Monday's national title game was a no-win situation for Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman.
Butler's presence was already creating questions for Wellman and other high-major ADs, with high-impact stakeholders likely wondering why the Bulldogs could win at such levels with vastly lower resources while their own programs couldn't. When Gordon Hayward's final heave just missed, Wellman was left with a second consecutive national champion not only from his conference, but his school's home state.
In somewhat related news, Wake Forest fired its basketball coach on Wednesday.
This was a coach who was 30 games over .500 in his three seasons. One that had the No. 1 ranked team in the country just 15 months ago. One that held together the program and an elite recruiting class in the wake of Skip Prosser's unexpected death. One that got a contract extension just last October.
Despite what it looks like on the surface, Dino Gaudio's firing is not indefensible. It is, however, risky. It is the latest example of the "disease of more" that's enveloping the sport.
What Butler proved this season, and other teams have been proving for the better part of a decade, is what you can do with a smartly executed plan, one that includes superior coaching. It's that reality, and the annual wave of under-the-radar teams that peak late (like Cornell, Northern Iowa and Saint Mary's) that haunts major-conference programs looking for similar success.
In Wednesday afternoon's press conference, Wellman specifically and repeatedly mentioned Wake's late-season slides and Gaudio's 1-6 mark in the postseason as the major factors in his dismissal. That tournament record includes three straight double-digit defeats to lower seeds in the ACC tournament, a lopsided loss to 13-seed Cleveland State in the 2009 NCAA tournament and a 30-point blowout to Kentucky in this season's second round.
What he didn't specifically mention was the not-so-quiet secret that Gaudio was regarded as a solid recruiter, but not a particularly great coach. That his Wake Forest teams seemed to slump as the campaigns went along adds context to his 68-124 run in seven seasons as the head coach at Army and Loyola (Md.) from 1993-2000.
Maybe Wellman ultimately saw what a lot of others were thinking: that Gaudio did a great job holding things together and honoring the Prosser's memory, but now that the core of those teams has departed for the NBA draft, there's no further need for continuity when his track record shows a distinct performance ceiling. Throw in the fact that two of Gaudio's assistants left for jobs that are not slam-dunk improvements, and perhaps there was smoke to this fire that was missed weeks ago.
Still, there's danger in expecting that someone else can come in and do significantly better when you're already pretty good. Wellman needs to look no further than the fourth ACC school in the state, N.C. State, which jettisoned Herb Sendek four years ago and has regressed since. Boston College similarly canned Al Skinner this week for not winning enough games and selling enough seats, even though he's the program's all-time winningest coach. It will be interesting to see if Steve Donahue, who has a very Gaudio-ian resume (seven years of very modest performance and then three years of much bigger success, fueled by a fortunate recruiting convergence), will be an improvement.
This trend isn't confined to programs in the second tier of the high-major world. Kentucky grew tired of Tubby Smith's Final Four drought, and three years later still hasn't returned, eating the NIT-enhanced Billy Gillispie era in the process. Meanwhile, this season alone, we had two midseason firings/mutinies in the Ivy League, another at Fordham, and then saw a Patriot League coach canned after one year in charge after a season in which his team (statistically) was the unluckiest in all of Division I. That said, it can hit programs like Wake, which is chasing the highest levels of greatness, the hardest.
Wellman said in the press conference that he looked at a lot of numbers in making his decision. One he should have looked at was the stats that show a team's tournament success has no correlation to its record down the stretch of the season. To regularly go deep in the postseason requires a combination of better resources, better skill and ... better luck. One-and-out events are very much about who you draw, often far more so than how you play.
This year, Butler was inches away from a national title, but had Murray State not botched its last possession in round two, the Bulldogs could have been just another first-weekend loser. Duke, the new national champion, was helped by a soft draw and injuries to key players on two of its opponents. It's all pretty random, even for teams that manage to land a 1-seed. Heck, Kansas' Bill Self has lost three times to mid-majors at least eight seeds below him on the first weekend of the NCAAs in the last six years alone. No one is suggesting his job should be in danger.
Wellman deserves credit for honesty and decisiveness when a lot of other programs would have settled for the status quo. What he didn't do, though, was guarantee Wake Forest's future is any better.