Duquesne’s coach is fired. God save the coach.
Roughly every five years, Duquesne fans get the pleasure of watching their old, frustrating coach get canned and the brief respite from mind numbing hopelessness for an offseason of optimism surrounding the new hire. Jim Ferry’s honeymoon ended midway through his first conference season and it has been nothing but wailing and gnashing of teeth since.
It’s tough to follow a popular Pope, but Ferry inherited a nightmare of a program. Three legit D-1 players with a combined four years of eligibility remained following the transfers of TJ McConnell and Mike Talley. Two of them were really role players at best. The program came under fire for academic issues and drifted closer and closer to sanctions. At least one player needed to get his grades up just to transfer. The bumpy road did not make initial travel easy for Ferry, but like hell was he going to get ten years to find a highway.
Philosophically, there were problems from the beginning. While I’m still an ardent supporter of Greg Amodio’s and feel his tenure yielded a far reaching positive impact on Duquesne sports in general, former athletic director Amodio likely prioritized product over performance on the basketball court. Like Ron Everhart before him, Amodio nabbed a coach who played up tempo, fast paced, and end to end basketball in Ferry. The game they produced was entertaining for sure, and Ferry’s tenure produced a number of exciting moments that flashed the school on Sportcenter’s top 10 with greater frequency than I ever recall. Unfortunately, you don’t hang banners with click bait. Amodio’s mark on men’s basketball was all flair and little substance, the Nickelback of college basketball.
There were also issues with the coaching philosophy itself and it may not have been evolved enough for the Atlantic 10. Ferry said his team would play “catch us if you can” basketball from his very first press conference. Guess what? A-10 teams can catch you! I don’t buy the argument in today’s sports world that defense exclusively wins championships, but you have to play some of it to even be mediocre. His first three years, the offense was primed coming into non-conference only to slow when a Swiss cheese defense took the focus in practice. The defense improved his final two seasons, at least in terms of the eyeball test, but still wasn’t sufficient, especially with the overall offensive efficiency taking a big step backwards this year.
One might say Ferry was a guy who stuck to his guns. Others might say he was stubborn. In truth, he did seem to be evolving although he may have been too little too late. His last two recruiting classes had players with two way potential but team lacked an overall identity by the end. They played faster than average but they weren’t up and down as advertised. Often times, they ran pretty deliberate sets especially when attempting to protect late leads. They also weren’t always the aggressor though I thought his teams played well when they were. What they ended up with was a quasi spread offense that didn’t have the kind of consistent shooters one through four you actually need to stretch the defense and open up lanes.
“Frustrating” would be the best word to describe Ferry during his tenure as that single word has layers. He was frustrating in the sense that his team seemingly gave away a lot of leads or lost to too many teams from lesser conferences. Games that should have been gimmies against 250+ RPI teams flopped when his teams couldn’t step on throats or take advantage of opportunities. If 2 goals is the scariest lead in soccer, 16 points with 15 minutes to play is the scariest lead against a Jim Ferry team. I have no interest in counting all of these losses, but there seemed like more than his share. He also struggled in close games, one of the cornerstones to the argument against Everhart late in his tenure, with a 2-10 record in contests decided by six or fewer points in 16-17 and combined 7-18 in the last three years. Sure, this year’s team was close to having a much better record, but it also provided evidence of an underlying pattern.
He was also frustrating in that his in-game coaching fluctuated from really good to dumpster fire. Just in the past few weeks, we saw the extremes. I can’t think of a single issue in their loss to George Mason. He put the team in a great position to exploit mismatches for Isiaha Mike in the first half, played off it to open space for his guards in the second and then drew up a play on the final possession that yielded two shots to win. Then, he follows it with a disaster in the A-10 tournament against Saint Louis where he simply gives the lead away with almost no intervention, save for a time out when Smith was trapped.
Ferry has always struck me as more pissed off at referees than truly competitive. It seemed like he was saving himself and passionate coaching for a hypothetical future that ultimately never came for him at Duquesne. I don’t think he really cared if he won or not because the “now” was the time for learning and “getting better every day.” The future was for putting the pieces together. Ultimately, his first core of Micah Mason and Derrick Colter did fine over their final season. However, his teams chronically underachieved in every other season he was affiliated with the university. Off the top of my head, four of his five teams produced fewer wins than the bottom range of my preseason projections for each season. Was I little optimistic for his first season? Absolutely, but in my non-expert opinion, every team he coached with the exception of that one was better than its final record including last year’s.
At some point, the red flag has to go up. I do think Ferry would have achieved considerably more in his second five years if he were actually given ten at Duquesne. If he honestly was told he had that much time when he accepted the position, I feel badly for him. However, he wouldn’t be the first person in the working world to have the goal posts moved when the guy who hired you moves on and the new manager takes over. I would even go so far as to say I still think he could have turned the corner and gotten this team to an NCAA tournament if given the time. He had the core in place now to take big steps forward next year and at least break through for a couple of NIT appearances after that. However “could” is not “will” and I don’t think many, his boss included, believe much in the program under his tutelage. He has helped get Duquesne back on track and the job the next guy will take is considerably easier than the one Ferry inherited. In my opinion, the arrow is pointed up and the talent already in the pool for the new coach surpasses what Ferry had when he arrived. However, the failings of philosophy, the clouded identity, the frustrating losses, his almost complacent attitude towards the now, and a change in athletic director ultimately led to his demise. Ferry will coach again someday, but I’m doubtful he’ll find too many D-I programs patient enough for his program building.