The Posse Closes In

Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, on April 24, 2012
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Seth Greenberg

It’s ten o’clock in the evening as I start writing this, and I want to get something posted tonight, but … where to start? There are those who want to define Seth Greenberg’s tenure by what happened in the last season, by what happened in the last month, but the truth is that it’s not that simple.

In the end, when the villagers stormed the castle with torches and pitchforks, Seth Greenberg stood alone behind the gate, and there was nothing he could do. Greenberg’s Virginia Tech career ended with him alone and friendless, no one by his side but his family.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when Greenberg could do no wrong, or at the very least, there was a time when his faults were ignored because of the good things he was accomplishing. Greenberg’s fiery, bluntly spoken personality, which ironically became perhaps the biggest shortcoming that led to his firing, was a breath of fresh air early in his tenure.

Hired out of South Florida in 2003, Greenberg was rescued by the Hokies as he rode out of Tampa, just one step ahead of the posse. Seth wasn’t well-liked in Tampa, at least not by the people with a voice who cared to air their thoughts about the man. He came out of nowhere and didn’t appear to be equipped to do a good job at Virginia Tech, a place with many challenges in the way of success. The VT program was scraping bottom after the disastrous tenure of Ricky Stokes, had lost any semblance of the tradition it had established in the 1960s through the 1980s, and was having its moment of clarity about what it was.

And the answer was to hire a guy who had barely won over 50% of his games at USF, and who had a losing record in Conference USA? In a column I remember well, I called it A Curious Hire. I had my doubts, to say the least.

I also remember an email I received shortly after he was hired, and which I included in that column. One member of the West Virginia media who had worked a few USF games for ESPN Regional TV told me, “Seth is a very good recruiter and this is a very interesting hire for VT. Seth is a pit bull. Don’t sell him short.”

Early Success

Surprise us he did. Seth was left two Ricky Stokes recruits, Jamon Gordon and Coleman Collins, and he tacked on his own late addition, a kid named Zabian Dowdell that Seth had been recruiting to South Florida. Greenberg lit a fire under rising senior Bryant Matthews and cobbled together enough other players to do what Ricky Stokes had never done: finish in the middle of the Big East pack and make the Big East Tournament.

The love affair had begun. Greenberg showed passion and fire that had been absent from Virginia Tech basketball for as long as we could remember. The quiet, gentlemanly Charlie Moir was followed in 1987 by the hapless Frankie Allen, who started out strong but fizzled into a train wreck of untalented, undisciplined players. Bill Foster restored competency to the program but didn’t have a forceful personality or the desire to keep recruiting, and he gave way to the late Bobby Hussey, who, to say the least, lacked charisma. Hussey was dismissed unceremoniously by Jim Weaver in 1999, and Weaver rolled the dice on Stokes. Stokes bombed, always saying the same thing after every loss (“I thought the kids played hard. I thought the crowd was great. We just didn’t get it done”), and he managed to displace Frankie Allen for the title of Worst. Virginia. Tech. Coach. Ever.

Greenberg was nothing like those guys, and his energy was what the program needed. When Greenberg’s Hokies rolled down to Durham in the 2004-05 season and absorbed a 100-65 beatdown in one of the worst officiated games I’ve ever seen, Greenberg didn’t take it lying down. He fussed, argued, wagged his finger, dropped F-bombs on the refs, got tossed from the game, and was full of fire and not the least bit intimidated as he was escorted off the court. Then he promptly paid Duke back on the return trip to Cassell, knocking off the 7th-ranked Blue Devils in a game that showed everyone that he wasn’t just going to fight; he was going to land knockout punches now and then.

The Hokies finished an improbable 8-8 in that inaugural ACC season and made it to postseason play (the NIT) for the first time in nine seasons. Seth Greenberg was a marvel.

That season was followed up by the 2005-06 disaster of a season, marked by personal tragedies too numerous to recap here. The heart that the Hokies had showed in Greenberg’s first two seasons turned into a different kind of heart, a heart break. It began with Sean Dockery’s halfcourt shot in early December and spiraled down and out of control from there. Seth and his Hokies suffered, and we suffered along with them.

The 2006-07 season that followed was magical. That was the senior season of Dowdell, Gordon, and Collins, three players that were all lovable for their own different reasons: Dowdell for his toughness on the court, Gordon for his at-times Herculean play and folksy, unintentional humor off the court, and Collins for his unwanted, unwelcome status as the quiet, tragic figure of Virginia Tech basketball.

Those three guys and their cohorts had one of the most amazing weeks in Virginia Tech basketball history, beating #5 Duke in overtime in Durham, with Deron Washington jumping OVER Greg Paulus. One week later at home, they drilled #1 North Carolina 94-88 in Cassell Coliseum for Tech’s first win over a #1 team in 24 years.

I remember hanging around Cassell Coliseum after that game and eventually making my way down to the empty floor and talking to Hokie radio announcer Bill Roth. We both said the same thing, in jinx-you-owe-me-a-soda fashion: “They’re going to beat the hell out of us in Chapel Hill.”

But they didn’t. Tech won that one, too, in overtime, and Seth Greenberg had it rolling. He seemed to have found the formula. His teams weren’t as talented or deep as the teams they were beating, but they were one thing Seth desperately wanted them to be: tougher. It was a gritty underdog quality that resonated with Hokie fans. This coach Virginia Tech had was different, yes, but he might be just the right fit.

The Hokies earned their first NCAA Tournament bid in 11 years after that season, and they even won a game as a #5 seed. It was all trending up, despite the losses of Dowdell, Gordon, and Collins after that season.

Greenberg parlayed that success and his own dogged commitment on the recruiting trail into a deep, highly-rated recruiting class, and the 2007-08 team, led by senior Deron Washington and freshmen Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen, picked up where the previous team had left off. Despite being young, the Hokies almost made the NCAA Tournament again, losing out on their last chance at a bid when Tyler Hansbrough’s last-second shot sent the Hokies to defeat against the #1 UNC Tar Heels in the second round of that year’s ACC Tournament.

Progress Stalls

That was the year Seth made his “certifiably insane” comment, and in retrospect, Virginia Tech basketball was never the same after that. The “certifiably insane” comment was the first thing I can recall Seth doing that polarized the fan base. Many — as always — liked his fire and passion, but a few pointed out that it was stupid to bite the hand that feeds you, poorly thought out to tug on Superman’s cape.

The end of that ’07-08 season brought another event that I think is underrated in how we perceive Seth Greenberg’s tenure: the graduation of Deron Washington. Deron was a marvelous athlete and a magnetic personality, and he was the last of Seth’s lovable basketball players. Much like Zabian, Jamon, and Coleman before him, Deron had charisma and was easy to love. I’ve liked a few of Seth’s players since then, but Deron was the last one who made us laugh out loud and feel joy watching him play. (Dunk on BC, anyone?)

After that, Virginia Tech basketball was a grind. Starting with the 2008-09 season, the Hokies could never quite get over the hump:

  • 2008-09: VT started out 16-7 (6-3 ACC) … but faded to a 17-13 (7-9) finish and failed to make the NCAAs.
  • 2009-10: VT started out 21-4 (8-3 ACC) … but despite finishing 23-8 (10-6), failed to make the NCAAs because of a “weak schedule”.
  • 2010-11: In late February, the Hokies beat #1 Duke at home to get to 19-8 (9-5) … but lost their last two regular season games and again failed to make the NCAAs.

Failing to get NCAA bids was tough enough, but the Hokies also never made it to New York in the NIT. The NIT trips became stale, and it felt as if the program had stalled.

At the end of the 2010-11 season, when Malcolm Delaney, Jeff Allen, and Terrell Bell all finished their careers without making the NCAAs, the discontent started to simmer, and a confidant of Seth’s told us, for the first time, that Seth was growing concerned about his standing amongst the fan base. “How am I doing?” Seth was quoted as asking. “What do the fans think?”

Seth is one of those guys who has a good sense for when the mob is coming to get him, and he knows just when to break and run. You could tell he was hearing hoofbeats in the distance.

Then came the 2011-2012 season.

Barbarians at the Gate

Seth Greenberg

Why did things turn south so quickly? On December 31, 2011, the Hokies beat Oklahoma State in Stillwater to go to 11-3, and there was no indication that trouble was afoot. But in the next month, the Hokies went 1-6, and suddenly all anyone could ask me was whether or not Seth was on the hot seat.

Support for the program had been gradually eroding for a couple of seasons, but when this year’s version of the Hokies started to lose games, the ground disappeared beneath Seth’s feet. The whispers started quickly that Greenberg wasn’t well-liked, that many of the players — including the stars — disliked him and wanted to transfer out, and that he didn’t have a single supporter among the big-money donors, whom Seth had all gradually alienated throughout his tenure.

This time, Greenberg didn’t just ask friends about “how he was doing” with the fan base after the season ended in March; this time, he took action and tried to get the hell out of Dodge. We were told that he inquired about two open jobs and tried to get on the candidate list: one in the northeast and the other down in Texas (SMU). We were told that he was informed that he had to make the NCAAs next year or he was gone. And lastly, we were told that he wanted out of coaching altogether and was campaigning hard to get a commentator job on ESPN after next season (assuming he lasted that long).

His assistants either knew or sensed that Greenberg was a short-timer, and that’s when the crew started jumping overboard. First Rob Ehsan (UAB), then James Johnson (Clemson), and lastly, John Richardson, who just as Greenberg was getting fired, was putting the finishing touches on a return to ODU.

You knew it was getting nasty when Jim Weaver publicly stated after Johnson’s departure about a week ago that it “wasn’t about the money”, absolving himself (Weaver) of blame and leaving open the very distinct possibility that, well, perhaps Greenberg was the problem. That theory fit the whispers very well, so many took it and ran with it.

Johnson’s departure was the tipping point for a situation that had eroded quickly. On December 31, 2011, Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg was doing okay. Less than four months later, the program is falling into disrepair, and Greenberg is gone.

Here’s the thing about all those rumors that Greenberg was abrasive, hard to work with, and hard to take: they’re true. I can’t find anyone who will tell you otherwise. There’s the public Seth you see on TV, and he seems like a pretty cool guy. A little outspoken, but passionate and worthy of your respect.

But if you talk to those who know him and work with him, they’ll tell you he can wear on you. About a month ago, I bumped into an athletic department employee, one whose name you would easily recognize (not a coach), and we got to talking about Seth. This person doesn’t have an axe to grind with Seth, but he said bluntly, and nicely, “It’s true [about Seth being tough to work with]. And the thing is, he knows it, and he even uses it.” This person shrugged. “And that’s just not how we do it at Virginia Tech. That’s not what we’re about.”

That’s what did Seth in. Where Seth comes from, you’re open, honest, and direct, even if what you say is unpleasant. You holler at people sometimes, and you don’t think anything of it afterwards. Remember those newspaper stories about him and his brother Brad, when Brad worked at Virginia Tech? They recounted that Seth and Brad would “yell and scream” at each other at times.

That’s why Seth didn’t get any benefit of the doubt when things went bad in 2011-12. Jim Weaver talked about this in his press conference about Seth’s dismissal, saying, “I wanted to confirm that the person in charge of that program had the same family atmosphere that the rest of the athletic department has.  It became clear at the end of this year’s athletic department workshop that the basketball program didn’t have that atmosphere.”

Weaver later added, “Nothing [in particular] happened. I was standing in front of the 182 full-time personnel in our athletic department, and it hit me. He was not even there, but the difference between the relationship between that program and the rest of the department hit me.”

It’s simple, folks. Seth Greenberg had some early success, but the program plateau’d. The fans started to get restless. Seth sensed it and started to look around. When he started to look around, the program started to crumble, and something needed to be done. And when things started to happen, the fact was magnified that Seth’s way of doing business — his personality — didn’t fit the culture of the athletic department.

And he was gone. This time, the posse got him.

The End Doesn’t Define Him … Does It?

Right now, the wounds are fresh on both sides, and the feelings are bitter and even angry. Seth isn’t the only one taking heat. Jim Weaver is taking some heat for the way he handled things. Bobby Hussey, Ricky Stokes, and now Seth Greenberg can all vouch for how cold-blooded Jim Weaver can be when it’s time to make a change. Weaver publicly supported both Stokes and Greenberg mere weeks before firing both; his word on whether or not a coach is on the hot seat means nothing. Remember that.

Seth Greenberg ran out of rope, but the end doesn’t define his entire tenure at Virginia Tech. He did beat the #1 team in the nation three times (out of five, if I remember correctly, giving him a 60% winning percentage against #1 teams). We had a lot of fun watching his guys play at times, and although there were many times where Seth and his players aggravated us, there were also many times where they made us proud, and there have been a lot of fun moments over the years.

Almost every coaching tenure ends in a mess. Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno will raise a glass to that. That doesn’t erase the wins, or the good moments, it just means it’s over, and it’s time to move on.

For the record, I interacted with Seth Greenberg a few times, but only one time that is worth remembering. I was at Disney World with my family in October of 2010, eating ice cream and enjoying my vacation when my cell phone rang. When I looked at my phone, it identified the caller as SETH GREENBERG. I suppose I had stored his number in my phone somewhere along the way, and I was surprised to see it.

I stepped outside and answered. Seth was calling me because someone on TheSabre.com had posted a picture of one of his daughters on their message board, and as you can imagine, the nasty comments had followed. (Seth’s daughters are all very attractive. Any father would be proud.)

Seth was calling to ask me to ask them to remove the posts. He was forceful, he was insistent, but he was never abusive in the slightest way. He even tried to explain why he thought the posts should come down, which was silly. A father doesn’t need to explain why he would ask that. I told him I would take care of it, and we hung up.

By all accounts, he is a hard guy to be around. But not always. And yes, he wound up getting fired, but he did some good things here, too. I respect more than anything else the fact that he worked hard and he didn’t compromise the program by taking the easy road and cheating the program into probation. Now it’s over, and it’s time to move on, and what’s really important is what happens next. Thanks, Seth, and good luck at your next stop in life.

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