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CHAMPIONSHIP BOUT: Coaches Deserve Short Leash

By Robert C. Boutwell, Crimson Staff Writer

In his column last Friday, Alex Sherman wrote that, “Harvard can do a much better job of promoting sporting event...the lack of athletic support from the College is scandalous.”

I think Alex has a great point. Just like Alex, I have always personally been shocked by the lack of publicizing of Harvard athletics.

But it’s not just recognition that needs to be increased by the Harvard athletics administration.

It’s accountability.

When was the last time the coach of a major sport was fired by the University? It hasn’t happened in the two years I have been at Harvard, and I can’t remember any specific instances in the recent past.

Harvard’s two most popular and most widely publicized sports—by almost any definition—are men’s hockey and football. And conveniently, there are recent examples in both of these sports wherein the University was complacent and allowed coaches to wallow in mediocrity for too long.

After winning the Ivy League Championship in 1987, ex-football coach Joe Restic was unable to provide another winning season in Cambridge for the remaining six years he remained at Harvard.

Now, Restic was, in many respects, a legend.  Besides the 1987 Ivy Title, Restic’s teams won or shared the Ivy League Championship on four other occasions. In addition, despite his sub-par record during his final six years, Restic finished with an overall record of 117-97-6 during his 23 seasons as head coach.

So perhaps the athletic department and the administration were hesitant to fire Restic after the enormous contribution he had made to Harvard football. Fine. The University let Restic continue to coach and he retired in 1993.

However, since Restic’s departure, current head coach Tim Murphy has done a remarkable job reviving the program to prominence. Murphy’s teams have posted two undefeated, untied Ivy League records on their way to Championships in 1997 and 2001.

But there is much less of an excuse the athletic department can make in the case of former head men’s hockey coach Ronn Tomassoni. Tomassoni was a longtime assistant coach under the legendary William J. Cleary Jr. ’56, and he was on the bench when the Crimson won its only National Championship in 1989.

After taking over for Cleary in 1990, Tomassoni had four great campaigns in a row, as his teams posted winning seasons in each of his first four years. This fantastic run culminated in the excellent 1993-94 season, in which Tomassoni led the Crimson to the Frozen Four and lost a heartbreaker 3-2 in the semifinals to Lake Superior State, who would go on to defeat BU 9-1 in the national championship game.

Clearly, Tomassoni had a great run in the early ‘90s. Yet his teams quickly went on a downward spiral.  After the ‘94 campaign, Tomassoni’s squads posted five straight non-winning seasons, a first in Harvard men’s hockey history. Still, Tomassoni was not dismissed.

He finally resigned in 1999, at which point current coach Mark Mazzoleni took over.

After a couple of tough seasons in his first two years at Harvard (which can be partly traced to the fact that he was using Tomassoni’s recruits and not his own), Mazzoleni has led the Crimson to three straight National Tournament berths.

There’s no questioning the fact that Mazzoleni and Murphy have totally rejuvenated the two banner sports at Harvard in the last decade.

But it only makes you wonder what could have happened if both of them had been inserted a little earlier while the hockey and football teams struggled through brutal five-year stretches.

Now I’m not saying in any way, shape, or form that all decisions on whether or not to retain coaches should be based on wins and losses. In reading the archived Crimson articles announcing the resignations of both coaches, it is clear that both Restic and Tomassoni were great people who added a lot to the University at large and helped their student-athletes grow as young men.

Yet at some point, the Harvard administration has to look at the fact that excitement about athletics is not going to come from students and others unless they hold coaches accountable for bad records.

Not one bad year, not two or three, but when a coach goes four consecutive years without a winning record– much less an Ivy League Championship–in my mind, something needs to be done. There’s no doubt in my mind that the University wouldn’t tolerate two sub-par years for a department by a departmental head, much less four. Harvard prides itself on being one of the very top academic schools in the nation, and the administration clearly believes it has to have the very best people leading the academic departments.

But it seems to me that the administration will repeatedly look the other way at terrible won-loss records if the coach in question keeps his team out of trouble and in good academic standing, also managing to achieve with some degree of early success. Of course, these things are very important: I just believe that it’s not out of the question to find coaches that can maintain these things and also win games.

Hell, Murphy and Mazzoleni prove it.

Today, simply consider the complacency in basketball.

Coach Frank Sullivan came to Harvard 13 years ago after a fantastic stint as the coach of Division II Bentley College; in seven years there, he was named conference Coach of the Year three times and he finished with an overall record of 141-199. He clearly knows how to coach.

Yet at Harvard, Sullivan has had less success, to be sure. He had success in his fourth and fifth seasons in 1995-96 and 1996-97 when he led his team to records of 15-11 and 17-9.

But his overall record of 141-200 simply does not hold up to the excellent Harvard standard set not only in academics, but by coaches in other major sports, such as Murphy, Mazzoleni, and baseball coach Joe Walsh.

Now, to be fair, Sullivan has raised the bar quite a bit for Harvard basketball. It has historically been one of Harvard’s worst athletic programs, and it has never once won an Ivy League Championship–the only of the Ancient Eight to be able to say this.

So to some degree Sullivan is a victim of his own success. And I don’t think Sullivan should be fired tomorrow; last year he clearly was rebuilding after a great senior class graduated in 2003 and the 4-23 record can be excused.

But I think that within the next two years, if Sullivan can’t win when more mature versions of the players he recruited–and at least compete for the Ivy League

title–then in my mind he needs to go.

Sullivan has seemed like a really nice guy when I have interviewed him, and I’m sure there are scores of his former players that will tell you what an impact he had on their lives.

But just as Restic and Tomassino were huge contributors to Harvard, the fact remains that they simply weren’t able to get it done late in their careers. And this is Harvard we’re talking about here. Murphy and Mazzoleni had great records in previous jobs at Cincinnati and Miami of Ohio, respectively, and there is no doubt that enticing an established basketball coach to Harvard wouldn’t be that difficult. Who knows, maybe even someone as established as Cambridge native and ex-St. John’s coach Mike Jarvis would be interested in the position.

And not all Ivy League schools are complacent with their athletic firing standards. Just last year, Columbia fired Armond Hill after a 2-25 season. Former Villanova assistant Joe Jones promptly came in and improved the Lions record to a respectable 10-17, including 6-8 in the Ivy League.

My basic point is that the administration shouldn’t look at Harvard basketball and be happy about going 7-7 in the Ivy League. Walsh, Murphy, Mazzoleni, and leaders like men’s heavyweight coach Harry Parker have set a standard of consistently winning Ivy League (or in Mazzoleni’s case, ECAC) titles.

There is no reason why the basketball program shouldn’t be able to do the same.

If after sixteen tries Sullivan is unable to do that, then I believe the University will need to find someone who can.

–Staff writer Robert C. Boutwell can be reached at boutwel@fas.harvard.edu. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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