Sunday, March 15, 2015

The legacy of Mack Rhoades

Last week, it was announced that University of Houston Athletics Director Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics Mack Rhoades would be leaving next month, to take the same job at the University of Missouri. Rhoades' biggest accomplishment while at UH was, without a doubt,  the construction of the university's new on-campus stadium; in fact, he was hired in 2009 precisely for that purpose. Work on a new practice facility for basketball is underway as well.

The Chronicle's Jerome Solomon believes that Rhoades made things better at UH during his time here. "If the only thing Rhoades accomplished during his tenure was getting the funding for the building of TDECU Stadium, his tenure would be considered a success." Solomon writes. He sees the Rhoades era as a positive one for UH Cougar athletics, even if there were some missteps along the way:
Rhoades came in as a young gun, a sharp administrator, a fundraiser, with a lot to prove.

It is arguable that under his leadership, UH has made the most significant financial commitment to athletics in the school's history.

While he made mistakes along the way, Rhoades has lifted UH.

The Tony Levine hire as football coach proved to be a head-scratcher in reality as it did on paper, and James Dickey didn't pan out as men's basketball coach.

But Rhoades quickly had impressive rebound hires in Tom Herman and Kelvin Sampson.

UH's next athletic director will thank Rhoades for a more solid ground on which to stand than an incoming UH AD has in some time.

That deserves applause.
The Houston Press's John Royal, however, is more circumspect:
The Mack Rhoades era at UH lasted five years. But his tenure leaves an open book that will not allow his work to be judged for several more years. He inherited a football team teetering on the edge of national relevance, a basketball team barely hanging onto relevance, two deteriorating stadiums, and a second-tier conference affiliation mainly consisting of teams with no historical ties to Houston or to Texas. 

As Rhoades departs, UH is still very much a work in progress. A football stadium has been built, but Hofheinz is barely holding together. The football team survived a disastrous coaching hire, but still teeters on the brink of national relevance while the basketball team was nearly killed by a disastrous coaching hire. And the school's still affiliated with a second-tier conference with almost no historical ties to UH or to Texas.

Rhoades deserves as much credit as possible for getting TDECU built. He worked tirelessly to get the needed funds, discovering along the way that UH alums talk big games, but often fail to back the talk up with checks made payable to the athletic department (it took the UH students agreeing to add on to their already onerous student fees to help get the thing built). But for all of the good done on the stadium, Rhoades blew it with the hiring of Tony Levine to replace Kevin Sumlin when Sumlin split for Texas A&M.
Royal points to the TDECU Stadium opener last August - a once-in-a-lifetime event, and perhaps the most anticipated event in the history of Cougar football - that was marred by a humiliating, momentum-killing 7-27 loss to double-digit-underdog UTSA: a loss that was the result of Rhoades' decision to promote woefully-underqualified assistant Tony Levine to head coach after Kevin Sumlin left. Or, as a friend of mine put it: "TDECU is the reason why we hired Rhoades. And the first game in TDECU is the reason why we should shed no tears about him leaving."

If Rhoades' decision to hire Tony Levine was a poor one, and his decision to give Levine a raise and contract extension right before the 2014 season an even poorer one, his decision to hire James Dickey to be head basketball coach - a hire I called a "bad April Fool's joke" at the time - bordered on utter incompetence. One of my concerns about Mack Rhoades when he was hired was that he had little experience in hiring coaches, and that concern was justified. Royal continues:
While the momentum of the Sumlin-era football team was stalled by Levine, whatever momentum was generated by Penders was jettisoned by Dickey. The squad was hit by player defections, dispirited play, and struggles against both vastly inferior competition and superior competition. Yet it could have been worse for basketball. The rumors are that Rhoades wanted to hire Billy Gillispie but that his choice was vetoed. Gillispie who had been fired after only two years as head coach of the college basketball factory known as Kentucky, instead ended up at Texas Tech after the UH job fell through, and he flamed out in spectacular style, being hit by allegations of abusing and mistreating his players. 

Rhoades appears to have righted the football and basketball ships by hiring the highly sought-after Tom Herman to coach football and by bringing on Kelvin Sampson, a former Rockets assistant coach who was highly successful as the head coach at Oklahoma and Indiana, to rescue the basketball team. But as Rhoades departs, it's still soon to say for sure that the two sports (the most important in the NCAA sports hierarchy) will recover from the disaster that was inflicted on them by the men Rhoades initially hired to be head coach.
As hopeful as I am about Tom Herman, he hasn't coached a single game yet, so it's still a bit early to call that hire a success (if indeed Rhoades had that much to do with that hire; rumors are swirling that the hire was a decision made above his head). And the UH mens basketball team just finished their season with a 13-19 record, so Kelvin Sampson has a long way to go before the program becomes competitive again. Hopefully Sampson can right the ship with his recruiting efforts; right now there is no local interest in Cougar basketball, and there won't be any until the team becomes competitive again. There's also the issue of basketball facilities, which Rhoades did not fully address while he was here:
And while Rhoades got TDECU Stadium built, Hofheinz Pavilion has continued to deteriorate. There's still no plan to replace or renovate the arena, and there's supposedly not much money available for use on the replacing/renovating. The place is a dump, and even if the team was good, it's difficult to imagine any but the most hard core fans wanting to come out to the games.
It's worth noting that TDECU Stadium is over budget and still not even 100% complete, but it's not clear if Rhoades bears any responsibility for that. What is clear is that Rhoades experienced friction with other University of Houston administrators, in particular Executive Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Carl Carlucci, regarding the construction and operation of the stadium, which doubtlessly made Rhoades' decision to move on an easy one.

The bottom line, according to Royal:
It'll probably be a few more years until the full legacy of Mack Rhoades at UH can be evaluated. If Tom Herman turns UH into a Texas version of Ohio State, and if Kelvin Sampson can rebuild basketball, then the Rhoades era will be an unqualified success. Baseball and the smaller sports are in really good shape, there has been tremendous academic growth from the athletes, and then there's TDECU Stadium. So at least things are looking up for the Houston Cougars. 
A lot, of course, will depend on who the University of Houston hires to be its next athletics director. 

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