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Hampton Undergoes Three Major Coaching Changes, Raising Issues
HAMPTON — Hampton University will enter the 2009-10 school year with new leadership in its three most visible sports, unusual flux in what is traditionally one of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s most stable and successful athletic programs.
HU is the only Division I athletic program in the country to replace its football and men’s and women’s basketball coaches this year. All three replacements were hired within a matter of hours and promoted from the previous staffs or within the university.
“I consider myself to be a student of Vince Lombardi,” HU athletic director Lonza Hardy said last week, referring to the Pro Football Hall of Fame coach. “Vince Lombardi said, ‘Never apologize for trying to win.’ Consequently, I don’t apologize for putting what I believe are the right people in the right places at the right time.”
Though the changes within HU’s marquee sports coincide with competitive dips, all three situations were different.
Men’s basketball coach Kevin Nickelberry resigned after three seasons, unable to implement his stated vision of 94-foot, 40-minute lightning and to return the Pirates to the NCAA tournament, or even to get past the MEAC tournament quarterfinals.
Women’s coach Walter Mebane’s contract wasn’t renewed after five seasons. He was unable to approach the success of predecessor and former boss Patricia Cage-Bibbs, who left in 2004 after taking HU to three NCAAs in five years.
Football coach Jerry Holmes was fired in late January after just one season, Hardy said, because he believed that the coach’s trip to the Senior Bowl college all-star game was viewed as a job search that ultimately was detrimental to the Pirates’ program.
“Neither of the (basketball) programs in the last couple years are where I wanted them to be,” said Hardy, coming up on two years in the AD chair, “and I don’t think they were where the fans are accustomed to those programs being — be it football, men’s basketball or women’s basketball.
“I just felt that we needed to put people in place that could restore the confidence of our fan base, restore the confidence of our student-athletes, restore the confidence of the university community as well as the local community.”
Nickelberry was replaced by assistant Ed “Buck” Joyner. David Six, a former Hampton High girls coach who was toiling in HU’s intramural department, moved into Mebane’s slot.
Holmes was replaced by longtime HU assistant Donovan Rose, the Pirates’ third head football coach in 13 months. Holmes was a sudden replacement for Joe Taylor, who spent 16 years at HU and shepherded the program into Division I in the mid-1990s.
Taylor guided the Pirates to three consecutive MEAC titles and NCAA playoff berths from 2004-06. He departed in late December 2007 and surfaced as the head coach at MEAC rival Florida A&M.
“We’ve got good coaches, we’ve had good coaches,” said HU president William Harvey, who has been front and center at many sporting events in his 30 years at the school. “Some have left for various reasons, some have been fired for various reasons, but you’re going to have that in a very dynamic program. I don’t see any unsettling. There may be others who say that they see some unsettling if you take the short view — one or two years — but I don’t see it. I take the long view.”
Taylor, Nickelberry and Holmes have declined to speak publicly about the circumstances surrounding their respective departures. However, former HU football assistant coach Canute Curtis, who spent last year on Holmes’ staff, offered observations on the school’s culture.
“I think there are a lot of people who are there because they’re loyal to the president and say what he wants to hear,” Curtis said, “and if you don’t like it, you can leave.”
Curtis still is disgusted at the circumstances surrounding Holmes’ dismissal. He believes that Holmes’ Senior Bowl trip and concerns about the appearance to recruits were an excuse to fire him. He thinks the real reason Holmes was fired was that he was outspoken about improvements he thought necessary for the program — upgrades to facilities and academic tutoring for players, among other things.
“The problem with Hampton University,” Curtis said, “is anybody who’s strong-minded and strong-willed and says they’re going to do something and takes a stand to do it, if that stand is not the same stand as the president of the university, he gets fired. Period. That’s what it’s about over at Hampton.”
Curtis, who played in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals, considers Holmes a mentor and friend, going back to their days together at West Virginia in the 1990s. The sole reason he came to HU was out of respect for Holmes.
Curtis said Rose offered him the defensive coordinator’s job when Holmes was fired. Instead, Curtis took an assistant’s job at Towson under new coach Rob Ambrose.
“The AD, I don’t know what kind of say he has,” Curtis said. “It just seems to me, in my small time at Hampton University, everybody on campus is puppets to the president. I didn’t like it.
“I was going back and forth — should I stay, shouldn’t I stay — and I just didn’t think that I wanted to be a puppet to the president of the university.”
Harvey disputes the contention that he micromanages the athletic department — or any of the school’s academic departments, for that matter — and that all major decisions within the department flow through his office.
“I play an appropriate role,” he said, “a role that the NCAA requires of all college presidents, and that is to monitor the athletics program.”
Harvey said he emphasizes the academic and athletic balance of student-athletes.
“That’s my mantra to the athletic director and the athletic advisory committee and to others,” he said. “But it is very, very unlikely that my role in athletics is any different than the president at the University of Virginia, for example.”
Harvey points to the school’s lengthy track record of success as validation of its methods. The recent coaching shuffles, he said, are more aberration than trend.
“I wouldn’t call it turmoil,” Harvey said, “I’d call it change. Hampton clearly is the standard for mid-major institutions in the country.
“We do provide the wherewithal for coaches to succeed,” he continued. “We have some of the nicest facilities in Division I at the mid-major level. Our resources are very good, and the atmosphere is very good and allows coaches to succeed here.”
According to U.S. Department of Education data submitted by the schools for 2007-08, Hampton spent $8.5 million on athletics, slightly more than MEAC rival Norfolk State ($7.8 million).
By comparison, area rivals Old Dominion spent $17.97 million on athletics and William and Mary spent $15.88 million.
The average head coach’s salary for Hampton U. men’s sports was $73,000 and $42,290 for women’s head coaches.
At ODU, men’s teams’ head coaches made $152,211 and women’s head coaches $115,832. William and Mary men’s coaches earned an average of $74,366 and women’s head coaches $50,460.
In the U.S. Sports Academy’s Directors’ Cup annual rankings of the overall success of athletic programs, Hampton was 278th out of 280 Division I programs for the 2007-08 school year.
In 2006-07, HU was 105th. From 1999-2004, the Pirates ranked an average of 184th in the nation (In 2005 and 2006, the Directors Cup standings listed only the top 100 programs. HU didn’t finish among the top 100 in either year).
The top 50 schools in the Directors Cup standings are typically major-college, Bowl Championship Series programs with accompanying resources. But Pepperdine has finished no lower than 69th in the Directors Cup standings in the past four years. At least three Ivy League programs finished in the top 75 for the past three years. ODU was in the top 100 each of the past two school years.
Despite Hampton’s national reputation, the administration acted quickly and chose coaching replacements from within rather than conduct broader searches. Harvey pointed out that historically HU often has promoted from within because assistants are more familiar with the school and its culture and mission.
Hardy reasoned: “It’s kind of like when college coaches go out recruiting or when professional teams look for talent to put on their respective teams. They come to this area because this is a talent-laden area. It’s a talent-laden area for student-athletes, and consequently, it’s a talent-laden area for coaches. If the coaches who can turn our program back to a winning program are right here in this area, I see no reason to venture beyond local boundaries. I don’t think it’s necessary to launch national searches for the sake of launching national searches.”
That said, none of the three new coaches has college head-coaching experience. To be fair, neither did former men’s basketball coach Steve Merfeld, who guided the Pirates to consecutive NCAA tournament berths in 2001 and ‘02 and orchestrated the program’s thunderclap moment of upsetting No. 2 seed Iowa State in the first round of the 2001 tournament.
Merfeld’s successor, Bobby Collins, was said to have resigned following the 2005-06 season, after guiding the Pirates to their first MEAC title and NCAA berth since 2002.
Nickelberry, a former assistant at Clemson and Holy Cross, was hired shortly thereafter. He hired Joyner, a former player and assistant coach at Johnson C. Smith.
Though Joyner witnessed many of the situations that frustrated Nickelberry, he was not dissuaded from the HU opening. In fact, at his introductory press conference last week, he essentially called Hampton the pinnacle of historically black colleges and universities.
“Coach Nickelberry’s frustrations were Coach Nickelberry’s frustrations,” Joyner said, “and that was between him and the administration, and I’m not privy to that. I had a job to do, and I did my job.
“For myself, we are also two different people. Hopefully, I can come in with my own solutions to keep those frustrations to a minimum. In some instances, I think that knowing those frustrations, I can use them to my advantage, to try not to fall into the same problems, if that makes sense. I know where we ran into problems and I know how to get around them and make them work for us.”
Joyner inherits a program that finished seventh in the MEAC a year ago and was penalized one scholarship as a result of a substandard score in the NCAA’s annual Academic Performance Rate (APR) data.
Six inherits a program that hasn’t finished higher than fourth in the league since 2005. Though he won two state titles at Hampton High and is plugged in to the local basketball scene, he never has recruited or coached to the college level.
Rose takes over a football program that lost more conference games the past two years than in the previous four years combined and uncharacteristically folded late in both seasons.
“I think athletics at Hampton will remain bright,” Harvey said. “I can tell you what we’re not going to do: We’re not going to change our emphasis on being the standard for others to emulate. We’re not going to change our emphasis on trying to get quality young men and young women who believe in the concept of the student-athlete.
“We don’t try to emulate others. Others try to emulate us. We’re not going to change our philosophy on that. Are we going to have dips in our programs? Probably. Do I anticipate any? No. But things happen.”
Hampton U. athletics undergoes three major coaching changes, raising issues
By Dave Fairbank, The Hampton Roads Daily Press (VA)