's basketball team was roaring down the stretch all the way to the championship game of the Mid-American Conference tournament, I wrote that Joplin deserved a new contract. His team was excelling on the court and in the classroom and for UT to do anything different would have been hypocritical.

A year ago, when Joplin's team won the league's regular-season title and played in the NIT, all systems seemed to be more go than stop.

Yesterday, according to university officials speaking off the record, Stan Joplin was fired. It may be a surprise bordering on a shock. But you know what? UT didn't have any choice.

The Rockets, as athletic director Mike O'Brien will tell us in a press conference later this morning, need to head in a new direction. That's what ADs always say when they fire a coach, but it is surely the truth in this case.

This recently-concluded season destroyed considerable confidence that Joplin could lead UT to a position of consistent strength in the MAC. Sure, he may have recovered from this past campaign and, sure, he might have led the Rockets to 20 wins next season, but that's no longer the point.

The point, sadly, is that Toledo basketball has become an afterthought in Toledo. Not to mention Maumee, Sylvania, Perrysburg, Holland, Oregon you name it.

Not enough people buy tickets. Not enough of those who do actually pass through the turnstiles. There is little buzz, little talk, little interest.

The Rockets broadcast all their games on radio, and while I'm not privy to the ratings, I'm guessing few are listening. We write plenty of stories and columns and blogs about UT basketball and I am fairly confident that few people are reading. My version of The Blade's ratings comes in the form of e-mails and I just went through a couple hundred recent reader e-mails in my directory and could not find a single one commenting on Toledo men's basketball.

Savage Hall is being renovated at a price tag of $30 million and the new facility will be state-of-the-art fabulous. But if the seats remain empty, if the interest remains nil, if the community remains apathetic, then it is a giant waste of money and time.

UT can't afford that happening. It's why women's coach Mark Ehlen recently announced his resignation after being informed he would not be getting a new contract after five consecutive tough seasons. It's why the university has to suck it up, find the money to pay off the final year of Joplin's contract, and start fresh in the men's game, as well.

Ehlen admitted at his press conference a few weeks back that a coach can stay too long. That applies to Joplin, as well.

You won't find a better guy. But after 12 years, I think UT can find a better coach.

I know that sounds harsh. But coaching comes in many parts - recruiter, teacher, evaluator of talent, motivator, strategist, educator, spokesman to the media, envoy to the community, a face of the university.

Joplin does some of those things well. He does some of those things poorly. On one hand, he's outgoing with the media, always accessible and always a good quote, in a profession that is populated by the paranoid. On the other hand, there is a difference between recruiting athletes and recruiting polished basketball players. It's a 50-50 track record that has run its course.

This past season proved fatal. Joplin signed an eight-man recruiting class. Five of them failed to qualify academically and three never even registered for classes. Then the returning point guard quit the team for a reason or reasons that have never been made clear. A team with virtually no bench was overwhelmed by the strength of schedule and struggled to reach double figures in wins. The small cluster of UT fans that bothered to make the short trip to Cleveland for the MAC tournament was an embarrassment for a school that used to fill arenas.

Trust me, it's not easy to endorse someone losing his job. Especially when that someone has given 22 years of his life to a school - four as a player, six as an assistant coach, and 12 as head coach. Especially when that someone has represented the school in a positive manner, taken it to four NITs - the basketball equivalent of, say, the Motor City Bowl - and will leave as its second-winningest coach of all-time.

There was a week early in the 1998-99 season when UT beat Ohio State, Xavier and Dayton. Savage Hall, the site of the first two of those games, was rockin' and rollin' and UT basketball was back on the map.

That's the way it was in 1979, when Joplin, the player, made the most famous shot in UT history, one that gave the Rockets an NCAA victory over Iowa of the Big Ten. But that flame, like the one lighted by the three-game sweep of Ohio powers that Joplin orchestrated as head coach, has long since gone out.

Toledo has not won a MAC tournament championship or appeared in an NCAA tournament in 28 years. Joplin, the coach, doesn't have to answer for all of that. The drought included Bob Nichols' last seven seasons, four more under Jay Eck, five under Larry Gipson, and a dozen years under Joplin.

But a dozen years, well, that's a long, long time, especially in the coaching profession.

Stan Joplin deserves the University of Toledo's thanks, but not a lifetime appointment.