Bryce Drew

For the next two weeks and into the early part of April, college basketball’s “March Madness” will dominate headlines and multiple television networks. Millions will be bet on these games, various conferences will get their share of fiscal rewards from various broadcasting outlets, and coaches whose teams advance, especially the ones that make the Final Four as well as the ultimate winner, will reap the harvest.

But there’s a downside to “March Madness,” and that’s not just the ongoing question of whether it’s fair for coaches and schools to be getting major bucks while players get scholarships and little else. Even if you believe a college education in and of itself is a very valuable thing (which it is), that doesn’t square with million-dollar coaches getting far more than what others who work at colleges (professors for example) earn. 

The flip side of “March Madness” has been on display this week at two prominent SEC colleges, where head coaches were dismissed because they didn’t win enough games. Even though the case is repeatedly made that these are “student-athletes” and they shouldn’t be viewed or evaluated in the same manner as professionals, that’s not the case with coaches. Schools may not want their coaches to get them into trouble with the NCAA by breaking rules, but they put far more emphasis on victories than they do on the academic performance of their players.

Avery Johnson at Alabama and Bryce Drew at Vanderbilt are the latest to discover that all that high minded rhetoric about the college experience and the importance of integrity and academics means nothing if you don’t win games. Johnson agreed to what has been termed an “amicable buyout” of his contract over the weekend, while earlier in the week Vanderbilt AD Melvin Turner announced that Drew would not be returning next season, despite having three years left on his contract. In Drew’s case there were no details given about whether he would get a payout or just have the remainder of his contract paid. But there was no mention of any conduct or action that would designate him being “fired for cause.”

In both cases there was general agreement these are fine men, that they did things the right way, and that they were good recruiters. But neither was able to get his team into the NCAA Tournament consistently, though Vanderbilt made it in the first year of Drew’s tenure. But a pair of 20 loss seasons, and this year’s nightmare that saw the Commodores go 0-19 in SEC competition and go through the calendar year of 2019 without a win put him in an untenable position with Vanderbilt upper management.

The Johnson case was more complicated. He had a 75-62 overall record in four years, but a 34-38 mark in the SEC. He was making over $3 million a year, but had a stipulation in his contract that if he were fired without cause prior to April 15 the school would owe him $8 million collars as he’d gotten a contract extension in 2017 that ran through 2023.

That both parties agreed to a buyout was an indicator Johnson realized he wasn’t wanted on campus, and opted not to stay rather than force some ugly treatment. “After meeting with Coach Johnson, we made the decision to mutually part ways,” Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said in a statement Sunday. “This was not an easy decision, and we thank him for his contributions over the past four seasons. We wish Coach Johnson and his family the very best.”

Alabama went 8-10 in the SEC this year. They were 18-16 overall, and were ousted in the opening round of the NIT by Norfolk State. That’s the third time in four years an Alabama team has lost in the NIT’s first round. The other year, 2017-18, Alabama made it to the NCAAs for the first time since 2012. They even got their first win since 2006, but lost in the second round to eventual winner Villanova. 

Obviously any school has the right to change coaches. If an administration feels they aren’t getting the maximum out of their coach and/or team, they’re certainly justified in a termination. But these results, and there will be more of them in the days and weeks ahead, only show that the ultimate bottom line in college, at least at power conference schools, is no different than any professional sport. It’s win or else, and all that lofty talk about academics and integrity sounds good, but means little.