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Rubber Meets the Road: Coach Avery Johnson to meet with AD Greg Byrne at season’s end

Basketball is the sick man of Alabama’s revenue sports

SEC Basketball Tournament - Quarterfinals
Still buckled?
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

If you’re fourth-year basketball coach Avery Johnson, waking up on Championship Saturday brought some unwelcome press from the local beat.

Venerable Tuscaloosa News sportswriter Cecil Hurt has always been known for his biting sense of humor, made all the more sardonic because it actually takes a great deal for him to openly call for the loss of someone’s job. Call it his basic sense of decency; decades spent in a small city with a micromanaging press access at the University; the go-along-to-get-along nature of being a beat writer; or Cecil’s laid-back personality, but when he’s seen enough, he’s seen enough.

Sooner or later, things have to change for Alabama basketball

Every car in Tuscaloosa that is not securely tucked in a garage is caked in pollen.

Kentucky eliminated Alabama from the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Friday night.

Those are the two unmistakable signs of March. Both are annoying, but accepted as inevitable, familiar parts of the natural order of things, problems without any real solution except to wait until the season changes and/or football arrives.

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Sooner or later, things have to change. Alabama has to step up institutionally and say “enough is enough” and make a change and then spend at a level necessary to make it a worthwhile change. Otherwise, tell everyone right up front that things are going to stay as they are so everyone can find more productive things to do at this time of year, like wash their cars.

Bad enough that this appeared in the city’s paper of record, but Cecil was hardly alone. For weeks, his former colleague at TideSports/Tuscaloosa News, The Athletic’s Aaron Suttles, has made his feelings abundantly plain, and has perhaps the best two-word summary of the state of the program: consistently inconsistent.’s Goodman, one of our favorite punching bags, also had his column on Saturday morning. Despite his role as Scarbinsky’s successor provocateur, it is hard to find fault with the bottom line

The problem with Avery Johnson’s Alabama

His players like Johnson, sure, but they don’t respond consistently enough to his coaching. He is organized and professional and a better strategist than people care to realize, but his players haven’t bought into what he’s selling.

In his post-game interview after the loss to Kentucky, Alabama senior Donta Hall was candid in his assessment of the team’s inconsistencies when he blamed them on “attitude, and stuff like that. Commitment.”

Donta Hall’s quote is as damning an indictment of Johnson as it is a fascinating peek into what’s wrong with the program — certainly this iteration of Alabama basketball. We can talk about Xs and Os, ball-handling, poor situational awareness, roster management, poor free throw shooting, and a dozen other in-game issues that have arisen the past few seasons, and certainly in 2018-2019. But, the issue is goes to something deeper and structural: This team collectively has a bad attitude. Some on this team play selfishly. Some on this team play lazily. Some of these players lack commitment. Some of these players don’t show up...and some of these players just plain quit. And while that may be in their DNA, the end product is not entirely on them. Give-a-damn may not be in the makeup of some of the players, but it is up to Johnson and the rest of his staff to pierce that carapace of self-regard and selfishness, to connect with these guys, to maximize their talents, to win games.

And, if they cannot be reached, if they cannot be motivated, if they cannot be coached, then it is ultimately up to Avery Johnson to invite them to go somewhere else. At this point, it truly is him or them; his way or the highway.

It finally seems that fan discontent has percolated up to Greg Byrne’s ears. When asked yesterday about Coach Johnson’s future, Alabama’s athletic director did not give the dread vote of confidence. But, on the eve of Selection Sunday, and with at least one more Alabama hoops game to go (and NIT tickets to sell), nor did he necessarily tip his hand.

Greg Byrne, the Alabama athletic director, indicated last night he would wait until Sunday, see where @AlabamaMBB lands (probably with an NIT bid) and then talk with head coach Avery Johnson about the future. — report, March 17, 2019.

One gets the sense that the rubber is meeting the road. A come-to-Jesus shall be had. Concrete program goals will be established. Improvements will be required. Benchmarks must be met.

And what a difference one season makes. Literally one year ago, Byrne was praising the program to the stars:

The future is bright...Alabama basketball is “just scratching the surface...I really enjoy working with Avery. He knows we want him to be our coach for a long time” — Marq Burnett AJC report, quoting Greg Byrne, March 17, 2018.

Coach Johnson wants this job. But, disheartened though he is that less progress has been shown in Year Four, his comments yesterday have to be equally disheartening for Alabama fans:

“Honestly, I expected a little bit more in year four,” Johnson admitted on Saturday, “but when you’re out of position and you lose some close games, I don’t know how many teams have lost as many buzzer-beaters as we’ve lost this year, and close games, and games in the last four minutes. Just being able to close out games, and learn from those situations, there is still some room there, but we’re not as far off as a lot of teams around the country. I think we’re close. We just got to get over the hump.”

But that is Johnson merely identifying a symptom of the malaise — the burning fever that belies the raging infection at the beating heart of the program. And it is hardly a proposed cure for the woes. But why, Coach Johnson? In year four, “getting over the hump,” and “getting players to buy in,” are dispiriting, if not unacceptable problems given that this is his roster, his coaching staff, his schedule, and ultimately his imprimatur upon the program.

I am not calling for Coach Johnson’s firing, nor am I advocating his retention. I am however saying that Avery Johnson has had enough time to be judged upon his own merits. Greg Byrne will make that call today and over the coming weeks. For a host of reasons, I tend to think Johnson will get one final season to make his case. But, it’s well past time to get over that hump, to make players buy in or find ones who will, and ultimately to win some damned games.

If 15-loss seasons are the new normal, as they have been for the better part of 25 years, then Alabama can surely get these slightly-above-average results at far greater savings: there are 2.9 million reasons Greg Byrne has to think this one through carefully and that Avery Johnson must perform an autopsy upon the entire program — beginning with a vivisection of himself.

This program is sick.