Chris Lowery’s firing brings an end to an era of Saluki basketball that most current students weren’t able to experience first-hand.
The days of ‘Floor Burn U,’ when SIU would make regular appearances in the national media as one of the best mid-major programs in the nation, were already in the rearview mirror by fall 2008. In front of us were the stories of numerous arrests, academic troubles and a school re-branding itself as ‘Transfer U.’
“The reality is SIU Arena didn’t have the same feel,” Athletic Director Mario Moccia said. “It didn’t have the same crowds that were in there, the noise, the excitement level that was generated — the things that would permeate through all sports and throughout our community.”
The shadow of the glory days still loomed over the school at that point, with upperclassmen who still fondly remembered the days of Randal Falker, Jamaal Tatum and Matt Shaw as if they were yesterday, because for them it was.
Lowery signed the heavily criticized seven-year, $750,000 per year contract at the tail end of those glory days, after the Sweet 16 run in 2007. But hindsight is 20/20, and who knows where the program would be if Lowery left to coach a bigger school, such as the rumored move to DePaul Lowery was considering in 2009.
“If things go well, there’s a lot of backslapping, and when they don’t, there’s a lot of arrows,” Moccia said Friday. “There was a huge desire to lock up (Lowery), because we sure didn’t want another person taking our coach.”
Pictures of the Dawg Pound from those days adorn the recently renovated SIU Arena, almost taunting current fans of the days when thousands would fight for seats that laid vacant the past couple seasons. The Arena — and the landscape of campus, for that matter — changed for the better because of the success of the basketball program, but the effort on the court didn’t match the effort put into Saluki Way.
Freshmen in fall 2008 came to a school with a ton of great prospects including Carlton Fay, Kevin Dillard, and Anthony Booker, among others, with a more mature Bryan Mullins leading the group. But that group was as fragile as the legs Mullins played on, and Fay was the only one of the group to make a lasting impression in Carbondale.
And so began the stretch of seasons without a postseason appearance. 2009, the first year SIU missed the postseason, deteriorated with blowout losses to Northern Iowa and Creighton late in the season. That season was the first time SIU finished below .500 since the 1997-98 campaign, when long-time coach Rich Herrin was fired.
The athletes who Lowery was praised for bringing to the program either started to leave or got into trouble. Ryan Hare and Nick Evans left the program among legal troubles, and Dillard and Booker left after the 2009 season for Dayton and Iowa State, respectively.
Senior forward Mamadou Seck signed with the program the same day Dillard and Booker’s releases were announced April 27, 2010. Though the program was on the downward slide, Seck thought they still had a chance to make the tournament with the team they had.
But the next season was highlighted by more off-court issues, as Teague’s departure from the program was prefaced by an incident when Teague, along with Long and Mykel Cleveland, got in trouble for brandishing an airsoft gun around campus in January 2011.
Fast forward to this season, when sophomore guard Diamond Taylor got suspended for an arrest that happened in April 2011, and junior guard Kendal Brown-Surles was forced to sit out the first half of the season because of academic issues.
Whether those guys would have trouble here if Lowery wasn’t the coach isn’t important. What matters is he was the guy in charge, and he couldn’t keep his players on top of things.
After the season-opening loss to Division II Ohio Dominican, a team that finished 4-22, it was hard to get excited to watch the Salukis.
Seck said the losing wore down the players as well as the fans.
“Losing will change a person. Losing will make you be a person that you’re not,” Seck said. “It’s not like they quit playing, because I think they all love to play basketball, but sometimes when you’re losing over and over and over, it’s kind of pushing you to not care anymore.”
So a change had to be made at SIU, because that kind of atmosphere was only going to get worse.
If Lowery lands a job as an assistant coach, he could do well as the lead recruiter, much as he did for Bruce Weber’s staff a decade ago.
Seck and freshman forward Dantiel Daniels said Lowery brought them to SIU with a focus on academics, and if he can shine SIU’s academics in a positive light, I’m convinced he can sell a high-definition TV to a blind kid.
So I wish him the best, because he’s only 39 and has a lot of coaching life ahead of him. He definitely wasn’t the only one responsible for the downturn of the basketball team.
Whenever the subject wasn’t Saluki basketball, he was jovial and lively, but you could tell the job wore him down, and a change had to be made for both sides.
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