With only four games remaining in Pac-10 play for the 2008-09 season, the University of Oregon men's basketball team finds itself on the verge of joining last year's Oregon State team in an undesirable, yet exclusive fraternity of teams that have gone winless throughout the entire Pac-10 conference schedule. Just two years removed from a berth in the Elite 8, the Ducks have fallen to previously unfathomable lows, leaving many Oregon fans left wondering what needs to happen to fix this mess.
The first solution many in the Oregon community have suggested is to fire longtime Duck head coach Ernie Kent. Kent, who took over the Oregon program in 1997, following a stint as head coach of St. Mary's college of Moraga, Calif. has led the Ducks to appearances in five NCAA tournaments in his 11 years in Eugene and is widely viewed as one of the most successful coaches in the University of Oregon's history. But as is the case in the 'What have you done for me lately?' world of intercollegiate athletics, Kent's coaching performance has come under increased scrutiny among Duck fans
In order to try to get a better feel for the job the one-time, popular Stanford assistant coach is doing, this first-time Bootleg reporter cleverly disguised himself as a University of Oregon student and made the trek up to Eugene to get an insider's perspective on Oregon's difficult season and the likely fate of the program's head coach. Not surprisingly, many Duck fans were eager to let their opinions on Kent be known.
"There's a lot of young talent that's being misused, like (McDonald's All American freshman center Michael) Dunigan," explained Oregon freshman James Ell. "Too much responsibly is being brought down on [star guard] Tajuan Porter, which is hindering his game. Ernie Kent's days are numbered if he can't make better use of the talent he has accrued." Oregon "Pit Crew" (the Ducks equivalent of the 6th Man Club) member Jon McCarty took his criticism of Kent one step further. "Although he has coached the Ducks to a number of great seasons, Ernie's success has fallen greatly and thus should no longer be the coach of the Oregon Ducks because of our 0-14 conference record."
However Oregon Daily Emerald sports editor Andrew Greif, who is as in tune to the state of Duck athletics as anyone, feels that not everyone in the Oregon community shares those thoughts. "I'd call (the community's feeling) 'hesitant'," Greif said. "It was (and) is still pretty torn, because he's taken (the team) to places to which the program had only been 70 years ago, but something hasn't worked this season. I think they want to give him the benefit of the doubt because he was an old Duck."
Unfortunately, sentiment only goes so far. When push comes to shove, coaches are paid handsomely to put a winning product on the floor - and the only proven way to do that is to recruit effectively. And, aside from this year's lackluster on-court performance, Oregon's perceived struggles on the recruiting trail have fueled the fire of many Kent detractors. In the last four years the Ducks have only recruited one four- or five-star player, according to the Scout.com recruiting rankings. Others, like Greif, point to players like Porter, Dunigan, and Kamyron Brown in insisting that the Ducks have the talent necessary to resurrect the program sooner rather than later. "I think Duck recruiting has been as good as ever, showing this year's freshman class as the example," Greif said. "Kent can still recruit."
While the debate over Kent's recruiting acumen will not be resolved easily, there is one aspect of the Duck basketball program that is universally regarded to have been clearly on the rise for years. As was first brought to this writer's attention by Bootleg Editor 'Emeritus,' the aesthetic beauty of Oregon's cheerleaders has improved by leaps and bounds during Kent's tenure. According to highly scientific data compiled after years of comprehensive testing and analysis, it appears that on average, Oregon cheerleaders were 45% more physically attractive in 2008 than in 1996 (the year before Kent took over) Unfortunately, the actually quality of the cheerleading appears to have taken a decided turn for the worse, as studies have shown a 32% decrease in actually cheerleading ability, although no one seems to care.
And while the Oregon cheer squad is doing its part to keep Macarthur court buzzing, the once boisterous arena has not seen a capacity crowd in the six conference games it has hosted this year. "You never saw Mac Court with empty seats before this season - a minute before tip-off," Greif said. "There's been talk that a good fan base never leaves its team through anything - but then again, what have the Ducks given the fans this year to cheer about?"
With Oregon's new state-of-the-art basketball arena set to open in 2011, there is heightened pressure on Kent and the Oregon athletic department to ensure that Duck basketball bounces back quickly from this disastrous season. And despite the fact that Kent is a generally well-liked and respected alumnus of Oregon, many Ducks fans, while perhaps willing to give Kent one more year to develop some of his young talent, are clamoring for a big name to lead Ducks into the new "Mathew Knight Arena".
But of course there is a reason that fans do not run athletic departments. It is important to look at all that Kent has accomplished in his 11 years in Eugene before rushing to judgment. We're talking about a man who has coached the program the most wins in the school's history, has helped develop four NBA first-round draft picks, and has led his team to two Elite Eight runs in the last eight years. So does it really make sense to fire him after only one bad season, with as young and inexperienced a team as there is in the Pac-10?
There is no consensus among those close to the program and really no obvious answer to that question. But, when it comes time to determine Kent's fate at season's end, there really is only one logical decision to make. You don't fire the winningest head coach in your program's history after a single bad season, albeit one of historically poor proportions, and it would be a grievous mistake for Duck athletic director Pat Kilkenny to do anything but give Kent one more year to turn things back around.
About the Author: Andy Drukarev is a lifelong Bay Area resident and huge Stanford sports fan who is currently in school at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Despite the frequent social pressure of Duck fans, Andy has held strong to his roots as a Cardinal fan, holding off any and all suggestions from Duck fans trying to convince him that Mark Madsen is anything but a perennial MVP candidate.
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