Player retention, academic issues and declining fan support all cited as reasons
Chris Lowery was relieved of his duties as men’s basketball coach in a meeting with Athletic Director Mario Moccia shortly after the 66-51 loss Thursday to Indiana State in the first round of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
The loss dropped the Salukis to 8-23, the school record for most losses in a season.
“There was a definite decline in our academics for several semesters,” Moccia said Friday in a press conference. “We certainly had poor player retention, for many (recruiting) classes, and I think that led us to some of the situations we’re in today.”
Moccia said there was a decline in season and single-game ticket sales in recent years, and the department lost $500,000 dollars during the last two years, along with $200,000 dollars from the athletic scholarship fund. The amounts could not be verified immediately.
“Many aspects of our basketball program were not going well,” said Chancellor Rita Cheng in an email Sunday. “This was a very difficult decision and one that involved broad consultation. In the end, a decision was made to put our basketball program back on the positive path.”
Lowery took the head coaching job in 2004 and immediately made three-straight NCAA tournament appearances. He took the Salukis to the Sweet 16 in 2007 after making a school-record with 29 wins in a season.
After an appearance in the National Invitational Tournament in 2008, Lowery failed to make any postseason tournaments in the next four seasons. Lowery had a record of 49-75 during that stretch, with two straight ninth-place finishes in the 10-team MVC.
The team was informed about the firing shortly before Moccia’s 3:30 p.m. meeting with the press Friday, though several of the athletes found out earlier in the day.
“It’s not real until you actually hear it from the head guy,” said freshman forward Josh Swan. “Everybody seemed a little down. Heads were kind of down and real focused, real serious, but I still think everybody understands that this is a business.”
Senior forward Mamadou Seck said he wasn’t surprised by the news, although he thought the administration would wait more than a day after the season ended.
“You don’t even need to be a basketball player, you just need to use your mind and know it’s coming,” Seck said. “You cannot have this kind of year and have people just let it go.”
Seck said the coaching staff didn’t deserve all the blame for the team’s recent struggles.
“I don’t want to blame the coaches at all, because it’s more about us coming to play. It’s more about personal stuff,” Seck said. “If everybody took it personal, then qualitatively, we would be good. But I didn’t see that happen.”
After the loss to Indiana State, Lowery and the coaching staff traveled back separately from the players.
“It was kind of one of those rides where we didn’t know what was going on,” said freshman forward Dantiel Daniels. “There was a lot of speculating going on, but for the most part it was really awkward and quiet.”
Lowery said Thursday after the game, the speculation about his job was a distraction during the season, a distraction Daniels said was there before he even put on a Saluki uniform.
“There were a lot of rumors and a lot of people calling me, saying he was going to get fired before I even came,” Daniels said. “It didn’t make me lose my focus, because I’m on the court playing. That’s not my business if he gets fired or not.”
After the game Thursday and before meeting with Moccia, Lowery said he expected to be retained as head coach.
“I’ve been here a long time, in different capacities, and I would like to see this thing turned around because I am competitive and I’m not a quitter,” Lowery said.
Lowery still had two years left on a contract that paid him $750,000 a year, and Moccia said they haven’t discussed the terms of a buyout yet with Lowery’s agent.
“I’m always going to be loyal to SIU, no matter what. Business is business … and I’m going to handle myself with integrity,” Lowery said. “I’m not going to blow up, I’m not going to belittle anything that has to do with SIU because that’s not me.”
As for the players, Moccia said nobody plans on leaving the program right now, although Daniels, Swan, freshman forward Harry Whitt and freshman forward Antonio Bryer said they were going to wait until a new coach is hired to make a decision.
Bryer said he was disappointed in the playing time he got from Lowery.
“It was a real bumpy road. I didn’t expect not to be playing at all,” Bryer said. “But what could you do about it? I was unhappy, but anybody would be if they didn’t play.”
NCAA rules allow players from Division I programs to transfer to other Division I schools without having to sit out a year, as the normal transfer rules dictate, if the head coach is let go.
Moccia said assistant associate coach Ron Smith is contacting freshmen recruits Bobo Drummond and Travis Wilkins to see if their commitment to the university has changed.
Moccia said he wants to have a new coach by the time the Final Four is played March 31, although he also said he doesn’t want people to hold him to that time frame if the coach search takes longer than that.
“We aren’t going to dilly-dally around,” Moccia said. “We are going to move as fast as we can, but expeditiously.”
The search committee includes a current Saluki head coach for another sport, a former player and a few other university and community representatives, Moccia said. He said he won’t release the names of those on the committee until he acknowledges their involvement when the new coach is hired.
The only coaching candidate addressed during Moccia’s press conference was current Illinois head coach Bruce Weber, who coached the Salukis from 1998 to 2003. Weber’s on the hot seat after his Illini team went 6-11 in Big Ten conference play this season as of Sunday.
Illinois has made it past the first round of the NCAA tournament twice since their appearance in the NCAA championship game in 2005, and missed the tournament entirely in 2008 and 2010.
“I root for (Weber), I root for (current Purdue and former Saluki coach) Matt Painter, so I want them to do well,” Moccia said. “I’d hate to speculate on that. I hope (Weber) wins big and finishes out his contract at U of I.”