Six Men, Diddle and a Coach Gets Canned – From the Bird’s Nest
I've had time to think about this.
I've never seen anything remotely close to what I saw at Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Kentucky Thursday night.
Tim Buckley of the Daily Advertiser called me yesterday and asked if I'd been involved in anything like Thursday. The only thing I could think of was the controversy at the end of the South Alabama game a couple of years ago when Randell Daigle hit a buzzer beater that couldn't be reviewed because there was no courtside monitor at the Cajundome.
No, the bizarre ending of Louisiana's victory over Western Kentucky Thursday night was pretty unique.
So was the aftermath.
This is an opinion piece, as are all "From the Bird's Nest" entries. These are my opinions.
I think the best way to explain all of this is to split it into categories:
The Cajuns were just good enough to win. That doesn't mean they played particularly well. Louisiana did shoot over fifty percent in the second half and overtime. And, they made critical plays when they had to. They held WKU under 40 percent shooting in each half. But the Cajuns turned it over twenty times, and some of those turnovers came at critical times. They allowed too many offensive rebounds, although they wound up winning the rebounding battle. And, they could only force nine turnovers against a WKU team that was averaging almost 18 turnovers per game. The performance wasn't close to what we had seen in the previous two Cajuns' games.
THE LAST 21 SECONDS
There are plenty of theories about what happened at the end of overtime, what the "advantage" was and what the aftermath should be. I'm going to try to stick to the facts. Okay, I'm going to use the facts and give opinions.
I didn't know the Cajuns had six men on the court. Neither did Randy Lee or Hal Schmitt, who handle the TV and radio broadcasts for WKU. Neither did Bob Marlin or his staff. And, obviously, neither did the WKU staff.
Marlin, in fact, didn't know about the six men until he got to the locker room.
I knew something wasn't right after the game ended. I saw officials Brad Gaston and Roger Ayers conversing. Seeing officials conversing always makes me nervous. I read the lips of one who said "It's not a reviewable play." Then both officials left the floor. I went into the commercial break and that's when I found out about the six players on the court.
Naturally, the fans at Diddle (and there weren't many of them) were upset. So was AD Ross Bjork, who had something to say to the officials before the conference.
After the broadcast I spoke with Randy and Hal, who said they hadn't noticed the sixth man either.
Now, there's a lot of speculation as to what advantage this gave the Cajuns. And, after watching the replays, my opinion is, none whatsoever. If the Cajuns had run a play where multiple players touched the ball, I would change my opinion. Of course, had that happened, there's a good chance the officials would have seen there were six men on the court. No, I think this one was on the WKU defense, or lack thereof. The bottom line is, Elfrid Payton drove right past three of them and hit a layup. You don't want a guy to score? Play better defense. There were two reporters on ESPN's Around the Horn who shared my opinion yesterday. I think if the last 21 seconds were played five on five, the result would have been the same.
And, there are many who believe had the infraction been caught, that WKU would have been awarded two free throws plus possession. Not true. WKU would have gotten free throws and then the possession would have gone back to where it was when the infraction was spotted: with the Cajuns having the ball with the chance to win the game.
Because of that, I really didn't feel bad after the game. I didn't feel like the Cajuns got away with anything. And, after having to go to Diddle Arena six times in nine years while WKU only visited the Cajundome three times, I surely wasn't going to buy into anyone being predjudiced against Western Kentucky. Hey, Cajuns saw. Cajuns won. Good. Don't really care how it happened.
THE CONFERENCE RESPONSE
Sun Belt Associate Commissioner John McElwain called me about an hour after the conclusion of the game. He told me the Supervisor of Officials, Mike Wood, would review the game tapes and a statement would be made later. The statement came the next day and was handled properly. It said yes, there were six men on the court and the play was not reviewable and the final score would stand. It also said appropriate action would be taken by the conference concerning the officiating and would be handled internally.
Props also to Mike Wood, the Supervisor of Officials for the league. He handled the situation perfectly. Wood, like any Supervisor, is always going to give the benefit of the doubt to his officials, even if he says things that make you go "hmmmmmm." And, he was quick to point out that two of the officials were very experienced guys who also officiate in major conferences. But, in this case, he acknowledged a mistake had been made and that the appropriate action would be taken.
I'm one of those who believes in full disclosure. I'm just of the opinion when you take disciplinary action against grown adults and you don't tell anyone what it is, you leave yourself open to those who would doubt if you're doing anything at all. But I know enough about how the league works to know it won't be a picnic for the officials involved. The "internal" handling of the situation is the way the Belt does business.
As well as I think Wood and McElwain handled their situations, I was equally appalled and embarrassed by the quote attributed to Sun Belt Commissioner Wright Waters:
"This probably happens more than we realize," Waters said. "Coaches are on the court, too. If the official had stopped it then it upsets the flow of the final seconds of the game. But we wish it wouldn't have happened."
Please tell me you're kidding.
No, this does not happen more than we realize. And, if the official had stopped it, he'd have been doing his freaking job.
Waters has gone overboard trying to embellish the high-quality officiating in the Sun Belt in all sports, to the point where he loses credibility. In this case, he issued an almost incoherent response that looks like Commissioner-speak for, "hey, shit happens." To try and downplay something this egregious makes everyone look like a fool, no one moreso than the boss himself.
THE FIRING OF KEN MCDONALD
Last year, WKU, despite returning two all-league players and boasting a good recruiting class, ended the season with a 16-16 record. The team was beset by attrition, bad attitudes and horrible chemistry. Most people believed McDonald was on his way out. WKU does, to their credit, embrace their tradition of not only winning, but graduating players and doing things right. Having players kicked off the team or just transferring aren't acceptable. But, curiously, all WKU did was do a "reset," adjusting McDonald's contract (he took a 100K pay cut) and giving a lukewarm vote of semi-confidence. The reality of keeping McDonald was the incoming recruiting class, made up of highly recruited high school players. Fire McDonald at the end of last season and they might lose some of those prized recruits. WKU did (in my opinion) simply set McDonald up to fail. It didn't matter how highly recruited they were. They were freshmen. They weren't going to win.
There was a lot of speculation McDonald would be fired before conference play began. But a strong showing against Louisville quieted that. The rumblings began again after WKU had to go overtime against a poor ULM club, followed by a blowout loss at home to FIU. I had heard from more than one source losses to the Cajuns and Troy might seal McDonald's fate.
The fate was sealed when WKU offered dollar general admission tickets to Thursday's game against a hated rival and drew only 2134 (only 1800 actual attendance.) The fans had abandoned the program. Average attendance at Diddle this year was the lowest in the history of the storied building. I don't feel the manner in which WKU lost Thursday night had anything to do with the decision. AD Ross Bjork spoke with President Gary Ransdell after the game and the deal was done. Bjork set up a meeting with McDonald for 8:15 the next morning.
According to my sources, McDonald arrived at his offices at Diddle Arena at 7:30. Entry into Diddle is accessed by punching in a code at the entrance. McDonald punched in his code. It didn't work. He couldn't get into the building. The codes had been changed overnight.
Finally he had the meeting with Bjork. It took about fifteen minutes, which is normal for a firing. McDonald went to his office to start cleaning it out. He wasn't there long when security arrived and told him he had to leave. Now. They escorted him out of the building.
Mo Green had been introduced to Michael Corleone.
WKU announced the firing and they did it with the usual politically correct statements from the AD and the President. They also listed how attendance and RPI had fallen dramatically under McDonald. They listed the players who had been recruited under McDonald and how more than half had left the program. They did a good job of justifying the change....that could have been made after last season.
RAY HARPER IS INTRODUCED
Ray Harper is a Kentucky native. He was an ultra-successful head coach at Divison II Kentucky Wesleyan. He also had to leave when it was discovered he was playing ineligible players. It was something that wasn't exclusive to the basketball program, however. He went to an NAIA school in Oklahoma before becoming an assistant to McDonald. There were whispers of things in Oklahoma as well, but the school was never charged with any wrongdoing.
Harper is now the interim coach. And, he said a lot of things right at his introductory press conference. He said he embraced WKU's rich tradition. And, when asked about his chances to get the permanent job, he said he wasn't concerned with that. He said there were 57 days until the conference tournament and that was his focus.
Harper knows he's in an audition, however. And make no mistake, he wants the job.
The Cajuns are 2-0 in conference play heading into play tonight against a very good team from Middle Tennessee. The Hilltoppers are 1-2 and will have a much better crowd later today when Troy comes to town. They have a good chance to win that game and Topper fans will be smiling.
Three Sun Belt officials will face action from the league. My guess is they will all be suspended for a certain amount of games. In probability, no one will get fired and that will be appropriate. These are respected officials (well, two of them are) and no one needs to lose a job.
But no one is going to forget this one. We'll be talking about it for years.
Something interesting always happens when the Cajuns win at Diddle.