Mike Bobinski faces a thorny choice. For that, he can blame himself. Had Georgia Tech’s athletic director fired Brian Gregory after last season, almost nobody would have protested. In four seasons, Gregory was 19-51 in ACC regular-season play and hadn’t led the Yellow Jackets to a postseason tournament. That would have been enough — or not nearly enough, depending on your perspective — to get him canned at most Division I schools.
Bobinski chose to give Gregory another season, saying he wanted to see “clear signs of progress.” Sure enough, the Jackets went 8-10 in league play (up from the 3-15 of last season) and tied for 11th in the ACC (up from 14th). They could make the NIT, although 11 of 12 regular-season conference winners have lost in their tournaments and the NIT must accommodate all that don’t grace the NCAA field.
In Year 5, Gregory did better than in Years 1-4. Is that enough for him to keep coaching Tech? During his briefing with three media types (this one included) last March, Bobinski said his patience will run out “the minute I believe we’re not making substantive progress.” What’s substantive progress? “It’s not as much a number as a clear sign … and a belief in the future.”
And there’s Ye Olde Rub. Of the 63 points Tech scored in its regular-season-ending victory over Pittsburgh, 59 were by seniors. Of the 88 points it scored in its overtime victory over Clemson in the ACC tournament, 77 were by seniors. Non-seniors did manage 19 of the 52 against Virginia on Thursday, but that wound up a 20-point loss.
A belief in the future? If the ACC media were polled today on its outlook for 2016-2017, Tech would probably be picked no higher than 13th in a 15-team conference. (Thank goodness for Wake and BC.) This is a team built on seniors — and not just seniors but senior transfers. It has been good enough to make Tech semi-respectable over the second half of the ACC schedule. It wasn’t enough to lift the Jackets into the top 10 of their conference.
Off the relative strength of this season, it might seem hard to fire Gregory. Off the weakness of five seasons, it would be nigh-impossible to keep him. He’s 27-61 in ACC regular-season play. That’s a winning percentage of .307. That’s better than Jeff Bzdelik, who was 17-51 (.250) in league play at Wake Forest and is generally considered the worst ACC coach of the past quarter-century, but Bzdelik didn’t get a fifth season, let alone a sixth.
There’s also this: Next season offers the most bountiful crop of Georgia high school seniors since the days of Dwight Howard and Josh Smith — neither of whom attended college — and Tech must hold its own in-state if it hopes to become truly relevant. Gregory has two contractual years remaining after this. If you keep him with the expectation that he could be gone this time next spring, you’re punting on the Class of 2017. What McDonald’s All-American would consent to play for a lame duck if Coach K and Coach Cal are calling?
For recruiting’s sake, the accepted practice is never to let a coach enter the final year of his contract, which is what Gregory will be a year from now would be unless granted an extension beyond 2018. But now we ask: Can an AD in good conscience extend the contract of a man who has lost 69.3 percent of his conference games, hasn’t taken a team to the NCAA tournament and whose best season yielded a tie for 11th place?
But there’s this, too: Say Tech makes the NIT. It would be unfair to deprive these players of their coach with games still to play, but can an AD wait until April — the NIT ends March 31 — to make a change? (Rutgers, Saint Louis and UCF fired coaches Thursday.) I say again: Bobinski has rendered this a tougher call than it needed to be.
You know what I think. (It’s the same as I thought last spring.) Back then, Bobinski said: “All the elements are in place … There’s no reason not to have a successful college basketball program.” Tech in Year 5 under Gregory was better — but it wasn’t quite a success. And if you’ve tried five times and haven’t quite succeeded, why should we believe Year 6 or 7 will be different?