The Virginia Tech basketball team lost again. The Hokies' record sunk to 8-10 Wednesday after falling to Wake Forest 77-83. That's the same Wake club that previously dropped 17 league road games in a row. Yes, the Hokies lost in Cassell Coliseum. Yes, they've now lost the last game that they will probably be favored in this year (Tech was a two point favorite). And also, yes, this may signal that it will be tough for Tech to win another game this season.
Piling on is easy at this point, but I just figured we'd start there then move on, because what happened during said loss is what I really want to write about.
What was the narrative during the game? Not that the Hokies were playing with only two guards—one freshman and one former walk-on. Not that Wake had a first-half shooting percentage two times better than Tech's(54.8–22.6%), or that it took the Hokies way too long to realize that Devin Wilson could get to the hoop with impunity on most drives.
Nope, on Wednesday night the narrative from a part of the fanbase had nothing to do with the game itself. No, instead it had everything to do with a former coach and how much everyone apparently missed him. That's right, exactly 50 games into James Johnson's tenure a growing vocal minority of fans longing for Seth Greenberg have bubbled to the surface. Honestly, I'm surprised that it's taken this long.
Outspoken fans that support their team or program moving in a drastically different direction are common among every fan base. Before now, the most recent movement at Tech was Mark Leal starting over Logan Thomas. Thousands of words have been written on this subject, many of them admonishing a group whose sole premise was, "we know what we have in Logan, but we don't know what we have in Leal."
In some twisted way, you can at least see the logic behind that argument. Mankind will always be intrigued by the mystery of the unknown; it's what sent us into space and off exploring parts of the globe that had previously not been charted. While I never agreed with the Leal-ists, I could at least see where they were coming from.
Why is this so irritating to me, you ask? Well, for many reasons. The least of which being that it is incredibly harmful to the team and its fans, a backwards way of thinking that leaves the taste of a very short memory in my mouth. What good comes of saying things like "Seth Greenberg would make this team better", or that "Greenberg should have never been fired"?
We knew what Greenberg was, and what he wasn't. We had nine years to figure out what kind of coach he was. NINE YEARS. This is the opposite of the mystery of the unknown. This is like dating someone for nearly a decade, breaking up with them because you finally realize that things just aren't working like they used to, but then trying to hook up again a year later. You know that it ended for a reason, but against logic want to go back anyways.
Let's get this out of the way now: I realize that Greenberg was a very good coach for the Hokies. He went 170-123 (a winning percentage of .580), lead the team to the 2007 NCAA Tournament and was the coach of one of the biggest snubs in tournament history (the 2009-10 team that went 25-9 yet was still deemed unworthy, largely due to the pasty non-conference schedule).
In all seriousness, the work that Greenberg did in the years post-Ricky Stokes can never be forgotten. He took one of the worst teams in the Big East, one that went 29-55 in the three years before he got there, and lead them to the tournament in his fourth season. He won the team's only Big East Tournament game, made them a legitimate second-tier ACC program, knocked off three No. 1 ranked teams, and signed some of this highest profile recruits Tech hoops had seen in recent memory.
I suppose that one would argue all of the points that I made in the paragraph above as reasons to miss a Greenberg-lead program. However, what's missing from that synopsis is the last few years of his tenure. It's always easier to remember the good stuff, but what about all of the negatives that clouded a once bright future? The transfers, Seth's relationship with the athletic department, hell, even a lot of the on-court philosophy during those last few years. It was definitely a trying time for almost everyone involved.
You see, the thing about college basketball coaches is that they are consistently the face of a program. You can also say that about any college coach, but in a sport with so much player turnover year in and year out, the coach often remains the constant. With that constancy comes a great ego, one that you could argue is necessary for the job. That ego doesn't always mesh with an athletic department, and can lead to coaches really wearing down the goodwill that surrounds winning.
Think of a college basketball coach as a farmer. The best farmers are able to use their land for twenty years and produce the best crops possible. Others, though, harvest awesome stuff for a while but their invasive farming methods eventually exhaust the soil, turning what was once a nice, green farm into a dusty patch of dry dirt. Coaches like Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim or Tom Izzo are the former, while guys like Bob Huggins, Greenberg and even Bob Knight are in the latter.
By the time Greenberg was ousted, that is exactly what the program had become. Let's take a quick walk down memory lane to remember how this happened.
Between the 2009–2012 recruiting classes, Greenberg had signed 13 players, a relatively normal rate that makes sense (13 players is an entire squad). Out of those 13 guys, 7 have left the program between then and now.
This is the list in its entirety (in alphabetical order):
Manny Atkins (transferred to Georgia State after the 2010-2011 season)
Robert Brown (transferred to UAB after the 2012-2013 season)
Ben Boggs (transferred to Valparaiso in December of 2010)
Dorian Finney-Smith (transferred to Florida after the 2011-2012 season)
Tyrone Garland (transferred to La Salle in December of 2011)
Montrezl Harrell (asked for release from his national letter of intent, signed with Louisville in summer of 2012)
Marquis Rankin (left team in December of 2013)
You want to know how to destroy a team quickly? Take away six guys that would be upperclassmen right now.
Sure, you can't really blame Seth for Rankin, and perhaps Harrell is in orange and maroon if Seth's courtside in the Cassell. However, Atkins, Boggs and Garland all transferred under Greenberg's watch to get more playing time. Finney-Smith decided that he was leaving before Greenberg got fired, and while he never said why, my guess is it had to do with the coaching staff never being able to use him correctly (this is a guy that put up a 22 point, 15 board game two weeks ago). I'm also convinced that Greenberg took away enough of Brown's confidence that he was just never able to get it back and needed a fresh start. Sure, he transferred to be "closer to home", but Blacksburg is only two hours further away from his hometown (Clermont, Florida) than Birmingham is.
Talented players were leaving faster than they were coming through the door. Had Seth stayed, there is a very good chance that he would have fared no better than James Johnson last year.
Speaking of JJ, another underrated aspect of the final years of the Greenberg regime was the inability to keep assistants. Starting in 2009 Greenberg had to replace at least one assistant per year, and it's not like all of those guys were leaving to become head coaches. Nope, instead they were leaving for places like ODU, Charlotte and UAB. That's not exactly a list of world-beaters.
By the end, the program seemed a lot like that dry, desolate field.
One thing that can't be argued about Seth was that he was a great on-ball defensive coach. His defenses gave up 65.7 points a game during his tenure. His offenses weren't scoring machines. Tech never averaged more than 72.7 points a game, and that number from 2009-10 was skewed due to extra points in four different overtime games.
Not only that, but the offenses just looked stagnant after the tourney season. Why would that be? Because that was the year that Seth's brother Brad left the team to become the head coach at Radford. After that it just seemed like no one was willing to lock horns with Seth to find some sort of offensive consistency. Despite having more talented offensive players than ever before (Malcolm Delaney, Jeff Allen, Dorenzo Hudson) the team just couldn't find that same offensive flow that they showed more regularly in 2007.
I met Greenberg when I was in high school. My dad, brother and I would make an annual trip to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament (PIT), a post-season scouting tournament for seniors only to raise their professional stock. Now, I can't remember if this was in the spring of 2005 or 2007, but I remember the scene like it was yesterday. There I was, sitting in the bleachers of a high school gym when I looked to my right and saw Seth in the corner of the gym. He was there to support either Carlos Dixon or the Zabian Dowdell/Jamon Gordon/Coleman Collins trio (depends on the year), but their game hadn't started yet. Faster than you could blink, he was surrounded by Tech fans. Not hassling him for autographs or pictures, but just wanting to talk Hokie basketball. He took it all in stride, smiling and laughing with all of us, shaking hands and talking hoops.
As a teenage basketball dork, I was enthralled. Never had I met a guy with the energy or charisma of this bald New Yorker, and I thought he'd be a Tech lifer. He walked away from the group with at least 20 new fans who had more confidence in him than ever. That's who he was, a hard worker who could win people over.
By the time things came to a close on the Greenberg era, to say that Seth had no fans left in the athletic department may be putting it lightly. Consider what Athletic Director Jim Weaver said after he was fired.
"I can certainly understand some coaches leaving, but to have as many leave as we had sat the wrong way with me," Weaver said, adding that the decision "had nothing to do with losing. It had nothing to do with NCAA appearances. It had something to do with people leaving and it had something to do with me wanting to change the direction and leadership of the program."
That desire, he said, came to him as he stood before a workshop of 182 full-time staff members of the athletic department.
"The relationship of that program to the rest of the department is what hit me," Weaver said, noting that Greenberg did not attend the workshop. Weaver declined to elaborate, but said it was quite evident to him at the department workshop.
Greenberg told ESPN.com that he was recruiting in Arizona, Texas and Ohio during the workshop.
I've maintained a steadfast opinion that Weaver and company deserved their share of criticism for the way Seth's firing was handled. It was a terrible look for the program. Beyond that though, what did it say about the end of Greenberg's tenure? Not only did he seem not have any idea that the axe was coming, but not a single person within the department felt any urge to let him know? If anything, what does that entire saga say about the basketball program itself? By the end all that was left was major dysfunction and chaos from the top administrator all the way down the players (well, the ones that were left). Five-or-so years ago I would've never imagined the catalyst for firing the charismatic coach I met would be missing a department workshop.
Complain about the current state of the program all you want, as a fan you have that right. However, if you do, remember the farmer planted the seeds, harvested the crops, and let the land go barren.