We’ve seen bold and daring before, and in five years time, John Currie has been nothing short of that as Kansas State’s athletic director.
Currie was aggressive in overhauling K-State’s fundraising efforts, taking over an athletic department riddled with missteps and turning the renewed focus into major facility upgrades across multiple programs.
One of the boldest moves was in 2012 when he and men’s basketball coach Frank Martin parted ways after five straight 20-win seasons — with Currie ultimately hiring Bruce Weber.
Again, the gamble paid off with K-State winning a share of the Big 12 title in Weber’s first season in Manhattan and the Wildcats are seemingly headed back to the NCAA tournament.
But the latest decision to fire Deb Patterson as women’s basketball coach might be Currie’s biggest gamble yet with no real idea what his end game is.
More wins? More wins than the 350 victories Patterson racked up in 18 seasons? More wins than the 22 she averaged per season since 2002 — with a pair of Big 12 championships? More postseason appearances than the 13 Patterson had in 18 years?
Was the decision based on revenue and the hope of turning the women’s program into a moneymaker? Not even the most successful programs in the country like UConn, Tennessee or Baylor turn a profit. It’s not possible.
Was it about attendance? K-State has ranked in the Top 35 in national attendance 11 of the last 12 years, including 2013 when K-State averaged more fans per game than North Carolina, UCLA, Colorado, Florida State, Dayton, Green Bay, California and Georgia — all of which finished the season ranked in the AP Top 25.
Say what you will about Patterson and her program. She’s heard it all — both good and bad. It comes with being a coach in this cutthroat business. But if we’re talking about facts and not hearsay, leaving personal attacks and prejudices aside, it’s difficult to argue that Patterson didn’t win at K-State — whether you liked her or not — and perhaps earned a better argument behind her dismissal.
But what has she done for me lately?
Sure, K-State has struggled the last two seasons. I won’t attempt to put a bow on this season’s 11-19 record and try to tell you its all good, because it wasn’t. There were problems, no doubt. K-State simply wasn’t a very good team for the better part of the season, but the Wildcats were getting better.
The problem with a young and inexperienced team is that even when there is improvement, it doesn’t always equal victories, especially in the unforgiving Big 12. Ask Bill Snyder about that.
Everyone knows how special Leti Romero was as a freshman, but she was just part of the bright future this coaching staff believed in going forward — a future that includes fellow freshmen Kindred Wesemann and Bre Lewis, both of whom ended the season playing as well as anyone in the Big 12.
That core of young talent offered a glimpse of what was to come, that winning was just over the horizon — with a little more patience than was shown in the past four days.
At no point has Patterson’s track record indicated she wouldn’t get this program back to competing at a high level again. The 2008 Wildcats won the Big 12 with a 13-3 record, becoming the first program in conference history — men or women — to go from worst to first in one year.
K-State was 19-18 last season. That’s not good. But I argued a year ago it might have been one of Patterson’s best coaching efforts of her career after losing five players to season-ending injuries and having just seven players for the final 19 games of the season, two of which were former walk-ons. Despite all that, the Wildcats still advanced to the WNIT semifinals.
Unlucky seasons like that — because that’s what it was — completely out of anyone’s control, has to be considered a wash. Still, winning five games against Big 12 competition should have been considered an achievement, not something that’s leveraged as a reason to fire the head coach, unless some actually believe Patterson was to blame for three ACL tears and a torn Achilles tendon.
Currie said the decision to cut ties with Patterson was based on the last five years, though. So back-to-back 20-win seasons and two NCAA tournaments just two years ago didn’t factor into those five years?
At the end of the day, Currie and school president Kirk Schulz don’t need anyone’s permission to fire Patterson, or a valid reason for that matter. Like any business, if you aren’t wanted anymore, you’re out, especially if they’re already looking for a reason. Patterson certainly isn’t the first coach to be fired and stir a debate. Whether it’s been under this administration or others, I’ve been on both sides of this argument regarding the firing of coaches.
But it doesn’t change the fact that this move was a risky one. Firing Patterson not only does away with a proven commodity with a winning track record, but it jeopardizes the future of a young team and opens the door for players like Romero to leave, perhaps going back to Spain where she can get paid.
It also severs ties with fifth-year assistant coach and Wildcat All-American Shalee Lehning, a valuable recruiter and ambassador for a program many thought might get a shot at the top job sometime down the line.
Look, anyone who knows me understands I’m all about riding a gambler on a hot streak. But even I know when to walk away from the table and try my luck elsewhere.