Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Why Not Bobby?

Everyone deserves a second chance, even former Manhattan and Seton Hall head coach Bobby Gonzalez. (Photo courtesy of New York Post)

Yesterday's announcement of former Alabama head coach Mark Gottfried resurfacing to take the vacant position at North Carolina State became the latest in a new era of former college hoops bosses leaving the bench for a short period of time only to make a return to their former vocation, a trend that started up again last year when St. John's turned to Steve Lavin when naming a successor to Norm Roberts after Lavin spent the preceding seven years as an analyst at ESPN following his dismissal from UCLA. Ironically, Gottfried is himself a former ESPN personality; and even more ironic than that, a fellow assistant on the same staff as Lavin (and current Washington coach Lorenzo Romar as well) under Jim Harrick in Westwood in the first half of the 1990s before they all went their separate ways in the wake of the Bruins' national championship in 1995.

Gottfried's hire, coupled with coaches that have received additional shots to prove themselves despite committing transgressions far greater and more severe than baseball players who used steroids, is living proof that college basketball programs across the country feel the same way I do by validating their beliefs that anyone and everyone deserves a second chance. What I am about to offer as an example may not be popular with some readers, but the opportunity for redemption even extends to a man who unfortunately spent the better part of 2010 becoming a basketball pariah following a stunning and acrimonious termination from his most recent line of work. A man who has recently returned to the conversation in Division I college basketball as one of the rumored candidates for the now-vacant head coaching position at the University of Miami after Frank Haith decided to leave South Florida to replace Mike Anderson at Missouri in what is among one of the more puzzling hires in recent years in the collegiate landscape. A man that, regardless of what you hear about him, remains misunderstood to those who have had the chance to see him up close and personal.

I'm talking about none other than Bobby Gonzalez.

Everyone knows Bobby from his time as the head coach at Manhattan College (1999-2006) and Seton Hall University (2006-2010) just as much as they know him from his alleged legal issues, which will not be referenced in this article because they are simply irrelevant. Say what you want about Bobby; and some of it may be true depending on whom you hear it from, but don't lose sight of his success on the bench because the perceived negatives outweigh the positives. Gonzalez knew how to win, plain and simple. Any coach that wins two conference championships and takes his team to four postseason tournaments (two NCAA Tournaments and two NIT appearances) the way Gonzalez did at Manhattan qualifies as someone who knows what they are doing. Although Gonzalez only made one trip to the postseason at Seton Hall, it doesn't diminish the fact that he guided the Pirates to a 66-59 record over his four years in New Jersey; four years in which his teams progressively improved in each season, culminating with their participation in what turned out to be Bobby's last game at the helm, their first-round loss at the hands of Texas Tech in the 2010 NIT. By the way, the Big East is regarded to be the strongest conference in the nation on an annual basis. Barry Rohrssen and Kevin Willard, who succeeded Gonzalez at Manhattan and Seton Hall respectively, were unable to replicate their predecessor's winning ways despite being left with considerable talent that Gonzalez had recruited. Rohrssen went 13-17 in his first year at Manhattan, while Willard finished his first campaign in South Orange this past season 13-18 despite having to navigate through injuries and player dismissals with a team many expected to be an NCAA Tournament contender at the start of the year.

Personally, I have nothing negative to say about Bobby Gonzalez after spending the first three years of my career covering him both as a student play-by-play announcer at St. John's (I was fortunate to call three St. John's-Seton Hall games in Bobby's tenure) and also as a writer in this very space. Any stories of Gonzalez being difficult to approach or confrontational with the media may as well be urban legends, because he was anything but that whenever I spoke to him. In fact, Bobby even shared a laugh with me when I asked him about playing St. John's inside the Red Storm's on-campus venue of Carnesecca Arena; something that was well-documented by the local newspapers here in New York after Gonzalez expressed his desire to play St. John's at Madison Square Garden, his rationale being that a rivalry as big as St. John's-Seton Hall should be showcased at a venue just as prestigious. In fact, at Big East media day this past October, I noticed something missing from the Seton Hall program when I interviewed the aforementioned Kevin Willard. No disrespect to the former Iona coach and Rick Pitino assistant, but the energy and buzz I had seen emanating from the Pirates while Gonzalez was in charge was seemingly nonexistent under Willard. It could be a difference in philosophy or even the product of Pat Hobbs' desire to start fresh, (something that came back to hurt him this past year) but the difference was as clear as broad daylight. I don't know for sure that Bobby would have had the same tragedy befall his team, but one would assume the Pirates would be more competitive had he stayed for two reasons: Familiarity with Bobby's system, and the coach's track record over his previous eleven years as a head coach.

Back to the vacant Miami job, if I may. Miami has all the right pieces for Bobby Gonzalez to succeed right away. It's a major market in a major conference with resources that, although not as plentiful as some of their ACC counterparts, are adequate to recruit and build for the future. Having a Hispanic surname would also be a boost for Gonzalez, who would be taking a job in a city whose population has historically been primarily Latin-American. In fact, Gonzalez was considered for the Miami job in 2004 before Haith was hired; and no less an authority than former Miami baseball player and current New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez reached out to Gonzalez in an attempt to lure him from the Bronx to South Beach.

Some others may view Bobby's time away from the game and his age as causes for concern, but Gonzalez has only been on the outside looking in for thirteen months. Rick Pitino and John Calipari (the latter will be mentioned again later) left for the completely different world of the NBA and stayed there longer than that, only to return to Division I at Louisville and Memphis, respectively; and each took their programs to the postseason in every year since returning, a streak Calipari has taken with him to his current job at Kentucky. As far as age, it's nothing but a number. Gonzalez turned 48 last month, and that's still pretty young in the college world that features coaches going well into their seventies before calling it a career. Connecticut head man Jim Calhoun will celebrate his 69th birthday next month, and isn't ready to go anywhere just yet; and that was before winning his third national championship two nights ago. Former Stanford coach Mike Montgomery is another example, leaving for a failed opportunity with the Golden State Warriors only to appear for a collegiate encore in 2008 at Cal, taking the job at the tender age of 61. For what it's worth, Montgomery took the Golden Bears to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in his first two years and the NIT this past season.

Finally, there are (as I mentioned earlier) other coaches who have done far worse only to get another shot somewhere else. Larry Eustachy was dismissed from Iowa State following an alcohol-related incident, but found employment at Southern Mississippi a year later. Tim Floyd left Southern California in the wake of a scandal involving O.J. Mayo and took the job at UTEP the following season. The aforementioned Calipari has had Final Four appearances at Massachusetts and Memphis vacated, but continues to shine at Kentucky. Jerry Tarkanian resurfaced at Fresno State after the infamous Lloyd Daniels recruiting saga at UNLV. Isiah Thomas was implicated in a sexual harassment lawsuit while general manager of the Knicks; but that didn't stop him from coaching the Knickerbockers or Florida International, who plays in the Hurricanes' backyard of Miami. My point is that Bobby Gonzalez has NEVER had an officially documented off-court issue that approached the severity of those listed above. He may not be perfect, but who is? All that matters is that he was successful at what he did and that he is incredibly passionate and driven to be nothing but the best; and in the profit-seeking enterprise that is collegiate athletics, that's really all you need. Coaches whose reputations have preceded (and sometimes destroyed) them have been able to turn their lives and careers around by getting a second chance at another institution after being disgraced in a more prominent position.

There is no reason to deny Bobby Gonzalez that same fate, be it at Miami or any other program that may be interested in him.

1 comment:

  1. You are seriously, seriously misguided about the real Bobby Gonzalez. Ask anyone from the AD to the waterboy at Manhattan. The same for Seton Hall. He's a very charming individual, and, I believe, a good basketball coach. But he has serious issues with interpersonal relationships, and is as abusive, nasty, and disrespectful as anyone you'll ever meet. I'm glad he was nice to you on a couple of interviews for college radio. After the Seton Hall fiasco, don't bet on him getting any HC looks for a long, long time.