Sad Ending Appears Near for Paul Westhead
By Jim Weber
Legendary basketball coach Paul Westhead could have just one game left in his career. If that’s the case, he will sadly go out with a big thud.
Westhead’s long been a coaching favorite of mine because there will never be a more magical March Madness run than that of the 1989-90 Loyola Marymount Lions. If you’re too young to remember that squad and haven’t seen ESPN’s “The Guru of Go” documentary, 11th-seeded LMU reached the 1990 Elite Eight following the death of its star player, Hank Gathers, who collapsed during the quarterfinals of the West Coast Conference Tournament and later died.
Between Bo Kimble shooting his first free throw of each NCAA tournament game left handed to honor Gathers (Kimble made all four), Jeff Fryer hitting 11 3-pointers against Michigan in a 149-115 rout of the defending national champion in the second round and the Lions averaging over 105 points per contest, no tournament team will ever match the heart and excitement that squad exhibited.
Sadly, Loyola Marymount has never coming close to recapturing that glory. The school hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since then and has endured many brutal seasons, like this year’s 8-22 campaign.
But the fate was supposed to be different for the team’s architect: Westhead.
His Run-And-Gun style lit up scoreboards in unprecedented fashion and was great for college basketball during a time of explosive growth for the sport. Following LMU’s run, he was the toast of the coaching profession with everyone hoping he would transform the game of basketball.
At the time, Westhead was the basketball equivalent of former Oregon football coach and current Philadelphia Eagles head man Chip Kelly. Everybody wanted a piece of him.
Having already won an NBA title in 1980 with the Los Angeles Lakers, Westhead was hired by the Denver Nuggets shortly after LMU’s Elite Eight appearance. With his sparkling resume and offensive genius, Westhead’s goal with the Nuggets was what is now expected of Kelly in Philly: Led a franchise to its first world title with the most entertaining team in the league.
Instead, the Nuggets won a combined 44 games in two years under Westhead and were mocked as the “Enver Nuggets” because they didn’t play any defense.
With his tail between his legs, Westhead returned to college basketball looking to recapture the magic at Loyola Marymount by taking the head job at George Mason in 1993. Alas the Patriots were a miserable 38-70 in Westhead’s four seasons in Fairfax, VA, before he was fired to make way for a guy named Jim Larranaga.
Failing in the NBA was one thing, but being such a dud at George Mason was almost incomprehensible for a coach with as much past success as Westhead. Yes, Westhead had gotten really lucky at Loyola Marymount when Kimble and Gathers decided to transfer there from USC, but how could such a guru fail so miserably at a mid-major school like this?
I still haven’t heard the answer.
For the next dozen years, Westhead bounced around a bunch of different assistant and head coaching positions. And to his credit, he did win a WNBA title with the Phoenix Mercury in 2007.
With his career jump-started, it seemed like Westhead found a perfect, long-term fit in 2009 - albeit an obscure one - when he was hired as the Oregon women’s basketball coach. Here was the school most obsessed with speed hiring the coach known for his legendary Go-Go-Gadget system.
Surely someone who had won NBA and WNBA titles and led a tiny men’s program to the Elite Eight would overwhelm women’s basketball coaches in the Pac-12, right? Wrong.
After reaching the WNIT in his first season, the Ducks finished under .500 in both 2011 (13-17) and 2012 (15-16) before hitting hit rock bottom this year with a 5-25 record - the most losses in school history - after Sunday’s defeat to Utah to end the regular season. Instead of rebuilding the program in four years, as Westhead proclaimed he would do upon being hired, the 74-year old has taken the Ducks women’s basketball team to its lowest point ever.
The Ducks are averaging 61 PPG (almost 40 shy of Westhead’s stated goal of 100 PPG), drew under 2,000 fans per home game and were routinely embarrassed this season, such as a 44-point home loss to Connecticut. With Oregon’s Pac-12 Tournament game vs. Washington on Thursday, Westhead may have one game left ever as a head coach. It appears he will only survive in Eugene if Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens decides it’s too expensive to buy out Westhead and his staff for an estimated $1 million and pay a new coach next fall.
If Westhead is fired, this would certainly appear to be the end of his coaching career. While he could still wind up as an assistant somewhere, he’s surely got more money than he will ever need and is four years older than the recently retired Jim Calhoun.
How unbelievable is this fall from grace for Westhead? This would be like Kelly failing with the Eagles, bombing at the college level after returning from the NFL and then, 20 years from now, finishing his coaching career with a 1-11 record at an FCS school.
I don’t know why Westhead has failed so utterly at George Mason and Oregon. Did Westhead not put in the work required? Was his recruiting lacking? Was “The System” decoded by opposing coaches years ago? Or was Westhead just a product of the greatness of the talent on the Lakers and Gathers and Kimble at LMU?
It doesn’t really matter at this point.
Watching a man that brought so much excitement to college basketball and engineered the most heart-warming run in March Madness history possibly finish coaching like this is just sad.
And that’s now how Cinderella stories are supposed to end.
Photo: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports