Mac Engel

TCU fired a good man, and now must decide what kind of basketball program it wants

Trent Johnson was 50-79 in his four seasons at TCU.
Trent Johnson was 50-79 in his four seasons at TCU. Special to the Star-Telegram

Trent Johnson is not prone to emotions but he had to stop himself several times to compose himself.

More than once he took several deep breaths as he expressed his feelings and described being fired as the TCU men’s basketball coach.

“Yes — I was very surprised,” Johnson said in a phone interview.

Johnson said he landed from a recruiting trip at 6 p.m. Sunday and learned that he was losing his job about 40 minutes later in a conversation with TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte.

On Monday morning, Johnson said his players came to his house where he formally told them he is no longer their coach, although news had leaked out the previous evening.

This was the part of the interview where Johnson grew emotional.

“The thing I struggle with is the kids, the players,” he said. “These guys need this school. They need this place. Regardless of how many injuries we had and regardless of being out of our facility and in a high school gym for a year and a half, they never complained. They bought in to everything. I talked to them constantly about becoming men, the academic part, and they did it all.”

Now the school must determine what type of coach and program it wants to build — something relatively clean or one that pushes the edge. At TCU, the coach just needs to be Tubby Smith at Texas Tech: win 20 games every now and then, flirt with the NCAA tournament and reach the NIT. A fifth-place finish in the Big 12 would merit a banner in the renovated $80 million arena.

What they needed was Trent Johnson with a winning record. The school will soon hire its fifth head men’s basketball coach this century.

Johnson was fired with two years remaining on his six-year contract. Del Conte said there is no timetable to name a replacement.

“There is a high road for me, always has been,” Johnson said. “I am thankful for these players in every way, shape and form. They didn’t fail me. I failed them. I am hoping they stay together and don’t make irrational decisions (to transfer).”

When discussing sophomore guard Chauncey Collins, Johnson had to stop several times to express himself.

“To see how far and how much that kid has grown,” he said.

Collins tweeted on Monday: “Greatest Lesson: “Stay The Course”. I Love You Coach, You’ve Stood Beside Me, Protected Me, And Always Gave Your All.”

Johnson said he has “no ax to grind’ with TCU or Del Conte, although there is some obvious friction and disappointment given the nature of the decision.

Del Conte said he did not sleep on Saturday night nor on Sunday night.

“This is not something to celebrate. Any time you make a decision like this it’s gut-wrenching,” he told me. “My job is to worry about TCU and to put our coaches in a position to be successful. I asked my staff in a meeting (on Monday morning), ‘What did we do to fail?’ Our goal is to be excellent in all sports. You have to live up to par. In the past you could blame it on the facility or the conference — now all of the tools are in place to attract an incredible coach.”

He said the decision on a successor will be made by a committee that consists of himself and members of TCU’s board of trustees.

Whatever support Johnson had within the department or among the small number of influential boosters faded completely in the past two months. It was a bad sign Del Conte did not offer any public support for Johnson during that time.

This decision was likely made long before Sunday night.

It no longer mattered — if it ever had — that both T.J. and his players were clean.

The record was dirty: 50-79 in four years, including eight Big 12 wins, did him in.

If I had any criticism of T.J. as a coach it’s the same I had of his predecessor, Jim Christian. Both were reluctant salesmen of their program. In Texas, especially in basketball, the sales pitch must be the head coach. A record is not going to cut it.

Basketball at this school trails baseball in terms of support, even though revenues and attendance both rose this season.

My belief was that Johnson was a bad hire, and not because he was a bad coach.

TCU could have potentially hired Larry Brown but it did not want to take the risk whereas SMU did. SMU did not have a nationally relevant football program whereas TCU does.

SMU took the risk and was rewarded in a nationally relevant team and an NCAA berth. It also ended up on NCAA probation, something Brown achieved at his previous collegiate stops, UCLA and Kansas.

TCU was simply set up to fail in the Big 12. Johnson was the bridge between the struggles of joining the league and his successor.

After getting to know him and seeing the set of circumstances that landed in his lap over the past two-plus years, Johnson merited one more year. A decent roster should return. It’s capable of winning 18-plus games.

The saddest part of this situation is that TCU fired a good man and a good coach who took his role as a role model to young African-American men seriously. I’d send my son to play for Trent Johnson.

He just didn’t win, and that’s the currency that matters in college basketball.

TCU will try to find a guy to do that.

The names floating around are Virginia Tech’s Buzz Williams, Pitt’s Jamie Dixon and Stephen F. Austin’s Brad Underwood. And do not rule out Memphis coach Josh Pastner. A source said that former UTEP, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Texas Tech coach Billy Gillispie will not be considered.

Firing Johnson likely means that TCU is ready to push the edge and take some chances in the ethically challenged world of high-major Division I men’s basketball.

If it’s not ready to do that, there was no reason to fire Trent Johnson.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

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