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Coach Hill, and sunk costs

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With the tip-0ff of basketball season less than two weeks away at this point, I wanted to share my dire assessment of the current state of the Rutgers men's basketball program. I do not expect to be posting muich of anything else on the subject in coming months, although I will have a smattering on it and other sports.

Last summer, I took the somewhat bold step of trying to handicap the race for Syracuse's next hire as head football coach, even though Greg Robinson had been retained for the 2008 season. I thought that move was absolutely indefensible; not only was the program going in the wrong direction under his watch, they were absolutely falling off a cliff. There was absolute no conceivable scenario where GRob would ever turn things around.

You can step into any Intro to Microeconomics class and learn about an important concept called Sunk Costs, which served as my basis for concluding that not only would Robinson be fired, but it was a mistake to have retained him following 2007. In laymen's terms, when there's no longer any possibility of receiving a return on a prior investment, it doesn't make any sense to keep doubling down on a losing bet. Not only did Syracuse have to keep paying Robinson for a wasted, lame duck season, but doing that put them a year behind in the rebuilding process.

They threw good money after bad, and had nothing to show for it. Point being, that the only (roughly, with a lot of weird contingencies if you really want to get into the gist of all of this) rational criteria in any decision making process ought to be expected future value. Sometimes, when facing an extremely difficult decision, one has to choose the alternative that will lead to the overall least harm as a direct result of that choice. Doesn't mean you have to be happy about it, or not harbor any regrets, but it has to be a business decision. Make no mistake about it. Rutgers athletics is a business, and as soon as it maintains utmost standards of good-governance and professionalism, we (being, its supports and customers) will all be that much more mutually better off.

Now, the Rutgers athletic department and supporters of its basketball program need to conduct a similar assessment of Fred Hill's recent struggles at the Louis Brown Athletic Center. It's not pretty - Rutgers has 8 conference wins in the past three years, with each season having double digit losses, and have not finished better than a tie for 14th in his tenure. Gary Waters, with his consistent mediocrity, poor recruiting, and off-court judgment concerns were completely unacceptable at a once-proud program located in, per capita, the richest pool of prep basketball players in the country. Now the bottom has really fallen out. There was no excuse for Waters not making a NCAA tournament in five years; now we have to be satisfied with a winning season if all goes according to plan?

True, Hill and Robinson are not analogous in every sense. The 2008 Syracuse football roster was so neglected and devoid of talent and depth that Vince Lombardi himself couldn't have done all that much by that point. (Which sort of plays into my point; this is a cumulative process, and every year wasted is a year that could be used for rebuilding.) GRob was an outsider, and completely out of touch with their program on all levels. If the recruiting services are any barometer, Fred Hill has brought in players like Mike Rosario, Greg Echenique, Jonathan Miller, Hamady N'Diaye, and Dane Miller. He's the ultimate insider, having grown up around the program considering that his father was, and remains, the school's head baseball coach. Everyone outside of a dwindling, deluded cadre of Waters sycophants was rooting for Coach Hill to succeed, myself included. Indeed, if he were to prove me wrong this season, there's nothing that I would be happier to do than eat crow about Freddie. Unfortunately, that's wishful thinking. It's not going to happen.

All the talent in the world doesn't do all that much good if the pieces don't fit, and don't seem to be progressing from year to year. It's great to get a relatively-finished product like Mike Rosario on board, but what about the J.R. Inmans and Corey Chandlers of the world that refuse to thrive? What about taking three full years to land (presumably) a DI-level point guard in James Beatty, who only seemed to end up at Rutgers by default, with all other potential options out of the picture.

And where's that talent now? Bungling assistant Craig Carter's demotion and subsequent re-promotion back to on-court assistant only exacerbated the more recent problem that top local gets like Rosario and Echenique seem like a distant memory at this point. Rutgers is once again a complete non-entity in the NYC metro area. Freddie is now at the point where he has to waste time futilely pursuing Ro Russell proteges. I have no idea whether or not recent commits like international signee Mohamed Hasani or MA's Austin Carroll (admittedly, a player with NJ ties) will pan out or not. However, Hill's entire selling point from the start of his tenure was that he was plugged into the St. Patrick's and St. Benedict's and St. Anthony's of the world, and would be able to keep the top local talent home at their state university.

That clearly is no longer the case, and Coach Hill hasn't compentated for it in other areas. You know, when I listened to Mike Vorkunov's recent podcast with Tom Brennan, I was stricken by how profoundly wrong the latter's apologetics were. Specifically, with the "the Big East is so deep, so talented, it's so difficult to compete in this league) line of reasoning. Because, it's just not true. I understand that the Big East is good. Every game, Rutgers goes through the murderer's row. Ok. That's not the issue at hand. No one's getting on Hill for getting blown out by ranked teams. In the third year of his tenure, Hill lost to the trio of St. Bonaventure, Lehigh, and Binghamton. His teams have lost to the likes of Jackson St., St. Peter's, and Rider in recent years.

We're only a few years removed from the days when ranked teams would be scared to death of playing at the RAC. Now, it's a ghost town, overrun with hair-slicked Villanova fans, who our last A.D. gave a pep talk to in their locker room. If there is one shining black mark on Bob Mulcahy's tenure, is that the basketball program hit absolute rock bottom under his watch. How crazy is it to whiff on Jay Wright and John Beilein, only to make a miserable hire like Gary Waters, who absolutely gutted the program, and only looks relatively good in comparison to Hill's failures. Indeed, Waters even had the nerve to manufacture fictitious interest from Ohio State to extort even more money from the athletic program. Those pressing financial concerns are still eating away at the pr0gram today.

It's no secret that while the RAC is a tough place to play when the team is showing any semblance of life, it is relatively outdated. The team's practice facilities and locker room are NEAC-quality. That's a concern, and will be going forward, but is ultimately secondary to what's really haunting the program at the moment. I'll buy if bad facilities cost top players, and wins against good conference competition. There's still no excuse to lose to Rider and Binghamton.

In contrast, while Greg Schiano's tenure hasn't been 100% smooth, he started with much less, and showed demonstrable progress by year three. Any remaining Hill partisans don't realize how difficult it really is for me to say this. If there was something, ANYTHING I could point to as a reason for optimism, I'd still be in his corner. However, after how the team has looked over the past three years, is there any reason, at all, to think that Echenique and Rosario can maintain an upward trajectory? That's why claiming Rutgers is a young team doesn't fly at any level. Their two most promising players may have been freshmen last year, but I'm reasonably certain that they'll keep looking like freshmen for the rest of their tenure on the banks. There has been nothing in the past three years to indicate otherwise.

What remains is a predictment, one that all parties involved can agree doesn't have any clear, immediate solutions. Yes, there is a possibility that the Scarlet Knights could gel, and suddenly live up to expectations. I'm not exactly holding my breath for it. Hill and staff have shown absolutely no ability to develop talent at this point, and and all those star recruits actually seem to regress under his tutelage. Therefore, there's no choice but to make what will be a very difficult decision. Hill cannot remain in his current capacity as head coach. His tenure is further eating away at a battered program. All Rutgers basketball has seen in recent years has been perpetual rebuilding. No one wants to start from rock bottom again, but there is no better alternative. All preserving the status quo does is prevent the program from moving forward, building from the ground up based on a much stronger foundation.

Cutting the chord certainly has its drawbacks. For one thing, the athletic department's present financial concerns will almost certainly preclude Hill's firing in practice, which is why I have not bothered to discern a detailed list of candidates at this point. However, I'm open to suggestions, beyond the obvious choices like McCaffery from Siena (and the entirely unrealistic pining for Eddie Jordan). In fact, I'm nearly certain that Hill will actually get a fifth season. I think that the new athletic director Tim Pernetti does want to put his stamp on the program, but there's just too much on his plate at this point. He does want to give Hill a chance to prove himself, and any new hire would likely have to be tied in to a round of facilities upgrades to even have a chance at bringing in a decent candidate.

Caveats and obstacles are abound with what I'm advocating. Certainly, Coach Hill did step into a very difficult situation at Rutgers, exacerbated by decades of failed leadership at the top. Perpetual rebuilding does seem to lend itself to fostering a culture of losing, and the perception of a quick trigger (even though a new athletic director would certainly give more leeway to his own hire) could scare away potential hires. There's always the looming fear that Hill will turn around, take a top assistant gig, and mine every top New Jersey player to his new program.Any remaining DI talent may rush out the door. Perhaps so. The bottom line is that those players aren't considering Rutgers any longer. They're not coming regardless.

Fred Hill is a career assistant, and may well have been a successful coach if Rutgers, as part of the brutal Big East, had not been his first gig. Well, there were mistakes abound. Seton Hall wanted him too. In the end, as the face of the program, all the blame (or credit) has to fall on his shoulders, deservedly or not. The fans wants to win Big East games, they want a NCAA tournament bid, and the Rutgers men's basketball team doesn't even have a remote chance of meeting either goal in the near future. Rutgers basketball is stuck in a rut, and there is no way to move forward without a complete change in direction. Hill has to go. Keeping him on for the '09-'10 season is not only a complete waste of time, it will actively sink the program even lower. I can only fear to the depths that we'll fall with a fifth year of this debacle.

I sincerely hope that I am absolutely 100% wrong in this assessment. I fear, and strongly suspect, that I am not.