For the first time, San Jose State athletic director Gene Bleymaier has cut loose coaches who he hired. On June 10, San Jose State announced that baseball coach Dave Nakama and women’s water polo coach Johnny Bega will not return next year. Sources indicated that Bleymaier chose not to renew Nakama’s contract, which will expire June 30 after one year.
This is not the first time under Bleymaier that coaches have left after bad seasons. The year San Jose State moved from the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) to Mountain West Conference (MW), 2013, saw the departures of men’s basketball coach George Nessman and volleyball coach Oscar Crespo. However, both were hired by the previous athletic director, Tom Bowen.
Given Nakama’s poor head coaching record at the NCAA level, whether with Division II San Francisco State or San Jose State, the firing of Nakama was long overdue. Also, in three years with Bega as coach, the women’s water polo program consistently finished at the bottom of its conference. The greater question is: what message do the firings of Bega and Nakama deliver to the rest of the athletic department? Bleymaier has consistently shown that no one gets a free ride under his watch, regardless if a coach was his hire.
Clearly, Bleymaier has learned from his experience cleaning house with men’s basketball, early in his tenure as athletic director. When Bleymaier entered his job in the summer of 2012, on his plate was a collapsing men’s basketball program. Coming off a 9-22 season that included only one conference win, Nessman had two years remaining on his contract. In seven seasons, Nessman had an overall winning percentage around .350, and his teams never finished higher than sixth place in the WAC.
How did Nessman last six seasons in the first place? Laughably, Bowen extended Nessman’s contract in 2007, despite Nessman going 11-50 in his first two seasons. This was a premature move that should have waited for tangible results, not just promises. Although Nessman’s 2010-11 team finished 5-11 in WAC play, the team eked out a 17-16 overall record thanks to a lightweight non-conference schedule, miracle run to the WAC Tournament semifinals, and CBI first round appearance.
Facing a “pick your poison” situation, between keeping an underperforming coach or making a coaching change immediately yet denying the new coach an opportunity to sign his own players, Bleymaier retained Nessman. By then, the national signing deadline had long passed. When Dave Wojcik replaced Nessman in April 2013, Wojcik had time to evaluate the existing roster and sign his own recruiting class.
Fast forward to 2016. None of Bleymaier’s hires, whether Wojcik, football coach Ron Caragher, or women’s basketball coach Jamie Craighead, have had contract extensions. Caragher and Craighead have produced admirable results recently. The 2015 football team won a bowl game, the first in Caragher’s tenure. Craighead led the women’s basketball team to the semifinal round of the 2015 MW Tournament and an 11-7 MW record in 2015-16, for the program’s first winning conference record in nearly a decade. However, neither coach has produced a winning overall record for their teams, a major reason why they have not been extended.
Meanwhile, Wojcik finished last season 9-22, with as many wins as his first two seasons combined. From 2013 to 2015, Wojcik went 9-52, a record close to that of Nessman in 2007 when San Jose State extended Nessman’s contract. Despite Bleymaier publicly expressing confidence in Wojcik in a similar manner as Bowen on Nessman in 2007, there is no contract extension yet for Wojcik. This decision shows a great difference between Bleymaier and his predecessor: an early winning percentage in the .100s yet with “promise and “potential” does not warrant a contract extension.
Bleymaier has signalled that he expects his coaches to earn their jobs by sustaining success. Expect Bleymaier to sign extensions for coaches who lift their teams to success and sustain it, just as he showed Nakama the door for sustaining failure. The 2016-17 academic year will be the fourth years in their five-year contracts for Caragher, Craighead, and Wojcik. Based on Bleymaier’s decision on Nakama, that year will be crucial. With an increasingly impatient fan base and the need to attract donations for facility upgrades, no coach’s job is safe, especially if said coach fails to show improvement.