Different coaches, same results at Army

The year was 1990. Manuel Noriega surrendered in Panama and the Communists fell out of power in Yugoslavia and the USSR. U.S. Military might was on a roll, everywhere, it seemed, but in West Point.

There, along the banks of the Hudson River, winters are as gray as the uniforms. There was a time when Army basketball brightened things a little during the West Point winter. That was a long time ago, though.

In 1990 Army was five years into its current streak of 19 straight losing seasons. Coach Leo Wothke was in his eighth season, just one of which was above .500. It was time for a change. A switch to a new, non-scholarship conference was in the works. New coach, new approach in a new league.

To shepard the program into the future, Army reached into its past, hiring Tom Miller, a former player from the Bobby Knight era who had won at Colgate and done OK at Colorado. Miller's alumnus status was supposedly the biggest factor in Miller getting the job over Don Devoe, another Knight protege who interviewed for the job.

Four coaches in 14 seasons later, Army still has not had a .500 season. Devoe, of course, ended up getting the Navy job in 1993 and went on to win 184 games, including 93 in the league. In the process, Devoe's teams won three league titles and played in the tournament finals three other times.

Even with Miller's three-season head start, Army's gang of four combined can't come close to matching Devoe. Since joining the league, Army has won two tournament games. The Cadets have only won 41 regular season league games in that span, never finishing in the upper division of the standings. In 11 of those seasons, Army has finished next-to-last or dead last in the league.

This year's team, which has yet to win a game (sorry Army fans, we only consider D-I games here, beating NY Vo-Tech and the Sea Scouts doesn't count), is threatening to become coach Jim Crews' second squad to go winless in Patriot League play, something the Cadets have only done once (2002-03) before, despite a record of Patriot League futility.

It takes some doing to have Army's worst career conference games coaching record. Crews has had plenty of competition. When Crews took the job, he had to figure no way he could do worse than Miller, who was 7-33 (.175) conference play during his three seasons at Army (and 14-68 overall). But here he is, in the middle of his third season, with a 3-28 conference record, 13-56 overall, with, only two games against Navy looking like possibilities for a W (a split would even be more realistic, and still optimistic).

Miller's teams, by the way, never played the Coast Guard Academy, or any D-3s for that matter. So even if Crews finishes his third season with 14 or 15 wins, he still should rank below Miller on the all-time list.

We are not saying Crews is a bad coach. His track record at Evansville is proof of that. Miller's pre-West Point record does the same for him. We're just pointing out how hard it has been, even for guys who have done the job in better conferences, to win at Army.

Two other guys have coached Army since it joined the league, Pat Harris and Dino Gaudio. They rank 15th and 16th on the league's career winning percentage list. That's out of 22 guys who have coached in the league. Throw out Billy Lange, who deserves more than one season at Navy before even being included, and you are left with only guys like John Leone, Sal Mentesana and Pete Hermann to keep you company at the bottom of that list.

That is not bad company if you're going out for a burger and a beer. Hermann was only around the league one year, so we never talked to him much. But Mentesana and Leone were both good guys. They just didn't win a lot of games.

You could make the argument that Gaudio is one of those guys that are great assistants, but not quite cut out to be a head coach. Things certainly didn't work out for him when he took the Loyola, Md. job. Then again, both were tough places to win, and you could argue Gaudio's teams were the best of the not-so-great bunch the Cadets have fielded in the PL.

Out of the four coaches Army has had since entering the league, Gaudio is the one who did not fit the mold. Crews, Harris and Miller all are part of the Bobby Knight extended family. Crews and Miller were Knight assistants, Harris a former Army player under the legendary Coach K (we shouldn't have to tell you this, but that is K as in Krzyzewski, who played for Knight a West Point and was an assistant to Knight at Indiana).

Gaudio is also the only one who left of his own accord. By all accounts, Dino started looking for the exit within minutes of taking the job. Gaudio would have left after one season, but he turned down an offer from Loyola because he had a "moral commitment" to stay longer than one season (at Army).

But Dino had no plans to stick around for long. Army was a stepping stone for Gaudio, who dreamt of stages more fitting his stylish wardrobe. His style and approach were ill-suited for the academy.

Pat Harris, who succeeded Gaudio, was a better fit. He was a West Point man, who viewed the academy job as a destination, not a vehicle. But after five losing seasons, Harris' contract was not renewed.

According to Times Herald-Record columnist Kevin Gleason:
Harris inherited a mess left by Dino Gaudio, a program without direction, and needed more than five years to clean the house.
The mess part is debatable. Gaudio is still the only coach to guide the Cadets to a win in the Patriot League Tournament. He did it twice, actually.

Either way you look at it, there's no disputing the program was still in bad shape when Harris took over.

Five-year plans might make sense a lot of places. But a lot of folks who know more about Army's program than we do will tell you it will take more time at the academy, which little foundation to build upon. Maybe, maybe not. All we know is Harris was fired after winning 12 games his last season, including six in the league, the most conference wins since they joined the Patriot. Take away six over D-3 teams, and Army has only won seven games, total, in two-plus seasons since.

So now the Army message boards are filled with posts calling for Crews to head down the same path already blazed by Miller and Harris.

Firing Crews, though, would seem hasty and premature, despite the Cadets' horrid record with him at the helm. Here is why: There is no doubt Crews can coach. Like we said before, his track record speaks for itself. But coaching at Army is different. Not on the floor so much as off of it. It takes a year or two just to adjust to the environment.

We interviewed George Chaump for a local magazine article last year. Chaump, who once coached Navy's football team, is now coaching Harrisburg High School. They haven't won any championships yet, but Chaump has them headed in the right direction.

That is no surprise. Chaump has been a winner everywhere he has coached-- except at Navy. Ask him about his Annapolis experience, Chaump will tell you, he would have won there, too, if he'd had more time. It took him a few seasons to figure out how to recruit at a service academy, Chaump says. He didn't get to stay long enough to use what he had learned.

Crews might be a similar situation. It appears he has a couple kids stashed at Army's prep school who ought to be able to improve Army's roster next season. It will take more than one or two recruiting years, though, to see much difference in the record.

It might be hard for Army's A.D. to defend Crews if the Cadets don't win a single D-I game. Especially since Crews has beaten Navy only once in four games. Lose to the Mids twice this season, and the ice under Crews will be thinner than Jimmy Sewell.

The question is, though, if you fire Crews, where do you turn? At some point, you run out of Knight-Krzyzewski disciples who will be willing to take a dead-end job. Young guys looking to make a name for themselves won't stay long enough to provide the longterm stability the program badly needs. Anybody who starts to turn things around at West Point will instantly become a hot commodity.

One possibility mentioned on the Army message boards is former West Point player Kevin Houston. But Houston's coaching experience is limited to preps.

Harris, it would seem in hindsight, probably deserved more time. The pace was slow, but the direction seemed upward.

It would be hard to say the same about Crews given his record. But unless John Wooden decides to come out of retirement to take the job, Army would probably be best to exercise some patience with Crews for at least another year or two.

After all, at this point, what have they got to lose.

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