Two days after losing their first game of the Mountain West Conference tournament, Utah basketball head coach Jim Boylen was fired after four years at the helm and a 69-60 record overall. Thursday's loss to San Diego State left Utah's 2010-2011 record at 13-18 (6-10 MWC).
After Utah's second straight losing season, the decision by Utah Athletic Director Dr. Chris Hill seems like an easy one. However, upon closer inspection, the job done by Boylen and staff, combined with circumstances of the program, including having to replace nine of 15 players on the Ute roster over the course of one off-season creates at best, a gray area less clearly defined.
Undoubtedly there will be two schools of thought on whether Boylen's dismissal was the right move, with both sides having a viable argument to make. At the end of the day, Boylen acknowledges that NCAA basketball is big business and like other big corporations, Division I basketball is driven by bottom line results.
The decision wasn't an easy one for Dr. Hill. The reality of life as a Division I athletic director is very much a juggling act between personal feelings and relationships, bottom-line results, direction of the program in a general sense, and the well-being and academic considerations of the athletes. Sometimes, those four factors align and the decisions are simple to make. Other times, the considerations and consequences are much less clear.
"It's difficult for everybody involved. It's people you get close to, your fellow employees and you have to make tough decisions," explained Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill of the difficult decision to let Boylen go. "Sometimes those decisions are made, or have to be made, not in the best interest of your own personal feelings."
Boylen who is certainly disappointed in not being granted another year, still understands the business end of the situation, and that concrete results just weren't there.
"I'm disappointed that I'm not going to be the head coach here anymore, and I'm very thankful for the opportunity," admitted Boylen. "I think we did some good things here, but at the end of the day you look at wins and losses, and we didn't win enough."
Boylen and his young staff did, in fact, do many good things while at Utah, even if they didn't always equate to results on the court.
"I understand what we did here, and I understand the hurdles we overcame. I know academically and APR-wise, compliance wise, and all the things that are valued, should be valued, we did a great job of," said Boylen. "We didn't win enough in the last two years, and I understand that."
The conundrum of big-time coaching was summarized in that one simple statement by a newly fired D1 coach. Boylen clearly did not strike the right balance between racking up wins and keeping the program clean.
Upon arriving at Utah in 2007, Boylen inherited an unclear and unsettled situation left by former Ute head coach Ray Giacoletti.
"What we did is take over an 11-19 program and built it into a championship program, then we had to rebuild. I was given the five-year contract knowing we had to rebuild some," said Boylen. "Obviously Dr. Hill and President Young weren't happy with our rebuilding to this point."
In 2008, the Utes went 24-10 after clinching a share of the regular season Mountain West Conference title, and beat San Diego State in the tournament championship game for an outright birth to the NCAA tournament. The Utes would fall to the Arizona Wildcats in the first round.
In the next two seasons, Utah would be forced to rebuild, accumulating a 27-35 record. However, the rebuilding process proved to be difficult for Boylen to bring in the needed personnel. Recruiting misses and personnel conflicts with former players such as Marshall Henderson and Carlon Brown didn't help matters.
"We were two players away from having this put together. We always needed the guard, a stronger back up point guard last year and this year," Boylen explained. "The second piece was a power forward, or a healthy Jay Watkins."
As a first-time head coach, an error or two wouldn't be unexpected. However, with a diminishing fanbase and high expectations, learning on the job wasn't a luxury that Boylen had. Additionally he was unable to overcome other built-in restrictions such as budget limitations and battling perceptions about the state of Utah with players outside of the state.
"I've learned a lot of things, but the biggest thing I've learned is that you can't play backward," Boylen emphasized. "You made those decisions in real-time because you felt they were the best for your program. Sometimes that's lost in a lot of other things, but I'm not going to get lost in them. You did what you did, and you thought you had the pieces in place, and they didn't work out. That's life. That's life in the big city."
Boylen further addressed all the complexities of coaching at this level, and finding the right balance, but still made no excuses.
"It's better to understand where you're at than to be understood. I'm not going to stick my chest out and say 'we did this and we did that'. We did good things, and people know what we did," offered Boylen. "And maybe we did enough and maybe we didn't do enough."
Whether it was enough or not will be the topic of heated debate for years to come, or at least until Dr. Hill and the Runnin' Utes secure a head coach who produces the desired results and fills the seats at the Huntsman Center.
What Boylen did do, however, is create a family atmosphere where players grew personally, were secure, and who were successful in the classroom, and graduated; something not every former Ute coach can boast. Under Boylen, according to a May, 2010 press release from the University of Utah Sports Information Department reads as follows:
"The Utah men's basketball team received a Public Recognition Award from the NCAA for its status as a top-performing institution in the NCAA's Academic Performance Program.
Utah placed in the top 10 percent of all Division I teams in the latest multi year Academic Performance Rate (APR), which takes into account student-athletes' eligibility and progress toward graduation, among other criteria. The U. is one of just four institutions from the West region to qualify for such academic recognition.
In three years under head coach Jim Boylen, all 10 eligible seniors have graduated and 10 players have received Academic All-MWC honors. The team has maintained a GPA above 3.0 each year, most recently posting a 3.1 for the Fall 2009 semester."
While Boylen won't hold that fact as an argument for keeping his job, he is still proud of his team's accomplishments, and of what he terms as "his guys."
His guys, who have sung his praises all season long and rallied behind him even if it didn't translate to wins on the court, are passionate about him and the things he has represented to them, especially off the court.
Further illustrating the point about the culture of change Boylen brought, and a testament to his team's commitment to some of the higher priority things were the fact that Boylen's team collectively had a GPA (Grade Point Average) of over 3.0, and a perfect APR score of 1,000.
Through all the adversity, even prior to the Boylen firing, the Runnin' Utes have developed a fierce loyalty toward each other and their staff, as indicated by the team's strong, emotional reaction to the news of his departure, and his willingness to meet with them, and discuss the situation with them. Once again, something not every former Ute coach can boast.
"I really respect the way Coach Boylen handled this. He called a team meeting, he stood up in front of us and told us face-to-face," said Ute center David Foster. "I think it really says something about his character and they type of person he is. Not everyone would do that."
Boylen not only stayed to address his team about the situation, but has also committed to helping his players to decide on their best future course, without guiding them or inserting his personal feelings into the situation.
"I will certainly meet with any of [my guys] and offer any advice I can give them, if asked," clarified Boylen. "I won't guide them, or put my personal feelings into it. For them, it has to be a family decision and what's best for them, not for me. But I'll certainly give them whatever advice is relevant, or just be a sounding board for them if need be."
When asked what was next, and what Boylen would like to see for his players, the first words out of his mouth were concern for his young coaching staff.
"They're such good guys, good coaches. I've got to help get those guys jobs," Boylen exclaimed without hesitation. "That's my first priority."
For his players, Boylen's wish is simple, and personifies what he did build at Utah.
"I want them to win. At basketball, but down the road, whatever they do, I want them to succeed," Boylen said passionately. "I want the best for them and they'll be great at whatever they do, whatever that is. I'll absolutely stay in touch with them. They'll always be my guys."
While the wins didn't come in high enough numbers for Boylen at Utah and the proper balance between academics and standards and on-court success was never struck, Boylen accomplished much while at Utah.
No one will ever know what might have been given another year, but the culture has been changed at Utah. Boylen left the program better than he found it - altered so that his successor won't be greeted with the same challenges or he faced upon accepting the head coaching job at Utah.
For the next candidate, because of Boylen, perhaps finding that balance between winning and having a clean program won't be nearly as difficult and for that, Utah fans should be grateful for his tenure in Salt Lake City.