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Where do we go from here?

Fresno State must find a new coach, and face life without Rodney Terry

NCAA Basketball: Fresno State at Air Force Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Honestly, I can’t say that I blame the guy. Rodney Terry was the coach at Fresno State for 8 years, won more than 20 games in 4 of those seasons, and was still getting zero fan backing or support. So, when a chance to rebuild another program that actually seems to care about its basketball program came up in UTEP, he jumped at the chance. If I was in his shoes, I probably would have done the same thing. There’s definitely something to be said for loyalty to a program, but 8 years is a long run in mid-major land, especially if you’re successful. And to go that long still without fan support says a lot more about the culture of the town and fanbase than it says about the coach.

If you haven’t inferred by now, I’m really unhappy losing Rodney Terry. After the lost decade that Fresno State went through after Jerry Tarkanian got us NCAA-nuked, Terry was a steady ship in a storm. Rebuilt the program to respectability, and by year 5, was winning 20 games a year. Even won the conference tournament in 2016 and made the NCAA tournament. Also made it all the way to the final game of the CBI in 2014, then the NIT in 2017. For a whole lot of mid-major programs, that’s a great amount of success, and something that is to be commended. And Terry was commended by the university with a contract extension through the 2020 season.

With a winning record, and post-season appearances, you’d think that fans would begin showing up to the cavernous Save Mart Center like they used to in the Selland Arena days, but we all knew that was too much to ask of Fresno State fans. Much has been written about the aging of the fanbase, and the dwindling attendance at basketball games. As of 2017, Fresno State averaged a scant 6,500 fans at basketball games, and we all know those numbers don’t actually count the butts in seats at the games.

For comparison’s sake, I looked back to 2001’s average attendance at the peak of Tark-mania in Fresno. Those games at the decrepit Selland Arena averaged 9,300 per game, and even the terrible Steve Cleveland years managed to peak out at 11,700 per game in 2007. What happened in that ensuing decade was a whole lot of losing under Cleveland, then a whole lot of winning under Terry. Rodney Terry leaves Fresno State with the 3rd most wins all time at the school, only behind the aforementioned Tarkanian, and Fresno State legend Boyd Grant.

The guy won games, he kept the program clean, he didn’t get in trouble, so what’s missing? Did he need to have players robbing people with samurai swords to build attendance? Did he need to get massive sanctions leveled to get attendance up? Sure, they could have spent a lot more money bringing in big name programs to the SMC, but even those didn’t seem to move the needle much. A home game against Oregon this year brought in 9,250 fans, and that was after a massive media campaign and reduced ticket prices. The only game to top it in attendance this year was Senior Night against Wyoming, and that was again preceded by a massive media campaign starring Derek Carr himself to get people to come out.

I’ll be among the first to admit that the non-conference scheduling was not great during his tenure, and there was reports of Terry turning down bigger names in order to secure home games against lesser opponents. That will certainly hurt a program, especially a mid-major one trying to navigate the tough road to the post-season. I suppose the thought process was to try to secure more wins rather than go for high-profile money games in the off-chance that you win them. But isn’t that the whole reason we all love college basketball, just on that crazy 1,000 to 1 shot that the little guy can knock off a blue-blood through a night of hot shooting? Seems like that strategy ended up paying slight dividends, since 3 of his 4 20 win seasons resulted in post-season berths, but only one of those runs (2014) resulted in anything more than a 1st round exit.

I’m sure everyone around the Valley wishes Rodney Terry nothing but the best at his new job at UTEP, but I think a large contingent is going to be bitten hard by their desire to see him gone. He recruited very well for the program, kept us clean, and kept us in contention every year. The shockwaves are already starting to be felt, as star recruit Isaac Likekile has already asked to be released from his LOI, leaving Fresno State even thinner on a team that was probably going to take a step back anyway next season. While Byron Jones will try to carry the team until another coach can be found, this is a really tenuous situation for a Bulldogs team that can’t afford to take any steps backwards. UNM is getting stronger, UNLV is going to be back to a power, CSU and USU will have new coaches next year, SDSU will be better under Deutcher in Year 2, and there’s still Boise State and Nevada sitting at the top of the pile. Fresno State needs to land the dismount on this hire well, or they’re in serious danger of dropping to the bottom of what’s already a mediocre mid-major league. The Steve Cleveland era wasn’t that long ago, and some of us remember sitting through those games with Paul George on the court for an 11 win team.

So, who to hire? A national search is already underway, and of course names are flying. There’s the local candidates being bandied about in Vance Wahlberg and Melvin Ely. One is a 61 year old high school coach that only has a year and a half of college coaching experience at Pepperdine, and the other has no college coaching experience at all. But they’re alums of Fresno State, so of course their names come up first. While Fresno State was able to land a homerun hire in Jeff Tedford, going back to the exact same alum only well is really dangerous. They should be looking for the best available coach, not just the most local alum that’s been moderately successful. If I had to throw a name out there, I’d take a hard look at Rod Barnes and Joe Pasternack. Barnes has been doing a fantastic job at CSU Bakersfield, making the NCAA tournament twice, and building that program into a dominant force in the WAC. Pasternack is a bit newer to the game, just completing his first year with UC Santa Barbara. But in one year there, he led the Gauchos to a 23-9 record, and wins against tournament teams Montana and CSU Fullerton. Before taking over UCSB, he also spent 4 seasons as Associate Head Coach at Arizona under Sean Miller. That’s a solid CV for your next coach.

Of course, I’m just a humble sports blogger, so what do I know? Steve Robertello and the search firm will do their thing, but maybe one of my suggestions will work out. Either way, I have a feeling Fresno State will end up missing Rodney Terry, and the fans that wanted him gone because of outsize expectations and entitlement will be regretting their attitude in the near future. Hopefully not, and hopefully our next coach takes this program to a whole new level of success. I’d be incredibly happy to see that happen. Maybe then we can stop lionizing Jerry Tarkanian. Whomever it is that gets the job, I’ll be going to games, and supporting the team. Someone has to fill that Save Mart Center