NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 23: Head coach Seth Greenberg of the Virginia Tech Hokies reacts against the Syracuse Orange during the 2011 Dick's Sporting Goods NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden on November 23, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
It was only a few short months ago that I wrote Virginia Tech would be crazy to fire Seth Greenberg. Yet on Monday, that's exactly what Virginia Tech did.
In a 30-minute press conference that was about as comfortable as watching your parents make out, Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver announced he had "terminated" Greenberg as head basketball coach after nine seasons at the helm.
In those nine seasons, Greenberg won 170 games, second most in program history behind Charles Moir. The 2011-12 season was the first time since 2006 that the Hokies failed to make the postseason, although just one of those seasons ended in an NCAA Tournament appearance.
However, Weaver cited constant turnover on the coaching staff , rather than a lack of victories, as the reason Greenberg was shown the door.
It is not a matter of whether Weaver made the right or wrong decision. By Monday, he was left with no choice.
Make no mistake about it, from the time Greenberg arrived on campus until the last game of this past season, the bar wasn't simply raised for the basketball program — it was created. When Greenberg arrived in 2003, the Hokies had just wrapped up an 11-18 season, including a 4-12 record in Big East play. In the three seasons leading up to Greenberg's hire, Tech posted a 9-38 record in conference play. They had never made a Big East Tournament. The women's basketball team significantly outdrew the men in home attendance.
Greenberg immediately turned the program around. He steered a group of prospects previously committed to him at South Florida to come to Tech, including Zabian Dowdell, Jamon Gordon and Coleman Collins. Along with the help of Bryant Matthews, the Hokies not only reached the Big East Tournament in 2004, but won its first-round game against Rutgers. Just as football had become the only thing that mattered at Tech, Greenberg put men's basketball on the radar.
He guided the Hokies through a transition into the ACC, a move many feared would doom the Hokies for permanent mediocrity. Yet the Hokies consistently finished in the top half of the conference from the very start, while pulling off multiple milestone wins over the likes of North Carolina and Duke. That never seemed possible when Ricky Stokes was fired and Greenberg took over.
The Greenberg era absolutely peaked in 2007, when the Hokies reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a five-seed before bowing out to Southern Illinois. It was Dowdell, Gordon and Collins' senior seasons, and it served as a worthy culmination for their collective careers. They were instrumental in turning Greenberg's program from a utter obscurity into a respectable program in a power conference.
Then came the NIT years. Four straight seasons of a bubbly purgatory that ended in frustration each time. A talented core of Malcolm Delaney, Jeff Allen and Dorenzo Hudson failed to take the Hokies back to the big dance despite finishing as the winningest class in program history.
Greenberg began to feel the heat from the fan base as the NIT appearances continued to pile up. And it was vehemently unfair. Fans confused the frustration of coming oh-so-close of making the NCAA Tournament with the notion that Greenberg's program was failing.
Until that frustration started to fester and infiltrate the program at its very core.
Suddenly, Greenberg's assistant coaching staff became a revolving door. In 2009, Stacy Palmore left to join Mark Fox at Georgia. In 2010, Ryan Odom (a member of Greenberg's initial staff at Tech) took off for an assistant gig at Charlotte. Bill Courtney also took the head job at Cornell, but that is of course understandable. In 2011, Adrian Autry left for an assistant job at Dayton before being immediately plucked to join his alma mater at Syracuse.
Since the end of the 2011-12 season, Greenberg's entire staff hit the road. Rob Ehsan, a rising star in the coaching ranks, bolted after one season at Tech to join Jerrod Haase's staff at UAB. James Johnson followed suit, making an essentially lateral move to an assistant job at Clemson, citing that money "was not an issue." Over the weekend, rumors began to surface that super recruiter John Richardson was returning to his old job as Blaine Taylor's assistant at Old Dominion. Richardson left with no apparent knowledge that Greenberg would get the axe.
Suddenly, Greenberg was heading into a season that threatened to make or break his tenure without an assistant coach to call his own. It became apparent that Ehsan, Johnson and Richardson could feel the end looming as they made lateral moves to new jobs.
Had Greenberg been able to retain his staff, the 2012-13 season would have been the ultimate barometer of where the program stood. Over the past two seasons, injuries decimated the Hokies' chances of reaching the postseason. As Weaver said in the (terribly handled) press conference, it became apparent he wouldn't extend Greenberg's contract after next season in the wake of the mass exodus on the staff.
Clearly, the administration was willing to give Greenberg another chance in 2012-13 to keep the program afloat until his aides began dropping like flies. Coaches talk in this business. There were no viable candidates to join Greenberg's staff, with the danger of being canned after only a year becoming suddenly apparent.
This is Virginia Tech. The idea of family defines the athletic department. Greenberg could not keep a staff together for even two straight years. Blacksburg is a different place. Secluded in Southwest Virginia, it feels like God built the town for guys like Frank Beamer. Greenberg, a New York native with no previous ties to the area, always seemed like a square peg in a round hole, but his ability to win basically shifted that to the back burner. Whatever philosophical differences existed between him and Weaver finally became too much to handle and, well, Greenberg couldn't fire Weaver.
What happens from here is completely up in the air. The timing of the firing is as unusual as it gets for a coach not involved in a major scandal. While Greenberg raised the profile of the Hokies' program to a level it has never seen before, it could fall back into the abyss in a heartbeat.
Reading between the lines of Weaver's press conference, it sounds like the Hokies hope to bring in a young head coach or assistant coach, and that prior head coaching experience is not a requirement. Unless Tech can make a swift, major hire of someone like Shaka Smart or Gregg Marshall, don't be surprised to see at least a couple of players leave the program. Erick Green already said he'd consider it. If the coaching search lasts more than a week or two and results in a ho-hum hiring, Greenberg's successor will basically have to start from scratch. It's a shame, considering the most recent freshman class was the most highly regarded in school history and the Hokies were set to add top-50 recruit Montrezl Harrell next fall.
Through the move to the ACC, the addition of a state-of-the-art practice facility, and an unprecedented seven postseason appearances in nine seasons, calling Greenberg's tenure anything but a success would be foolish.
Virginia Tech basketball is better today because of Seth Greenberg. But the Hokies can do better. The only question now is if they can do it in late April.