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Sunday September 21 2014
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Bold Move on the Bluff

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When Ron Everhart took over the Duquesne basketball program in 2006, the Dukes were coming off a 3-24 season. They had just two winning seasons over the past quarter century.

Before Everhart’s first team played a game, a campus shooting wounded five players, nearly killing Sam Ashaolu. Everhart rallied the team in the aftermath of the tragedy, winning 10 games and galvanizing the campus. The Dukes have not had a losing season since.


Six years after Everhart began his reclamation project—on the heels of the Dukes best five-year run in 40 years—Duquesne athletic director Greg Amodio fired him.


The firing of a well-liked coach is always a bold move, particularly when said coach transformed a program from irrelevant after-thought into a consistent winner.


Basketball writer Mike DeCourcy, a Pittsburgh native who covered Duquesne for the Pittsburgh Press in the 1980’s, wrote in The Sporting News that the school’s decision to fire Everhart was “one of the more astounding decisions involving a Division I program in recent times.”


Amodio and Duquesne President Charles Dougherty fully embraced the bold nature of their decision.


“Certainly,” acknowledged Amodio. “I hired Ron, and at some point—and I’ve said this to Dr. Dougherty—it reflects on me that we couldn’t get to the next level.”


Amodio made it clear that he felt the program had stagnated and would not be able to take the next step without a coaching change. He replaced Everhart with former Long Island head coach Jim Ferry.


“What we’d like to see is more consistent play toward the end of the season that leads to better outcomes in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, and ideally providing us with an opportunity to get into the NIT and the NCAA,” said Amodio. “We want to just continue to grow, get better, be strong at the end of the season and be playing your best basketball for a championship.”


The program has been stuck at the 16-17-18 win level, and Everhart’s teams went 3-5 in Atlantic 10 Championship play with all three wins coming in 2009. The Dukes dropped their opening A-10 tourney game in five of Everhart’s six seasons. So simply winning more than they lost was no longer enough.


The fact that Everhart even got Duquesne to that point, however, is something of a minor miracle according to some.


“Duquesne wasn't in the basement of D-1 basketball,” wrote PSR’s Ray Mernagh last month, “it was in the bomb shelter attached to the basement by the long tunnel through the sewage.”


DeCourcy agreed with that bleak assessment of where Duquesne’s basketball program was when Everhart took over, and feels his ability to raise the Dukes from the dead should have been enough to warrant more time.


photo by Chuck LeClaire“Duquesne didn’t give him the proper credit,” said DeCourcy. “What he was able to achieve in what was nearly a hopeless situation certainly merited the opportunity to continue into the future.”


Amodio obviously didn’t see it that way, and he clearly had support from the administration. The offseason transfer of point guard T.J. McConnell—a local product and the best player on the Dukes’ roster—may have been the nail in Everhart’s coaching coffin.


“Obviously T.J. McConnell was a fairly rare talent for them and losing him was significant,” said DeCourcy. “But the McConnell’s have gone out of their way to say that it wasn’t Ron that was the problem.”


At the end of the day, says Amodio, the Dukes—like any other program at the Division 1 level—want to win at a high level.


“It’s all about trying to give our student athletes assets to compete for championships,” he said. “I don’t think any student athlete comes and says, ‘Hey, I want to be a college athlete with the hope of being average or mediocre.’ They want to compete for championships and that’s what our responsibility is.”


Ferry, Everhart’s replacement, spent ten seasons at LIU and led the Blackbirds to consecutive NCAA tournament appearances in 2011 and 2012 – a destination Everhart was unable to reach.


Amodio is gambling that Ferry is the man to get them there.


“I think the guy’s good, and I think he’s proven that,” said DeCourcy about Ferry’s hire. “But my question is, are they likely to get beyond where they were? And in their present circumstance, I don’t think they are likely to get beyond where they were.”


What’s more, DeCourcy isn’t sure that there is a coach—at least one who would be interested in coaching at Duquesne—available who can do more than Everhart did.


“I question whether ‘a clear upgrade’ would take the job,” he said.


The coaching change came with the typical fallout of such a transition – lost recruits. Elite prospect Willie Moore, a shooting guard out of Cincinnati who was recruited to Duquesne by Everhart, eliminated the Dukes and was considering Virginia Tech and South Carolina at press time. Ferry was also unable to keep Baltimore guard Bryan Harris, who committed to Wofford. Additionally, Reading forward Donovan Jack—an elite in-state prospect—was granted a release from his scholarship and will instead attend Penn State.


Ferry did manage to hang on to Ohio power forward Shaheed Davis and added Maryland point guard Derrick Colter, who chose the Dukes over High Point, Quinnipiac and Western Kentucky.


“I’m not looking to sprint to win this thing,” said Ferry. “It’s a marathon. We’re going to be here for a while and we’re going to build it. It’s at a stage where it needs to be rebuilt right now because of some transfers.”


Duquesne UniversityAmodio, who hired Everhart six years ago and played a large part in the overall improvement across the Duquesne athletic department during his tenure, feels the time was right to act boldly.


“Ron did a great job of continuing to help build this program and move it forward,” he said. “And with the commitment from the university, the dollars that are going in, additional finances, the facilities, things of that nature, and the fact that we’ve been much more successful in the Atlantic 10 and in general, it’s made the job that much more attractive.”


While the progress that the program made under Everhart and Amodio is clear, DeCourcy wonders is such a risk was necessary.


“I just question how far beyond they can go when they’ve basically stopped their own momentum,” said DeCourcy.

I spent three days late last month visiting 18 high schools across the WPIAL. I drove 533 miles, took hundreds of photographs, shook hands with dozens of coaches, athletic directors and principals and climbed way too many stadium steps. I loved every minute of it, of course.
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