Three years into any college basketball coaching tenure, questions naturally arise about the direction of a program and whether the person in charge is properly equipped for the job. When the program in question is one that hasn't reached the NCAA tournament since 1977, those questions become especially pressing.
A little more than three years ago, Duquesne made the oft-discussed and hotly-debated decision to fire Ron Everhart -- whose 99-89 record in six years with the Dukes made him the first coach since 1982 to leave the school with a winning record -- and replace him with Jim Ferry, who has gone 33-58 in three years with the Dukes, the 13th-worst three-year mark in program history.
Have the past three seasons been an inevitably rough transitional period needed before moving the program in a different, more successful direction? Or has it been a regressive, irrevocable step for a program that has been so long accustomed to mediocrity (or worse)?
It's a nuanced issue, so in a search for some answers and perspective from the two people most closely associated with the Dukes' past three seasons, I spoke with Ferry and athletic director Greg Amodio to discuss where the program has been and where it currently stands.
THE DECISION TO MAKE A CHANGE
Amodio's decision to fire Everhart after the 2011-12 season is the proverbial elephant in the room when addressing Duquesne's recent history. To some, it was a tough but necessary move for a program tired of falling just shy of the NCAA tournament. To others, it was a brash, unreasonable choice to part ways with the man responsible for the school's closest brush with relevancy in decades.
Regardless of how you view it, that decision led to where we are today. Not surprisingly, Amodio stood behind the move when asked if there's a part of him that would do things differently if he got the chance to do so.
“No, I don’t second guess that decision," he said. "It was something we needed to do at the time to move our program forward. We just have to continue to advance where we are and with the individuals we have in the program, from the coaching staff to the student-athletes who are working hard every day, to try to make Duquesne basketball stronger and try to take it to the next level.”
THE STATE OF THE PROGRAM WHEN FERRY TOOK OVER
In Everhart's final year at Duquesne, the Dukes finished 16-15, their fifth-consecutive non-losing season (for reference, they had one such season in the 21 years prior to that run). Much of that team's core, however, left after that season, a group of five players that included former Atlantic 10 rookie of the year T.J. McConnell.
“The cupboard was pretty bare," Ferry said. "Considering where we started from, it was almost like having to start a program over again. We really had to grind through that first year and in year two was our first true recruiting class, where we could first start to rebuild the program. I think after the first few years, we’ve finally solidified the program."
Ferry's aforementioned first team limped its way to an 8-22 finish, an unimpressive mark created by not only an overall lack of talent, but also some problems that went beyond the court.
Partially due to the slew of departures in 2012, the program was in serious trouble with the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate (APR), a team-based metric measuring the retention and eligibility of a program’s athletes. The situation had gotten so dire, according to Amodio, that the team couldn’t have one player with under a 2.6 grade point average leave or else the program would face sanctions, including a potential ban from the A-10 tournament. At the time Ferry was hired, two scholarship players, Martins Abele and Mamadou Datt, were ineligible, according to a source close to the program.
That meant a chunk of Ferry’s first year was spent on getting students to a certain academic level before any wholesale changes could be made.
"In some ways, that was a bit of a lost year in regards to being able to establish the tone he wanted established and bringing in the players that made more sense for the way he wanted to play and the style he wanted to instill into the program,” Amodio said.
COMPARISONS TO LIU
Ferry was offered the Duquesne job based on the work he did at LIU Brooklyn, a stint highlighted by back-to-back appearances in the NCAA tournament in 2011 and 2012. When he arrived at the school in 2002, though, the situation was drastically different. The Blackbirds were one of the worst teams in one of Division I’s weakest conferences, coming off a 5-22 campaign that was their 15th non-winning season in the past 17 years. Off the court, things were so tenuous that players were fighting with each other on the bench and once Ferry took over, he and other coaches would have to walk players to class to make sure they went.
In Ferry's first three seasons at LIU, he went 33-53, a remarkably similar mark to his overall record thus far at Duquesne. When asked about it, he said he could see similarities between what he inherited at LIU and what he did at Duquesne.
"We’re building this program very similar to LIU," Ferry said. "I took over a program that won four or five games. You have to do it the right way. You have to bring in the right character kids. You have to bring in the right kids that fit your program. And we’re doing that.
"I think there are a lot of comparisons. We’ve had some very good wins as we’re building this program and moving forward. We’re heading into year four and this is the foundation we get to build on. Now, we get to recruit to this program. We get to recruit to this team, on top of these guys we have coming back. And that’s when you start to move the program forward.”
LIU's first NCAA tournament appearance under Ferry didn't come until his ninth season, which was also when it won at least 20 games for the first time in his tenure. While he doesn’t anticipate it taking that long to happen for the Dukes, Ferry's building process is a gradual one that requires a certain level of patience.
“He will be successful at Duquesne and he’ll be successful anywhere he goes,” said former LIU athletic director John Suarez. “He has the work ethic. He doesn’t sell his soul, where I see other coaches sometimes bring in questionable kids or all of a sudden, they have five AAU coaches as their assistants. Jimmy will never do that stuff. He has high ethics and high morals. That’s maybe why it takes him a little longer.”
THE FACILITY QUESTION
Programs mired in decade-long ruts are typically in that position because of institutional apathy or an overall lack of investment. As far as the investment angle goes, Duquesne doesn't fit neatly into it. In the 2013-14 academic year, according to figures from the Office of Postsecondary Education, Duquesne spent $3.48 million on men's basketball, ranking it 100th in Division I and ahead of five of its A-10 counterparts, including more successful programs like George Washington, Davidson and La Salle.
But while Duquesne's spending places them in the middle of the A-10, it is also significantly behind the conference's upper-tier teams like VCU ($5.38 million), Dayton ($4.91 million) and Richmond ($4.2 million). The differences are perhaps most glaring from a facility standpoint. The Palumbo Center is a nice venue that has received $1.8 million in upgrades in the past five years -- including a new video scoreboard and chairback seats -- but that pales in comparison to what other A-10 schools have spent on their own facility upgrades.
Here's a rundown of some examples:
** UMass sunk $22 million into its John Francis Kennedy Champions Center, which will be the new home of the program's daily operations. It houses practice courts, locker rooms and weight rooms, among other things. Half of that $22 million investment came from a donation from the facility's namesake.
** VCU announced last year that it would begin work on a $25 million practice facility, which will include practice courts, locker rooms, film rooms, as well as strength and conditioning facilities.
** Dayton completed a $7.1 million renovation to the Cronin Athletic Center a few years ago.
** Richmond's home arena, the Robins Center, underwent a $17 million facelift in 2014.
** George Washington's Charles Smith Center received $10 million worth of upgrades between 2008 and 2011. It's worth noting the $10 million came from a donation from the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation and the Charles E. Smith Family Foundation, as well as Robert and Arlene Kogod.
** Davidson has broken ground on the $13.3 million Harry L. Vance Athletic Center, which will contain practice courts, locker and team rooms, along with administrative offices.
Duquesne has undoubtedly put money into improving its facilities. There's a growing sense around the program, however, that there's an ongoing arms race in the A-10 and that the Dukes' upgrades fall well short of their counterparts'.
Amodio said that, as of now, there are no firm plans on future facility improvements or projects.
"I can’t say there are any plans definitively on the board as we sit here right now, but we’re always in conversations about what we can do, what’s in the best interest of Duquesne University and our men’s basketball program," he said.
Even as certain problems linger, Ferry is confident about where he has the program, as are others like Suarez who know the Duquesne coach well.
When Ferry describes his building process, the one he used at LIU and the one he has implemented at Duquesne, he emphasizes building a program rather than just a team. To him, the difference between the two is that while a successful individual team can be constructed quicker, a strong program provides a sturdier foundation and more long-term success.
Part of that distinction centers around getting a class of players to come through the program and understand the culture and the expectations before passing it down to the next generation of players and so on. In many ways, it’s a way for players to police themselves and uphold a certain standard.
With fourth-year players like Derrick Colter and Jeremiah Jones – along with fellow senior Micah Mason – highlighting a group of 12 returning players, Ferry is hoping next season can be the most tangible step forward in his larger plan for making Duquesne relevant.
“I have a formula,” he said. “It has worked everywhere I’ve been and it will work here. It just takes a little bit of time to get it right.
“There have been a lot of different coaches, a lot of different ADs and a lot of different presidents, and that hasn’t been the formula. The formula is to find a plan and grind it out and let the process happen.”
Amodio echoes that sentiment.
"I think there’s a clear plan in place," he said. "The student-athletes we have here are bought in to what we’re trying to get done. It’s about continuing to make the student-athletes better who are here, continuing to find really good recruits who can come in and work within the system and accentuate what we’re trying to get done.
"If we continue to do those things in a positive way, we’ll continue to take steps forward.”
Below are some select excerpts from my conversations with both Ferry and Amodio.
Are things where you thought you would have them after year three?
“I thought it was going to take some time to reestablish it. I was a little disappointed and thought that we could have done better this year. But when you go back and look at it, we had a lot of close losses and we had so many new guys in the program. You can’t force-feed that stuff. You have to do it the right way. You’ve got to build a program and you have to take the proper steps. I think we’re right where I thought we would be. By year three, we would have a foundation to build on and that’s exactly what we have right now.”
You talk a lot about building things the right way. How would you describe your building process? What are some of the main facets of it?
“It starts first with the quality of people. You’ve got to recruit student-athletes that have the same passion as I do. You’ve got to recruit the ones that have great passion to be good people in communities, to be good students and having a great passion for basketball. We have a gym rat mentality in our program. Our guys are in the gym all the time and when you have guys like that, you’re going to have success. Our younger guys – the Derrick Colters, the Micahs, the Jeremiahs – have now been in the program for three years. Now the foundation is built for leadership. Guys understand what’s expected and it’s not just the coach saying it; it goes through the upperclassmen and they teach the younger guys how to do things as well. We’re just not going to quick fix it with junior college guys and we’re certainly not going to cheat. We’re doing it the right way and build the program. I’m not trying to build a team; I’m trying to establish a program and that’s how you do it. Once you have a group that gets old, well now you have things to be passed down and now you have a program. Whether it’s the defensive philosophy or the sayings in the locker room or the vocabulary we use or the drills, all of that stuff has to be laid out and now we’ve finally gotten to that stage where we have older guys who can lay it out for the younger guys.”
Are there different ways to build and be successful? Because I think you could look at somewhere like Rhode Island where Dan Hurley has been there three years and they’re already up to 20 wins. Are there different ways to do it?
“Those are totally different jobs. They have some of the top-of-the-line facilities in our conference. Jimmy Baron had won 20 games like five times in his tenure there. They’ve gone to the NCAA tournament multiple times in recent years. They’re totally different jobs. You can’t compare our job to that job. Go look at their facilities, go look at their NCAA tournament appearances, go look at their previous records before Danny got there. It was significantly different than it was here. We haven’t been to the tournament since 1977. Rhode Island had a tradition of going to the Elite Eight with Lamar Odom and all of those guys. That’s a tough comparison. Every job’s different. That’s all I look at is our job. I look at our job. I look at what our strengths are as a university and a basketball program, what our weaknesses are, what our comparisons are, who are we competing against? You have to look at all of that and take all of that into consideration as you build a program. All I did for my first two years here when we played away games was walk around campuses. I walked around facilities. I checked out everyone’s arena that we played in. What do they have that we don’t have? What do we have that they don’t have? I tried to compare them so we could understand what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are and, most importantly, what is our competition doing. That’s the tone for how you build your program. Your program isn’t just your team. Your program is everything. Your program is your university. It’s how your guys act, what you do off campus, what you do on campus, how you speak and what you present. Your program is everything. It’s more than just a team and that’s what we’re trying to build here. We’re trying to build a program, we’re trying to build a reputation and a winning tradition, which is hard to do. Our winning tradition is so far back and we’re trying to start that now. That’s being first-class people and running a first-class program. That’s what we’re trying to establish. You’ll see that everywhere I went. You look at LIU – I had to establish a program and we won two championships in a row and then I left. I didn’t leave right after I won my first championship. I went back and we won a second championship. Then I left the program in great hands, where I gave it to my assistant coach and he won another championship and the program was established. It was the same at Adelphi. At Adelphi, we were No. 1in the country. We were 31-1, we went to the Elite Eight and I came back and did it again. I didn’t run out and take another job. I went back and did it again. We went 24 and whatever and were No. 4 in the country. We went to the Elite Eight again, then I left the program for someone else and the program was an established program. I think that’s what I’ve done and I think that’s one of the reasons Duquesne made the hire it made.”
I was looking back at some of the defensive efficiency numbers from your time at Duquesne and your time at LIU, and only once in that time did your teams rank in the top 100 in defensive efficiency. Some people may look at that and say ‘Hey, his teams inherently struggle on the defensive end.’ What would you say to that?
“We’re a high-tempo, high-possession team. So when you play offense with these many possessions, you’re giving the other team possessions, as well. When you look at my LIU teams, we were significantly better at 3-point defensive field goal percentage and we outrebounded our opponents. You can look at statistics any way you want and you can choose the ones you want. But at LIU, we were holding teams to 29 percent from 3 and we outrebounded our opponents. Our struggles here have been guarding the 3-point line, both in man and in zone. If you also look at those teams, we were always one of the highest offensive teams. We were one of the highest offensive teams in getting fouled. It all kind of plays in together. We have to improve defensively. That’s been the biggest challenge here. The biggest challenge here that I see has been our length. But again, it also goes back to the program we inherited. There weren’t any Atlantic 10 players in our program. You’ve got to build it the right way. We’re a little bit small now, but I think we’re starting to improve our length and improve our athleticism to beat Atlantic 10 type of teams.”
When you first took over this job, did anyone in that process ever tell you that you were crazy for doing this?
“I had several people…I would say about four or five guys who I’m friends with in the business say that I shouldn’t do it. ‘Don’t take the job. They’ve never won there.’ But I also had those same comments said to me when I took the LIU job, which was very similar. ‘What are you, crazy? It’s the worst job in America.’ When I went to LIU, that’s what people were telling me. I had a lot of people tell me not to take this job, that they’ve never won and they don’t understand what it takes to win there. When I met Greg and I met Dr. Dougherty and we spoke, I felt like there was an understanding and a commitment and that they wanted to do things the right way. I felt that it was a great challenge. I’ve done it before. I looked at it as a challenge to do it again at a great school in a great conference in a great city.”
Is this program about where you thought it would be after Jim’s third year?
“Yeah. We would have liked to have seen some more positive results this year, clearly. We dropped some games early in the non-conference that were less-than-desirable and we lost some really, really close games in the A-10 season, some where we had pretty good leads and were just not able to hold on to them. Sometimes, it’s not about the number of losses. In some cases, it’s how you lose and some of those losses were clearly agonizing for the staff, the student-athletes and our fan base. They were tough to deal with. But, ideally, we can continue to grow from those experiences. You saw that. You saw us continue to get better as the year went on, playing our best basketball down the stretch. I think we were 5-5 in the last 10 games and playing some of our best basketball. Now the key is can you take that experience of those loss 10 games where you were playing some solid ball, continue to build on those and turn those into additional positive outcomes going into next season?”
When Jim interviewed for the job, did he provide some kind of timeline as to when he thought he’d start to get things turned around?
“In terms of the program needing to move in a different direction, I thought it would take at least until year three for us to go ahead and start to move in a direction we wanted to see the program move. Last year was that third year. You can talk about what transpired in year one in regards to the APR and if that limited us in some ways. Yeah, I’m sure in some ways it did. But the bottom line is you have to have performance that comes on the floor. We lost a lot of close games, but you don’t get any style points for close ones. You have to win those games. I think we learned from what we were involved in early on with some tough losses and then in the conference with some very, very close losses, and we got better as the year went on. The key is to take those experiences and build on them for this year and be in a position to take advantage of winning those close games."
As someone who has been in the A-10 for a little while, how do you feel like Duquesne’s facilities compare to others schools’? Do you feel like they’re up to snuff?
“In my 10 years here, we’ve made some significant strides with regards to upgrading our facilities, whether it be our offices, our locker rooms, some of the improvements we’ve made to the main bowl in Palumbo, the practice facility, the film room. We’ve made investments as an institution. The university has stepped up with dollars, donors have stepped up with dollars. When I got here, the men’s basketball budget was at about $1.5 million. Now, the men’s basketball budget is up around $3.5 million. Clearly, we’ve made strides and we’ve put additional pieces in place. The problem is we’re in an environment where people are continuing to invest in basketball, especially in the Atlantic 10, which is a basketball conference. We’ve been in a situation in Jim’s first two years here where we took five teams and six teams to the NCAA tournament. You could sit there and say that Jim’s first two years were arguably the greatest two years in terms of postseason success in the history of the Atlantic 10. That’s what you want to be involved in. You want to be in a highly respected and competitive basketball conference. But at the same time, it’s a tough stretch night in and night out to play a highly competitive schedule. We’re always looking for ways we can put more assets in place, working with the university administration to look at broad-based enhancements to the program, whether they be operating-wise or with facilities. We’re always taking a look at our facility situation and trying to improve it.”
When you evaluate a coach, do you have an internal timeline? Like would you start to get worried if there isn’t progress by the third or fourth year of a coaching tenure?
“I think it’s so situational. It’s really hard to make those broad-based assessments because you don’t know what can happen during the course of a year. You can be in an unfortunate situation where you can lose two of your starters to injury and all of a sudden, that has a significant effect and takes a significant toll on your ability to have positive performance outcomes. It’s hard to have that crystal ball of too far down the line. I think you have to look at it in the snapshot that you’re dealing with. We’re looking at it in terms of assessing this past year. What did we do well? What do we need to get better at? How do we put the assets in place to help, if it’s an asset-based issue? Or is it just about continuing to develop our younger players, finding some other components and other individuals out there, either through high school recruits or junior college players or transfers, who clearly fit into the overall plan and the overall mindset of the team you’re trying to put together. You’ve got to have people who come in who understand or are willing to buy in to the system that’s in place because if you have everybody moving in the same direction, you have a much greater chance to be successful than if you’ve got a lot of individuals making up your team. Jim and his staff have done a great job of having our student-athletes understand what the level of expectations is, how we conduct ourselves and what you need to do and how hard you need to work to gain minutes in this program. If you do all of those things in a positive direction, we’ll have significantly better performance outcomes.”