High times just didn't last long enough to save Garner

Monday, March 6, 2006

The ups and downs in the careers of athletes and coaches are about as extreme as can be imagined, with fortunes changing in what many times seems like no time at all.

That had special meaning on the local sports scene last week, as Southeast Missouri State men's basketball coach Gary Garner did not have his contract extended after nine years on the job.

It seems like only yesterday that Garner probably could have won a vote as the most popular person in Cape Girardeau. He would at least have no doubt been on the short list.

Garner took over a Southeast program somewhat reeling after the dismissal of Ron Shumate for NCAA violations. In virtually no time, Garner had Southeast among the Ohio Valley Conference's elite teams for the first time since the university moved up to Division I and joined the OVC in 1991-92.

Garner's first Southeast squad in 1997-98 was a respectable 14-13.

When Garner had a chance to bring in a lot of his own players for his second season, Southeast improved to 20-9, narrowly missed out on its first OVC regular-season title and lost to Murray State on a shot at the buzzer in the championship game of the OVC tournament.

Then came the landmark 1999-2000 campaign, as Southeast -- by this time using only players Garner and his staff had recruited -- went 24-7, tied Murray State for the OVC regular-season championship and knocked off the hated Racers to win the OVC tournament for the first time.

Southeast also almost did the improbable one more time that year, holding a late lead over heavily favored LSU before losing by three points during the program's first NCAA Division I tournament appearance.

I remember thinking, following the season, that Garner had the program rolling so well, it would not be a matter of if Southeast would be good every year, it would only be a matter of how good.

You're not going to win 20 or 24 games every season -- unless you're one of the nation's elite programs -- but I remember thinking that would happen to Southeast more often than not, and even in a so-called down year, the squad would still get to about 17 or 18 victories.

That's what happened in 2000-2001, as Southeast went 18-12. So Garner's four-year record was 76-41, including a three-year mark of 62-28 that ranked among the country's best for that period.

Then, in seemingly the blink of an eye, things started to fall apart.

Expected stars Bobby Smith and Terry Rogers were dismissed from the university after being charged with crimes, some other players left the program, the notorious 5-8 rule that limited the number of players a team could sign came into effect -- and a short-handed, talent-challenged team limped to a 6-22 finish in 2001-02.

Sadly, if you're a Southeast supporter, things never really got all that much better.

Records of 11-19 and 11-16 followed the next two years, after which there was plenty of speculation regarding Garner's job status.

The 2004-05 season produced a respectable 15-14 mark -- it could have been much better, except for a few crushing, last-second defeats -- and Southeast's first trip to the OVC tournament semifinals since 1999-2000.

Entering the last year of a five-year contract in 2005-06, it didn't take a genius to figure Garner probably needed somewhat of a decent season to have that contract extended and have a chance to coach next year's highly anticipated team with touted transfers Brandon Foust and Mike Rembert.

Injuries and other problems, which left Southeast with just seven available scholarship players for the latter part of the season, pretty well foiled those plans. The Redhawks didn't have an overly talented team to begin with but still might have posted just enough wins to save Garner's job had everybody been able to play the entire year.

The Redhawks lost 13 of their last 14 games, limping home to a 7-20 finish, including a 4-16 OVC mark that placed them 10th among 11 squads and left them out of the eight-team conference tournament.

So, after that dazzling 76-41 start to Garner's tenure at Southeast, his final five teams fizzled out to the tune of 50-91, for an overall 126-132 record. And that ultimately got him fired.

Despite the struggles of the past few years and despite the fact most people originally thought Garner needed a decent season to save his job, all indications late in the campaign seemed to suggest Garner would be given one more year with the program, to see what he could do with next season's group.

Word was that Garner had the support of many of the university's most influential boosters and also had the support of athletic director Don Kaverman.

But it's a not-so-well-kept secret that virtually every decision at Southeast is made by president Ken Dobbins. With attendance dwindling and so many fans down on the program, Dobbins apparently felt it was simply time for a change.

People who have read my column over the years know how highly I thought of Garner, not only as a coach but as a person, and I'm not going to hide the fact that I really hoped he would have been given another year to try and get things going.

I also wish that Garner would not have had his budget slashed so drastically following his strong seasons, which placed him at a big disadvantage compared to the rest of the OVC.

Garner has told me privately -- he never wanted to go on record because he didn't want it to look like he was making excuses -- that he believes the lack of money he had to recruit with for several years was the major downfall of the program, and had the money not dried up, he believes Southeast would have remained consistently successful.

But that's only speculation, and we'll never know if it would have been true.

All that being said, and my personal feelings aside, I have a hard time criticizing the university's decision, because in college athletics -- particularly among the high-profile sports like football and men's basketball -- it's all about winning. All coaches know that. It's a reality, and I have no problem with it.

Garner simply did not win enough recently, so as a result the Show Me Center was starting to more and more resemble a funeral parlor rather than the energetic basketball arena it was during Garner's early seasons, when Southeast averaged more than 5,000 fans per game and sometimes filled up the place for big matchups.

But no matter what Garner's record says, he certainly has nothing to be ashamed of. I dare anybody to show me a classier person, and his class invariably came through whether the times were good or bad -- and he certainly had plenty of both.

Here's wishing Garner and his wife, Barbara -- what a fantastic lady she is -- all the best in the future no matter what they decide to do with the rest of their lives.

And the same goes for Garner's assistant coaches -- Ronnie Dean, Robert Guster and Toby Lane, along with senior manager Richard Lintker, who was basically a fourth assistant -- who I got to know well the last few years and also think so highly of.

I'm sure those four will land on their feet with other programs, since it's not very likely the new coach will retain any of them, although that is not a certainty.

Whether Garner stays in the game remains to be seen, since there is generally not a large market for 62-year-old coaches who have just been dismissed, and he said it would probably take just the right situation anyway.

As for the immediate future of the program, I don't think there is any question the Redhawks have the potential to challenge for the OVC title next season with the talent that is in place.

Regarding the program's long-term future, I've got to believe whoever is hired will be getting into a good situation, because most things appear in place -- as long as the financial commitment is solid, and it has been improved over the last couple of years -- to have Southeast consistently among the OVC's premier teams.

Now it's up to the university to go out and find the right person for the job, although whether that search ultimately proved successful probably won't be determined for several years down the road, after we see what kind of a record the new coach consistently produces, particularly once he is using his own players.

Because at this level, it's all about winning.

Or, to quote one of Shumate's famous sayings, "They're with you, win or win."

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian.

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