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The Diary of a Frustrated Alum: EIU’s State of the Union

by Matthew Stevens | December 12th, 2007

It’s a policy here at Bracketography.com that if your alma mater is the worst team in college basketball according to the RPI, you must do a state of the union address (David Mihm doesn’t count because he went to a D-III school for which none of us could academically qualify ).

I’m a good company employee and an Eastern Illinois University graduate so here we go. The Eastern Illinois Panthers have officially been the worst Division I basketball team for almost a month. In repeated Ohio Valley Conference teleconferences, coach Mike Miller has said the team is trying to find its identity and has a new direction. It would nice if he’d inform the fans, alumni, and public just what that direction is.

Here’s a list of current issues for the program:

- 0-8 against Division I opponents (and if you’re wondering, no the 85-63 win over NAIA Harris Stowe doesn’t count)

- Last (341 of 341) in the RPI rankings

- Have had an average attendance of 910 to the four home games at Lantz Arena

- Mike Miller (oh don’t worry they’ll be more on him trust me) is 15-49 against D-I opponents in his nearly 2 and ½ years at EIU. The worst winning percentage in EIU history. Miller is 6-30 away from Lantz Arena and 9-19 at home against D-I opponents. The obvious question at this point is how did the program get this bad so fast to the point that finding a Division I victory in the near future is tough? How did it get to the point that now, as a frustrated alumni, I’ve become embarrassed at the product that is being put out on a game-by-game basis.

The answer is complicated but humorous at the same time. Nearly three years ago, Eastern ended the third-longest relationship between a D-I head coach and a school by not renewing the contract of Rick Samuels after another disappointing 12-18 campaign. The athletic department made it clear to the public that these types of seasons were not going to be acceptable. A positive message that apparently the university was committed to putting together a respectable basketball program. It all sounds cool until it comes down to decisions being made to show that commitment.

First of all, let’s address the facts that make it extremely difficult to make EIU a viable basketball program:

- A dull, old, and less than raucous 5,300-seat home gymnasium that is never filled but for one game (the Illinois High School Sectional Final). The proof is last season’s ESPN2 debut at home only drew 3,194.

- A conference where they have no rival, no team closer than 200 miles to the Charleston, Illinois campus (Southeast Missouri State) but the rest is in the south.

- The constant in-state recruiting fights with Illinois, Southern Illinois, DePaul, Northern Illinois, Illinois-Chicago, Bradley, Illinois State and Western Illinois.

- Little to no tradition, which includes our all-time leading scorer, Henry Domercant, playing professionally in three different countries, and still not having his jersey retired by EIU.

So immediately the concern on the faces of those who cared about the program centered around the question: who in their right mind would want a head coaching job that seems destined for failure? What that negativity misses out on is the fact that qualified candidates all across the country are begging, pleading, and praying for Division I head coaching jobs and once again that proved true with the EIU opening. Notable names that applied were then-Creighton assistant Greg Grensing (now a assistant at UNLV), Illinois assistant Jay Price, then-Marquette assistant Jeff Strohm (now a assistant at Western Kentucky), and Wisconsin assistant Gary Close.

This is where the situation gets funny bad. Unfortunately, these candidates were submitting their applications and intentions to a search committee appointed by then-athletic director Dr. Rich McDuffie. This committee to find a basketball coach, , let me remind you, was led by Dr. Robert “Bud” Fischer, who is the department chair of the–wait for it–biological science department…. And for no other reason than Dr. Fischer was a very good friend of Dr. McDuffie and a season ticket holder!

Look, let me point out that this is not an indictment of Dr. Fischer’s intelligence at all. I like Bud; everyone likes Bud, and for good reason. The problem is he simply shouldn’t have been part of this process; a process that included a trip to the Final Four where Illinois assistant Jay Price was crossed off the list of finalists after refusing to meet with EIU officials because his team was still playing. That’s right; a Final Four assistant was taken off for concentrating on trying to win a championship. This is the logic a committee like this can come up with.

However, since Dr. Fischer was the head, he gets the blame when Mike Miller is hired over all the candidates listed previously after being an assistant coach at Kansas State. Two things should be mentioned about this hire: one, Miller was the top assistant for Jim Wooldridge at Kansas State. Wooldridge was fired the following year after Miller left, which means if Miller had not gotten the EIU job, he would’ve been unemployed as well; and 2) In his 16 season as a Division I head/assistant coach, Miller had made the NCAA Tournament once and had six seasons with an over .500 record.

In an obvious rebuilding year, Miller went through a difficult 6-21 season, which was expected by anybody who knew this process would take time. However, after his first season (where he won less than half of the games won in Samuels’ last year remember when we said that type of season was unacceptable), Miller was given another year added to his contract, making the university contractually obligated for a fourth year to Miller. So just to clarify, if you’re scoring at home: 6 wins = contract extension at EIU. It’s unfair to lay the pitiful drop off of Eastern Illinois basketball on Miller’s dreadful triangle offense (that has been limited to 60 or less points in six of the eight losses) or his inability to stop potential talents from regressing throughout the Eastern career. It’s not fair…well, maybe it is, but let’s assume it’s not.

No less evidence exists for this inability to coach a roster of talent but for having three Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of Year on his three years of rosters but none of them becoming first-team selections. George Tandy transferred to Cleveland State after one year under Miller’s system and the red-shirt junior is now averaging five points and five rebounds for the Vikings. Mike Robinson, 10th all-time in EIU history in steals, is now a junior and after rumors of transferring, the Chicago native has been taken out of the starting lineup at least in part due to being suspended 30 days from off-season workouts. An unnamed source told Bracketography.com that it was due to a violation of team rules that included a failed drug test.

Finally, Romain Martin is the focal point of the triangle offense, and to be fair, he has the best chance to be an all-conference player. Fast forward to 2007, when the school is currently suffering through the worst start of since losing the first 12 games in the 1982-83 season, facing another season where they have single-digit wins against D-I opponents, and could be missing out on the OVC Tournament for all of Mike Miller’s three seasons.

According to the RPI rankings, Eastern is in the worst rated conference in country, and it has already dropped two home games in league play. The Panthers have the worst strength of schedule and have yet to come away with a win. And oh, by the way, the director of athletics that started the avalanche of decisions that led to this current dreadful play (Dr. Rich McDuffie) is no longer with the university after being removed from his position when an Eastern employee charged him with sexual harassment in workplace. So again if you’re scoring at home, 2007-2008 has resulted in no athletic director, no D-I wins, and no positive future in sight.

So now that it’s explained how we got there, how do we correct this? This is where the problem becomes a tricky equation, because an instant fix simply isn’t a viable option. Due to Dr. McDuffie’s extension of Miller’s contract, Eastern could go 0-28 and its low-major athletic budget can’t afford to buy out the final year of Miller’s contract while paying for another head coach. Put it this way: if as a fundraising effort EIU decided to collect $5 from every fan that has attended a Panthers home game, they’d only collect $18,200. Eastern currently doesn’t even have an athletic director to hire anybody (by the way, they’ve headed that search committee with the dean of Eastern’s college of sciences). Way to learn from its history of mistakes, huh?

The solution is painful to admit and isn’t popular. I have to fight back the disgust and tears to even write it. Eastern Illinois University has to become a Division II basketball program. Give up the dreams of making March Madness (only two NCAA berths in 25 years of D-I competition) and go back to the consistent success the Panthers had at the lower level (Eastern had only one losing season between 1970-1981 with a average win total of 18). If nothing else, having Eastern Illinois become a Division II program would make sure this website would never cover them again, because if you think for one second this alum enjoyed writing this, you are sorely mistaken. In this occasion, the truth hurts more than ever.

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  1. Jason Russell Says:

    Back to Div II the only solution? Come on now, how many years until Miller’s contract runs out? One more year after this one? He’ll be fighting for his career in the final year and if he fails, you can just bring in someone else.

    I suppose the worry is that the decision about who to hire will be made by folks whose specialty is not athletics. I’m not sure what can be done about this beyond hoping they make a better decision next time.

    As for Mr. Miller, he have some applicable qualities in him. How would he get on the coaching staff at a decent Big 12 school if he was completely useless? Obviously he has done poorly so far but he must realize this and eventually he ought to be able to find some way of doing better than last place. As I suggested before, his career may be on the line. Who would hire him after failing so completely at EIU?

    Well, good luck with the rest of the season.

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