March 2, 2012
By Saluki Media Services Staff
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Southern Illinois University announced on Friday that Chris Lowery will not return as head coach of the men's basketball program.
Director of Athletics Mario Moccia held a news conference today in the Tedrick Auditorium of the Boydston Center to discuss the future of Saluki men's basketball.
The longest-tenured active coach in the Missouri Valley Conference, Lowery compiled a 145-116 record in eight seasons.
In his first four years at the helm, Lowery's teams were 96-41 and made three NCAA Tournament appearances and earned one NIT bid. The highlight of his tenure came when the 2007 squad finished 29-7, advanced to the Sweet 16, and ended the year ranked No. 11 in the nation -- the highest ranking in school history.
In his last four seasons, however, the program slipped to a 49-75 mark. This year's team produced an 8-23 record, finishing the campaign with seven-straight losses to set a school-record for losses in a season.
Lowery has been a major figure in Saluki Basketball since the early `90s. As the team's point guard from 1990-93, he scored 1,225 points and dished out 391 assists. His teams were 86-37 during his playing career and advanced to two NCAA Tournaments and two NITs.
In 2001, he joined head coach Bruce Weber's staff at Southern, a year in which the Salukis went 28-8 and advanced to the Sweet 16. He left with Weber in 2003 and coached one season as an assistant at Illinois, before returning to his alma mater as head coach in 2004. He is the only person in MVC history to win the league's tournament as both a player (1992, 1993) and head coach (2006).
"I want to personally thank Chris for his service to our University as a player and coach for 14 years," Moccia said. "He is a Saluki to his core."
The fortunes of Southern's men's basketball program began to change in 2008, when the team finished 13-18. Roster upheaval has been an ongoing issue for the Salukis. Of the 11 players who were part of the heralded 2008 and 2009 signing classes, six have transferred. The only two who remain are senior Justin Bocot and junior Kendal Brown-Surles.
Lowery has two years remaining on the seven-year contract that he signed following the 2007 season.
MARIO MOCCIA PRESS CONFERENCE TRANSCRIPT
I know this is a big news day with the weather and things like that and obviously our thoughts are with Harrisburg and the affected communities. We do have a collection point with Saluki Athletics that is this weekend at Saluki Softball, all day this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., so hopefully we can get some supplies out to the folks that are in need in the community.
Obviously, the purpose of today's press conference is to discuss Saluki Men's Basketball. We have made a decision that Chris Lowery will not return as head men's basketball coach. I would like to take the opportunity to thank Chris for his service. Fourteen years as a player, an assistant and as a head coach. He was part of 7 NCAA tournament teams at Southern Illinois University and I personally appreciate all of his efforts for all that time he spent trying to make us a tremendous ball club.
We did make the decision to not retain coach and there were several factors and I will outline some of them. Certainly, we had seen a decline in academics and I'm proud to say that this last class in this last term has seen an uptake, but there was a definite decline in our academics for several semesters. We certainly had poor player retention for many classes and I think that has led us into the position we are in today. Certainly, a loss of season ticket holders, individual game tickets, as well as revenue was a factor and quite frankly a general malaise around the basketball program and the entire community.
We believe that Saluki Basketball is the epicenter of the entire program and it is of critical importance that we return to prominence immediately. We will begin immediately on a national search. We have a very solid committee of individuals to assist me with this. We have a current Saluki head coach, we've got a former player, and we've got very experienced and successful university and community individuals, and I think we've put together a good team that will help me select the next men's basketball coach.
As we begin the search, we will focus on a coach with the following characteristics but certainly not limited to academics, that's a big key for us: having a positive attitude with our student-athletes, having the ability to recruit character and talented players that fit their style of play, a very strong communicator --someone that can communicate with our kids, a relentless recruiter and someone who is really willing to be the face of Saluki Basketball in our community in our region and our institution.
Our history of success at NCAA Tournaments with the facilities we've built for Saluki Way and with the talented group of youngsters and returners that we have, I have no doubt that a quick return to the top of the MVC is possible and I also see this as one of the top jobs not only in the MVC but in the Midwest. I would expect to attract a tremendous candidate. I would also like to take this time to thank the fans for their support and patience through this transition, so thank you very much from our administration, myself, and at this point in time I would like to open it up for questions.
Can you give us a timeline? Did this happen last night, this morning or how did it kind of go?
We have been consistent and for every single sport we have waited for the season to be concluded to render a final judgment. I think during the season, you know many people can formulate their opinions on how things are going and things like that, but I certainly wanted to respect the process and certainly wanted to respect the student-athletes as well as our coaching staff as well as an individual who gave an awful lot of years to this program and not render judgment in the media and take the focus off what the kids are trying to do, what the coaching staff is trying to do and certainly we would never want to undercut our kids or our coaching staff. We made the decision after the ball game last night and started to move forward this morning.
How did Chris react?
Chris acted really professionally. You know it was hard because Chris and I may have not seen eye-to-eye on everything ,but we never really had a cross word with each other. We always had very professional interaction. I always wanted Chris to succeed and it was maybe a difficult conversation. Chris loves this place he's an alum and he's won here so it wasn't easy, but at the same time it was cordial and professional.
Are you at liberty to tell us who is on the committee?
A current head coach for the Salukis right now with another sport and I chose not to divulge the names. I hope by me not divulging them it would keep them from getting bombarded by a lot of folks, so I will keep all of them anonymous at this point.
Can you talk a little bit about the financial side of it?
I'm sure you know that Coach Lowery had two years left on his contract. Since this is a personnel issue, I can't go into great detail, but it's my expectations that Chris' agent as well as our general counsel will begin discussions very soon in negotiation. I can't speak to that right now because its just the day after, but that's what my hopes would be, but we'll learn more about that later.
Usually an assistant takes over as the interim, do you have any one like that right now?
As of right now, all of our assistants are still with us, they are under contract. (Associate Head Coach) Ron Smith, while maybe not the official interim head coach, but as the associate head coach he will take the lead with that group. They will communicate with players and recruits. I have spoken with the team and I have spoken with our incoming recruits and their family members, so we try to do our due diligence with that.
Do you have a timeline when you want a new coach in place?
I hate to throw out a timeline, because if you don't meet it then everyone is asking you every single day, are you disappointed what's going on? Certainly I'd like to have it wrapped up prior to the Final Four or around the Final Four. Now that doesn't mean we might not be aggressive or be able to do things quicker than that, but sometimes we might be interested in people who are playing in the NCAA Tournament or playing in the NIT Tournament and things might not allow for that. We are not going to rush just to hire someone quickly. We are going to take our time, but we are going to put all of our energy right now into this search. Like I said before, we aren't going to dilly-dally around, we are going to move as fast as we can but expeditiously.
Have any student-athletes expressed interest in leaving the program?
Not to me. I think we had a very positive meeting of the entire team. As I am explaining to them some of the real-world decisions and some of the unpleasant things that we have to do from time-to-time, I personally sensed a lot of positivity in the locker room and a belief that there is a tremendous amount of talent in the locker room that it should not be too long before we not only turn the ship around and where we all think Saluki Basketball should be.
Can you go back to the timeline just briefly? Did you tell Chris about this last night or was it this morning or when did you meet with him?
Chris and I talked briefly last night after the game. We set up a time to meet and he came over to my room and we met briefly and informed him of the news. I thanked him for everything and we left very cordially at approximately 9:30 p.m. - 10 p.m. last night.
Is there a reason you thought this had to be done today as opposed to Monday because obviously the Valley tournament is going on?
Well, we are proud members of the Missouri Valley Conference and my number one priority is Saluki Basketball and my focus is on the Salukis. I always thought that if I had made a decision and my supervisors have made that decision as well, there is no reason to wait. So my focus is on us and not the tournament and I think quite frankly there are some people you reach out to and I don't see it as a disruption of the tournament.
You said you can't talk about how you made the buyout, but how can you afford to pay a high rate coach if the university and athletic department aren't doing well?
We have not made any buyout yet. This just happened less than 24 hours ago that we had our discussion. It is my anticipation that both sides will get together, Chris' agent as well as our general counsel, and begin the negotiation process. For me to speculate what might come out of that negotiation would be a little premature, because I'm not positive the two sides have even connected today. So whatever comes out of that we will fiscally deal with that, but it's a little early to discuss what the figure is.
Have any donors expressed interest in helping the school with the buyout?
I can put that rumor to rest. We have never, ever, asked a donor for a dime to buy out a contract of our men's basketball coach. That has never occurred. No one has ever approached me for that as well, so you can put that down.
Will you look outside the so-called "Saluki Family" in your search for a new head coach?
I think the program has such a strong foundation. We can talk about what's happened the last three years and maybe the house doesn't look so great, but I know this place has a strong foundation with victories, with our facilities, with things like that. I think we can attract a quality coach. I would not want to henpeck ourselves just to folks that were around our program, but certainly I think we're going to be open minded and we're going to look at everybody around the country. Certainly, we would probably gravitate toward individuals in the midwest and things like that, but we are not going to have tunnel vision on anybody specifically. We're going to have an open mind.
If somebody like Bruce Weber -- who coached here before -- became available, would you be interested? Can you rule him out?
I wouldn't rule anybody out. I'd hate to speculate on Coach (Weber) because he's still coaching at U of I. I think once you join the Saluki family, whether you're an athletic director that's been here six years or somebody like Mike Reis who's been here 30, I root for Coach, I root for Matt Painter, so I want them to do well, so I'd hate to speculate on that. I hope he wins big and finishes out his contract at U of I.
Have any incoming recruits expressed any problems regarding the change?
No. I had a tremendous conversation with Bobo Drummond, a great youngster. He has expressed excitement about the Salukis. I was gratified to hear that. I also reached out to Travis (Wilkins). With me not meeting Travis on his recruiting trip -- I was away that weekend -- so that is somebody I'd like to get to know a little bit more, and we kinda discussed where he's at in his timeline as well. But we did reach out to them. We gave them a consistent message: 'We are going to be looking for a head coach, we know that we're going to attract a quality coach, and we certainly want you to get with them as soon as we have announced that person.' I'm sure that the new coach will want to talk to the new recruits as soon as he gets on board, so I would label them as very positive and informative conversations.
What is the biggest positive that comes out of a decision like this?
I've used the word 'malaise' and I've used another word that some people didn't like. But the reality is SIU Arena didn't have the same feel. It didn't have the same crowds that were in there, the noise, the excitement level that was generated -- the thing that would permeate through all our sports and throughout our community. So, if there's a positive, it's never pleasant to change course, especially when there is an alum involved who's been around this place and had done such a tremendous job as a player, an assistant and a head coach for a time. But at the same time I also think it's a new day. I think there is an opportunity to get back what we've had, whether it was in the '60s, whether it was what we had with Coach Herrin, whether it was what we had with Coach Weber, Coach Painter and Coach Lowery. We've done it before. There is no way we can't do it again and there's no way we can't do it quickly, especially given the facilities and things like that. I think if there is a takeaway of being positive, this is a tremendous job. We have got tremendous kids coming back, and we're going to have a tremendous group of candidates who are interested in this position who I think can lead us back to the top of the MVC and beyond.
I know it's been a recent decision, but have you had any reactions from any boosters or other people?
I haven't really had time to check my e-mail. Obviously, it comes in on the phone but I've been kind of focused. We met with the assistants this morning, I attended the president's Missouri Valley Hall of Fame breakfast where Connie Price-Smith was inducted, came right back, stopped at the house to get a change of clothes, met with the players and then came right here, so I haven't really been able to get on the phone or e-mail too much.
There has been a lot of focus on the length and amount of the contract and the perceived lack of protection the University had. When it came to actual performance on the floor, how does that affect future contract negotiations?
This is universal. If things go well, there's a lot of backslapping, and when they don't, there's a lot of arrows -- we totally get that because we're in athletics. The reality is, when we did the contract, it was very well received because we wanted to make sure we locked up Chris. Obviously, we're standing here today because it didn't work out the way we anticipated. I'll say this to answer your question: we will be getting back to contracts of a fiscal nature that's a little more of what we can bite off. I think with the prolonged six-straight NCAA Tournaments and arguably maybe the greatest season in Saluki basketball history with 29 wins and a No. 11 ranking, there was a huge desire from everybody to lock up the coach, because we sure didn't want another person taking our coach. But I think the reality is maybe the mindset has changed a little bit. It's a good thing if people are interested in our coach, and while it might not be the best thing if coaches leave like Coach Weber or Coach Painter, our job will be to get the next one of those versus doing everything we can. Financially, we may not be able to compete, especially in this economy and with the state's economy. I see us getting to be a little more back to the contracts that we used to offer from a financial standpoint. Nevertheless, we still want to remain competitive, and I think with the facility upgrades and things like that, I think that is value added that can go along with the contract to really attract a top candidate.
Will protection of the University be a focal point in future contracts?
I think one thing, the finances will certainly be different. But at the same time, we will certainly look to revamp the contracts, offer more protections, things like that, structure them differently. But I will remind you, at the time, in a negotiation process, that's what the other side wanted. When you're negotiating a contract you don't always get everything you want. Sometime you're negotiating with somebody that is a very hot commodity and you have to give in a little here, they have to give in a little there. I do think we will definitely offer more protection in the future.
What was the last straw for this decision? Was there a singular moment?
I think it would be a little shortsighted to say there was one moment that was the tipping point. I think the reality is that we knew -- and I'll speak for myself -- that we were going to have a lot of freshmen this year and some junior college kids, who are always going to have a transition period. We made the decision to soften the schedule up a bit, as you can tell -- we've got the lowest strength of schedule and RPI, so we did that for a reason. We knew that we were going to have some young student-athletes out there and we were going to try to give them some confidence from the get-go. We did not anticipate a couple injuries, legal situations and academic situations, which forced us to play young players maybe too much and too soon and did not allow us to redshirt the players. I'd almost say from the get-go of the year, we didn't get off on the right foot and that was really disappointing. Because I thought even with all the past disappointment, I was hopeful that this year, even though we had some young kids and even though we might take our lumps, maybe we'll go into November with a core of folks and that didn't happen. Instead of gelling in November and December, we ended up finally getting a full compliment of folks in December or January, and that was what I think, if there was a takeaway, the most disappointment for me.
There are a lot of people who don't follow athletics but care about the money being spent here. What do you say to them
I will say this: we don't know what that money is yet because, once again, the two sides need to come together and talk. Certainly, in athletics there is a cost of doing business, and it is a big business, to the athletic department and to the institution. Look at the finances from just two years ago. We're down $500,000 in ticket revenue -- season tickets and individual game tickets. We're also down $200,000 in the scholarship fund, which we feel is directly tied into the men's basketball program. I would say it is a big business at times, and while the decision is made and while some of the finances -- when we find out what they are -- might be different than what we've ever dealt with here before, we've changed the game a little bit, too. When you go to all those great tournaments in a row and when you build these huge facilities, you attract coaches and you attract coaches that people are very interested in, and if you want to retain them you're going to have to pay for their services.
What have President Poshard and Chancellor Cheng had to say about this?
Well, I report directly to the Chancellor, so she certainly was kept in the loop. I talked with her, and she not only spoke with President Poshard but the Board as well, so I think everybody was in unison with the decision.