After signing four releases for women's basketball players in a week, and spending most of the week clearing out his voicemail and email in boxes, Oregon St. Athletic Director Bob DeCarolis has at least acknowledged he has an issue to deal with.
DeCarolis tonight spoke to the review of the program he is currently working on, releasing the following statement:
We have received inquiries recently about the OSU Women's Basketball program, based on concerns about the transfer requests from several players.
When students transfer out of programs, you are always concerned. Sometimes the concern is for the student and the challenges he or she is personally facing. Sometimes it is for the program itself. But as you can imagine, each student who is faced with this major decision to stay or transfer is feeling pressures from many areas. You can never make assumptions or jump to conclusions without further inspection. At the end of the year, all teams undergo a review and I want to assure you that we are in that process right now with regard to women's basketball. I do want to assure all fans, students, faculty, staff, boosters and friends, that I am aware of your concerns and I am examining the status of the program and the welfare of our students.
DeCarolis characterized the review as the customary review that all Beaver programs undergo following the conclusion of their season, but most programs don't experience a defection of most of the team, so this customary review is going to have to take on an uncustomary tone.
To be fair, DeCarolis had to be caught off guard by the events since the start of the year.
Coach LaVonda Wagner had led the team to consecutive improved seasons, 20 wins and a post season appearance after the 2009 season. The non-conference portion of this year's schedule had been very promising, and successful. The Beavers were playing defense at a school record level, which ordinarily would guard against any sustained problems. Attendance was up early in the conference season.
So a 17 game losing streak was a surprise to everyone.
A couple of in-season transfer decisions were a concerning development, but in this day and age, most programs at most institutions encounter some of this.
What they don't usually encounter are numerous players making a mass exodus that are counter to their personal, and in some cases professional, economic interests.
A player or two might be dis-satisfied enough to sacrifice a Pac-10 scholarship, but when a number of them leave, including your leading scorer, Talisa Rhea, and your leader in minutes played, Kirsten Tilleman, and one of the top recruits in the state a year ago, Kate Lanz, something more is wrong than just losing, or losing playing time.
The departures aren't about problems within the program, they are about problems with handling adversity within the program.
Lanz characterized the program as not being a positive environment. An environment defined mostly by how problems have been handled.
Anyone who has spent any time around the program in recent years, whether one of Wagner's detractors, or strongest of supporters, will agree that Wagner is a very intense person. And often a polarizing one.
DeCarolis faces a difficult situation, as addressing a problem such as this means you must actually have a plan for how to address the problem, and that wasn't something the winter quarter was spent working on. If a personnel change is made, who does Bob bring in at this late date in the coaching shuffle process? Can he even afford to not make a change?
Who can be at once a strong leader and advocate for the program, and at the same time satisfy players, recruits, and boosters?
As the University of Oregon has found, with a lot bigger bucket of money, and other perks to offer (the brand new Matthew Knight arena), finding a difference making coach isn't that easy, and it gets harder the further into the recruiting season it gets.
At the same time, the problem is growing. Oregon St. now needs a near double-digit recruiting class, with only five scholarship players still in school. And no matter who the coach is, which blue chip recruits want to sign on to what will surely be a long and difficult rebuilding job under the best of circumstances?
Yet the problem has become very pressing. Attendance had already dropped from thousands to hundreds. Season ticket holders have voiced their dissatisfaction by indicating they won't be back until and unless major changes are made.
In the multi-million dollar business that is Oregon St. athletics, and the even larger overall OSU scheme of things, women's basketball is not that big of a piece of the puzzle. Yet it is a critical piece. Much of that big operation, and big budget, is largely not something that can easily be changed. Contracts make much of it relatively static.
But the success or failure of the women's hoops program directly determines whether it about pulls its own weight, or becomes a big black hole that draws resources away from other places.
And since it is one of the four mandated programs all Pac-10 schools must field to stay in the conference, not one that can be de-emphasized.
Moreover, the much discussed practice facility, seen as essential to the continued growth of the men's program, and possibly holding on to Craig Robinson, one of DeCarolis' successes, is a joint venture of and for both of the basketball programs. With a mass drop in support from erstwhile supporters of the women's team, the challenge, and the share of the price, shifted to supporters of the men's program goes up.
So just as the problem with the program is handling problems, the problem with a solution is really about how to handle the problems that have been wrought by the initial problem.
DeCarolis has a little time, but only a little, to not just conduct the review of the program, but determine a course of action that a lot of people will have confidence in. Expect to see the light on in Bob's office a little later than normal the rest of the week. Don't expect much more to be said until DeCarolis thinks he has some actual answers, though. It is a completely different set of circumstances, but I'd expect a process similar to when Mike Riley and Pat Casey were being considered for other positions, in that there will be a lot of phone calls and emails, and eventually an announcement that "X" is the resolution, coming only after at least a lot of the details have been hammered out.