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March 16, 2010, 02:23 AM ET
“Lickliter Eyes Future, Likes What He Sees”

by John Gasaway

The high-water mark of Iowa basketball in recent years is a March Madness highlight for the opposing team. Northwestern State beat the Hawkeyes in the first round in 2006, thanks to Jermaine Wallace hitting a buzzer-beater from the corner. “Stun” was definitely appropriate in this instance.

To the nation it’s remembered simply as a spectacular play by a heavy underdog from the Southland (”Cinderella has come to Auburn Hills!“), but to Iowa fans it represented the blindingly sudden death of a tournament run they’d been anticipating for the better part of three seasons. Featuring in-staters Greg Brunner, Jeff Horner, and Adam Haluska, as well as Texas import Erek Hansen, that was a very good Hawkeye team, one that played outstanding defense. The three seed Iowa secured in the tournament that year was the highest of any Hawkeye team since 1987. But when Wallace hit his shot, Brunner, Horner, and Hansen came to the end of their eligibility.

Steve Alford lingered one more year after Death by Wallace, but by that time the coach-school relationship had, for whatever reason, taken on some decided George and Martha coloring. When the avuncular, self-effacing, and earnest Todd Lickliter replaced Alford on April 3, 2007, the sense of almost physical relief in Iowa City was palpable. For a while.

So when I heard yesterday that Lickliter had been fired as Iowa’s head coach, I remembered that post-Alford sense of renewal, but I also thought of the following bit about the Hawkeyes from our book this year:

Then came what I trust Hawkeye fans refer to as the Friday Night Massacre: March 27, 2009. On that day no fewer than four Iowa players made plain their intention to go elsewhere:

  • Starting guard and leading scorer Jake Kelly, who tragically lost his mother in a plane crash, announced he would leave Iowa to be closer to his home in Carmel, Indiana. He ended up at Indiana State.
  • Kelly’s fellow starting guard, Jeff Peterson, also declared that he would depart. Specifically citing the Hawkeyes’ slow tempo as a factor in his decision, Peterson eventually elected to transfer to Arkansas.
  • Junior college transfer Jermain Davis, who started 11 games for the Hawkeyes in 2008-09, announced he would transfer yet again, this time to Division II Minnesota State. “The style that we play is just so slow,” Davis was quoted as saying on his way out the door.
  • Lastly, junior college transfer David Palmer declared that he too would leave Iowa. He ended up at Division II Southern Indiana.

The departure of these four players was announced in an official Iowa athletic department release under the headline, ”Lickliter Eyes Future, Likes What He Sees.”

In the world as seen through D-I men’s basketball web sites, everything’s great all the time, even for the winless teams. Every loss is a tough loss, the kids are working hard, the coaches are teaching, and better days lie just ahead. Always.

And I’m not mocking that, necessarily. Speaking strictly as an English major, if there’s a better idea for the correct tone of voice for such sites I’d like to hear it. One thing I do know. First-person sincerity (”Boy, that freshman Jones that I recruited is a huge disappointment!”) would raise more issues than it would solve. So third-person “Up With People!” fatuousness remains the default.

But the Pravda tone does mean, inevitably, you’ll get blatant time-delay ironies like ”Lickliter Eyes Future, Likes What He Sees.” Lickliter was hired three years ago, at the same time as John Beilein at Michigan and Tubby Smith at Minnesota. The coach was coming off a tremendous season at Butler, one where the Bulldogs had lost by eight to defending and eventual repeat national champion Florida in the Sweet 16. That Butler team led the nation in taking care of the basketball, giving it away on just 15.5 percent of their possessions. And they very nearly led the nation in the slowness of their pace. Lickliter was hired to win that same way in Iowa City.

He got the pace he wanted, of course, but at Iowa his teams always turned the ball over more than one in every five times, mostly because he had a revolving cast of characters. Certain major-conference programs–a disproportionate number of which for some reason are located between the Mississippi and the Rockies–can reach a point where their progress or regression can be measured most saliently in pure human-resources terms like retention and turnover. Iowa under Lickliter set that standard.

The Lickliter hire in 2007 may not have been an out-of-the-park coup, but it was certainly acknowledged as a very good hire at the time. And while there are of course challenges inherent to the position (one NCAA three-seed in the past 23 years, low attendance, etc.), a three-season record of 38-58, even in a challenging position, is not what was expected by Lickliter, by Iowa, or by us. Meaning this was a surprise, possibly even a large one. But large surprises that are revealed this gradually never afford us the opportunity to be startled.  

Maybe those outlandish salaries don’t really owe their existence to coaches being a superior strain of exceedingly rare and sagacious human after all. Maybe those dollars represent hush money for the consciences of athletic directors. If I pay this guy $2.5 million, that must mean this guy represents a superior strain of exceedingly rare and sagacious human, right? But if I pay him $30K, he’ll coach like a $30K schlub.

It might be that large salaries adhere to the positions–D-I coaches or NFL quarterbacks–where totemic visibility and an unusual degree of unpredictability intersect. If I can ratchet down that unpredictability for coaching hires, as has been done in large though not of course total measure for draft picks, I can truly eye the future, like what I see.  

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