Hoosier Was Unlikely Hero
Two years ago at this time, BGSU basketball was coming off a highly successful season. They finished 24-9, losing three times to Kent State (who stormed into the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament), including once in the MAC Championship Game, and finishing the season with a loss to Butler in the NIT. Coming off that season, the Falcons were looking to rebuild. They were losing four senior starters to graduation--point guard Brandon Pardon, shooting guard Keith McLeod (MAC Player of the Year), power forward Brent Klassen, and center Len Matela.
Shortly after the NCAA Tournament ended, BG head coach Dan Dakich decided to leave as well. On April 4, 2002 he accepted the head coaching job at West Virginia University.
Coach Dakich was generally well liked by BG fans, and there was a lot of disappointment that day. No one blamed him, though. WVU is a member of the Big East Conference, and can afford to pay its coaches a lot more than BGSU can. Also, a bigger conference means a better chance to make the NCAA Tournament. It was no secret that Coach Dakich was frustrated after being passed over twice for an at-large bid to the tournament despite highly successful seasons. In any case, many BG fans resolved to keep an eye on WVU and our former coach, while we started looking forward and speculating about who would be hired to lead our Falcons.
For me, the following week was disheartening. I certainly understood Coach Dakich's decision to leave, but I was more than disappointed. I felt like someone close had left me.
I came to BGSU as just a casual fan of college basketball. I spent the first two years of my college career at Wright State University, where I had attended only a handful of basketball games. They were fun, but not that big of a deal. When I came to BG, I felt it would probably be the same way. This was in 1997, which was also Coach Dakich's first year at BG.
The first BG basketball game I attended was actually against Wright State. I thought it would be fun to see the guys I used to cheer for play against the guys I would now cheer for. Hey, it was a reason to go. Besides, BG's arena was easily accessible, and it was something to do. For my first game in Anderson Arena, it was quite memorable. Since I had no idea where to go, we ended up sitting in someone else's reserved seats (I went with my friend Jamie, who was my girlfriend at the time). BG forward Dave Esterkamp and WSU center Thad Burton got into a fight. WSU won the game, led by point guard Brandon Pardon, who would eventually transfer to BG and become one of my favorite players.
I went to several more games that season, and slowly transformed into the die-hard BG hoops fan you now see before you. Why? Simple: Coach Dakich. His teams play hard and are easy to cheer for. He's extremely animated on the sidelines. Sometimes he puts on a better show than the game, which makes it fun. One year, during a stretch in which he felt the team needed to "turn things around," he came out before the game with his jacket on backwards. It worked, too--we went on a pretty good winning streak. He's not afraid to speak his mind, and it's solely due to him that I'm as BG crazy as I am.
So on April 4, when he took the job at West Virginia, I was upset. I did understand, though, so I looked each day to see if there was any news on who our new coach would be. Names surfaced, and it seemed like it would be only a short time before a new coach was named. Then it happened: I hopped online the following Friday, April 12, to ESPN.com. The headline? Something to the effect of "Dakich Quits at West Virginia."
I got almost no work done that morning, as I surfed the Internet for further details as they became available. By lunchtime, it was clear that Coach Dakich was coming back to the Falcons. Needless to say, West Virginia fans were pretty upset with his sudden about-face, but Falcon fans were very happy. Personally, I was nearly delirious.
Fast forward to now.
The Falcons finished this year 14-17 after a loss to Kent State in the second round of the MAC Tournament. This is the second consecutive losing season for the Falcons, who finished 13-16 the year before. Since returning from his weeklong stint at WVU, Coach Dakich has failed to produce a winner for BG. Take into account that BG was considered one of the top contenders to win the MAC West Division this year, and some fans are ready to turn up the heat on Coach Dakich.
Count me out. No sir, I won't be drinking the Kool-Aid. Every coach has a season that doesn't go according to plan, which was definitely the case for Coach Dakich and the Falcons this year. Overly critical fans are quick to point out that we've had two losing seasons in a row. Well, I'm not willing to count the first one against Coach Dakich. We all knew going in that it was going to be a rebuilding year, after losing all five starters from the previous season (the four above-mentioned seniors, plus freshman guard Erik Crawford, who transferred to Northern Iowa during the offseason). On top of that, the roster was decimated by injuries--forwards Germain Fitch and Josh Almanson and guard Jabari Mattox all suffered season-ending injuries. If memory serves, we finished out the year with six scholarship players, one walk-on, and two imports from the football team. Having a winning season under those conditions would have qualified Coach Dakich for National Coach of the Year honors, I think.
There's certainly no denying, though, that this season was a disappointment. As I said, the Falcons were expected to contend for the MAC West Division. Those expectations never materialized. Simply stated, the team was too inconsistent. There would be games where we looked good, and then we'd follow with games where we looked awful. We often played poor defense. We fouled too much. We turned the ball over too much on offense. We'd go through scoring droughts. We had no consistent presence on the low post.
Looking back, I get the feeling that the preseason expectations were just too high. Sure, we had lost only one senior from the previous year, a guard named Cory Ryan (now on Coach Dakich's staff) with more heart than talent. Everyone else was back, and we had a good incoming freshman class. Still...when you get everyone back from a team that goes 13-16, what does that mean? There were just too many unknown quantities. We were placing too many expectations on incoming freshmen and players coming back from injuries.
Jabari Mattox's injury wasn't fully healed for this year, and he ended up leaving the team partway through the season. Germain Fitch came back to play, but re-injured his knee and lost the season to injury. Josh Almanson did manage to rehab for this year, and he played pretty well. The newcomers were a mixed bag. Center Matt Lefeld played fairly well in limited minutes, but fouled too much and had some injury problems. Guard Chris Hobson played a limited role due to asthma, but is a tenacious defender and may develop into a scorer. Guard Austin Montgomery had some good games, but had a tendency to fold under pressure. Forward Isaac Rosefelt barely played. Point guard Steven Wright technically wasn't a newcomer, but didn't play last year due to incoming eligibility problems. He has potential, but did not have a special year this year. He turned the ball over too much, didn't defend the perimeter well enough, and didn't score the ball or dish out enough assists to keep our offense moving.
The biggest problem this year was the lack of leadership. BG teams under Coach Dakich have always taken on the personalities of their seniors, and this year was no exception. Our lone senior (after Mattox left) was center Kevin Netter, and as he went, so did the team. He lost focus at crucial moments, was too inconsistent, and had trouble staying out of foul trouble and on the floor. He had the potential to be the best center in the MAC, but didn't quite make it.
I'm not giving Coach Dakich a free pass on the woes of this season by any means. At the end of the day, the head coach is responsible for all aspects of the program. We didn't have a successful season, and he has to take responsibility for that fact. At the same time, I don't think it's fair for anyone to say or imply that his job should be in jeopardy because of it. It's now his job to evaluate where we are and take the steps he thinks are appropriate to help the program move forward. If that means changing his coaching principles, recruiting strategies, or whatever, he needs to do it. I think he's a heck of a coach, and I know he wants to win. He cares about the program, the kids he coaches, the fans, and the university. He has shown this. I trust him to do what he needs to do to make things better. I think he's earned that type of trust from Falcon fans. If we have more season like this, then I'll agree that changes will need to be considered. I just don't think that point is now.
The Falcons haven't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1968. "Wait 'til next year" is getting old, but it's what we've got. The eternal optimist, I think next year might be the year a lot of Falcon fans expected to have this year. Sometime between now and November, when next season starts, I'll have a preview of the 04-05 BGSU Falcons.