TAMPA – Two years after being named Big East Conference Coach of the Year, two years after his team reached the brink of the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, men’s basketball coach Stan Heath was fired Friday by the University of South Florida.
“It can turn that quickly,’’ said Heath, 49, who was 97-130 with two postseason bids in seven seasons with USF.
Heath had four years remaining on his contract, which was renegotiated and extended by former athletic director Doug Woolard in July 2012, some four months after the Bulls had earned their first NCAA Tournament bid in 20 years. Under terms of that contract, USF must pay a $1.5-million buyout – the remainder of his base salary – to Heath.
Following a 12-20 season that concluded with a nine-game losing streak – and a two-season mark of losing 32 of 38 conference games – Heath said he had a brief meeting with recently hired athletic director Mark Harlan who “didn’t think it was fair for him to be making the decision on me because he hadn’t been around, but said his recommendation was if something had to happen, it needed to happen quickly.’’
Heath said he was told of the firing on Friday afternoon by USF assistant athletic director Barry Clements, who is responsible for men’s basketball. According to Heath, Clements said “the university wants to go in a different direction.’’ Heath said he understood and gave a hug to Clements, a trusted ally.
So who ultimately made the decision? Heath said he believes he was fired by USF president Judy Genshaft and the school’s Board of Trustees. Neither Genshaft nor any other USF official was made available to address the firing.
Meanwhile, the school announced that Harlan, whose USF start date had been listed as April 7, will lead a national search for Heath’s replacement.
“I was not blindsided by this,’’ Heath said. “When you’re not winning games, anything is possible. When the conference realignment fell apart (with the old Big East dissolving, sending USF to the American Athletic Conference), I know it was really important to Judy for football and men’s basketball to do well and neither one has gotten it done.
“This is hard for your family. It’s hard for your staff. It’s hard for your players. But winning is important. Ultimately, it’s a business decision. I had a wonderful experience. They didn’t treat me poorly at all. I just wish we could’ve gotten one more year.’’
Heath’s Bulls went through growing pains with three freshmen – center John Egbunu, forward Chris Perry and point guard Josh Heath, his son – playing key roles. But the season’s tone was set by an injury to star junior point guard Anthony Collins, a second-team All-AAC pick in the preseason, who missed the final 22 games with a knee ailment.
Collins addressed rumors about a possible transfer at midseason, saying he was committed to “staying at USF and playing for Coach Heath.’’
Heath said he expects Collins, a Houston native and catalyst of the 2012 NCAA Tournament team, to remain at USF. Collins is close to graduating and, with a degree in hand, he could transfer to another school without sitting out.
“I guess the key is who gets hired,’’ Heath said. “If he’s not comfortable with the new coach, all bets are off.’’
Heath, who coached Kent State to a 30-6 mark and an Elite Eight appearance in 2002, was hired by Woolard at USF in 2007, after he was fired at Arkansas despite a 21-14 mark and an NCAA Tournament bid.
Heath’s third USF team was 20-13, reaching the National Invitation Tournament behind Dominique Jones, and his fifth team was 22-14, going 12-6 in the Big East and winning two NCAA Tournament games. But three of his seven teams had 20 or more defeats.
“You can talk about injuries, youth or whatever, but this was a team I built and we didn’t win enough,’’ said Heath, who said he will consider college and NBA jobs, maybe some television work, and didn’t rule out remaining in Tampa for the long term. “It becomes a business decision and I understand that.’’
Heath, who said he didn’t learn of his fate until Friday afternoon, spoke with all of his staff members and players by telephone because he had no notice to assemble a team meeting. Heath said some of his players were “in total shock’’ and his assistants “who were operating in glass-full mode, confident we could get through this thing’’ were disappointed (although, for now, they have been retained).
Heath said he was most concerned about his son, Josh, the point guard who was shattered by the news of his father’s firing.
“He’s taking it very hard and right now, I just need to be dad,’’ Heath said. “I think he could (stay at USF). It depends on the new coach. I’m not against it. I want it to be Josh’s decision. He’s close with the other freshmen. We’ll see.’’
Heath said the new coach will inherit a USF program with far more assets than the one he took over in 2007. With the Pam and Les Muma Basketball Center practice facility and a renovated Sun Dome, the USF job (“which was called one of the hardest in the country when I took over’’) might be highly desirable.
Hiring a new men’s basketball coach is the first major decision for Harlan. Heath’s firing is the latest in a series of moves that have provided financial woes for USF athletics.
In the last three years, USF has been obligated to pay three men nearly $7-million to NOT coach. Former football coach Skip Holtz, whose contract was extended by Woolard in July 2012, was fired some five months later after a 3-9 season. His buyout was $2.5-million. Heath’s buyout was $1.5-million.
Meanwhile, former football coach Jim Leavitt was given a $2.75-million settlement in 2011 after he contested his firing when an independent investigation concluded that he hit one of his players in the locker room.
Woolard, although he is no longer the athletic director, will remain at USF until July 2015 at his full base salary of about $560,000 annually.