Wolff Hire Creates Understandable Skepticism

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The women’s basketball following at Virginia Tech isn’t what it used to be.
In the spring of 1999, Cassell Coliseum was packed to capacity for two NCAA
Tournament games that catapulted the Hokies to their first and only Sweet 16
berth, and for the next five years, Tech women’s basketball enjoyed a healthy,
passionate fan base.

Bonnie Henrickson took over the program after Carol Alfano went 10-21 in 1996-97, and the
turnaround was immediate. The Hokies went 22-10 and advanced to the second round
of the NCAA Tournament in 1997-98, and a revolution was born, turbocharged by
the 1998-99 team, which finished 28-3. Under Henrickson, the Hokies never failed
to win 20 or more games and made the postseason every year (5 NCAAs, 2 WNITs).

It was the golden age of Virginia Tech women’s basketball, with the women
often outdrawing the men, who floundered under Ricky Stokes. But in the seven
seasons since Henrickson left for Kansas, all that the program achieved under
her has been undone. Under Beth Dunkenberger, the program went to the NCAAs her
first two years and then to the WNIT, but in the last four years, they have
failed to achieve postseason play and have gone 9-47 in the ACC.

It’s time for a new coach, one who will try to resurrect what Bonnie built.
To find that coach, Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver went down the
hall, tapped Men’s Basketball Director of Operations Dennis Wolff on the
shoulder, and asked him if he wanted the job. Wolff, who hadn’t been considering
it, thought about it and decided to take it.

By now, if you’re interested enough in women’s basketball to still be reading
this, you know Wolff’s resume:

1980-1982 Connecticut College (HC)
1982-1985 St. Bonaventure (asst)
1985-1989 Wake Forest (asst)
1989-1990 SMU (asst)
1990-1994 Virginia (asst)
1994-2009 Boston Univ. (HC)

Those are all men’s basketball coaching jobs. This is the first time Wolff
has dipped his foot in the women’s basketball pool, although the information
surrounding his hire is quick to note that he had a daughter who was a
McDonald’s All-American and who went to UConn before a knee injury ended her
career prematurely.

So Wolff has had some exposure to college women’s basketball recruiting and
coaching from the receiving end, but not the giving end.

In Wolff’s first 11 years at Boston U, the Terriers won 20 games five times,
made the NCAA Tournament twice, and went to the NIT three times. In those 11
years, they were 192-133. That included an awful two-year stretch where the
Terriers went 16-40.

In Wolff’s last four years at Boston, the team won 12 to 17 games every year
but had just one winning record (in his last season), while going 55-64. He was
dismissed. That was 2009.

Wolff experienced unprecedented success at Boston. His hokiesports.com bio
says:

Under Wolff’s guidance, the Terriers won three straight conference
titles (2002-2004) and made four consecutive postseason appearances
(2002-05) for the first time in school history. He was a three-time America
East Coach of the Year and a two-time NABC District 1 Coach of the Year
selection.

That’s Dennis Wolff. On the one hand, you have a pretty accomplished coach.
Not a world-beater. If he was, he would still be coaching a men’s team to
regular NCAA appearances somewhere. But he is by all accounts a good coach who
knows his basketball.

But if you have raised eyebrows over the hire, that’s understandable.

This is where the story turns to Jim Weaver and what he said about why he
hired Dennis Wolff, and what Weaver said about the hiring process.

From a Roanoke
Times article
:

Weaver liked Wolff’s energy. He liked the fact that Wolff was a team
player. He liked the fact that Wolff got along with everybody on the
administrative and team levels.

“That’s something I couldn’t see from all of those other
candidates,” Weaver said, noting that he had numerous agents calling
and touting their clients. “I might have gone out and hired Jane Doe
from someplace, but I don’t know her like I know him, as a result of him
being here this year. That isn’t a hire of convenience. That is doing your
homework. And it just so happened that logistically he was here.”

If you’ve never been in a management position and never had to hire people,
you may not know how much employers value “team players.” They do. Highly.
If you’ve worked for large companies, as I did twice early in my professional
career, one of the things you learn is that when cuts (layoffs) are coming, it’s
not always the least talented people who get let go; it’s often the malcontents
and complainers, the people who aren’t “team players.” They create
more work and strife than they’re worth.

It’s understandable and not surprising that Weaver went for a team player, a
guy he knows won’t gum up the works and cause dissension in the athletic
department and in those around him. Chemistry is important, and Wolff’s got it
with VT.

Does that alone justify hiring a guy with zero women’s coaching experience at
any level? Hey, don’t look at me; I’m just making a point to help you understand
what Jim Weaver was thinking, as if any of us have any hope of really knowing.
Coaching hires used to be fairly open, transparent processes, but in the modern
age, athletic directors hold things close to the vest. We have no idea of
knowing who Weaver considered, or whether he simply walked down the hall and
tapped Wolff on the shoulder.

When Weaver hired Seth Greenberg eight years ago, Weaver was very careful to
talk extensively of “the process” he used to hire a new coach. He used
the words “process” and “plan” for hiring repeatedly,
because he was taking some heat for an out-of-the-blue hire, much like he’s
taking some heat from fans for this one. But this time around, other than
mentioning that he had fielded calls from agents about prospects, Weaver didn’t
spend a lot of time talking about the process. Thus, he leaves himself open for
criticism because of what looks like a curious hire.

Recognize that phrase? “A curious hire”? It was the title of an
article I wrote
when Seth Greenberg was hired back in 2003. I
wasn’t kind to Weaver in that article, because Greenberg looked like a guy who
had already failed in a coaching situation (at USF) that was very, very similar
to the VT job. I thought Weaver had blown it.

Time proved me wrong. Seth Greenberg isn’t perfect, but on the whole, his
work at Virginia Tech has greatly advanced the program. It is Greenberg’s
success at Virginia Tech that precludes me from pointing out the negatives of
the Wolff hire, because, frankly, I have no clue what’s going to happen. Wolff
might challenge for an ACC championship five years from now, for all I know.

Like Seth, Wolff has one advantage going for him: he is taking over a program
suffering through a nuclear winter. It can’t get any worse. All he has to do is
elevate the program a little, and his hire will be deemed a success on some
level. If he wins six ACC games three years from now, that will be under .500 in
the league, but will be six times as many conference wins as Beth had in her
last year.

One thing’s for sure: Wolff was more impressive in his opening press
conference than Beth Dunkenberger was. Dunkenberger appeared to me to be nervous
and in over her head in the spring of 2004, and sadly, that proved to be right
over time.

While we’re speaking of opening press conferences, Wolff did something Seth
Greenberg was careful to do in his press conference back
in 2003
: manage expectations. Seth didn’t land in Blacksburg and
start braying about conference championships. He was careful to talk about
things like accountability, but he didn’t say he was going to make any Final
Fours.

Wolff did the same:

“Everything is in place to have a successful program. We need to
rebuild this thing from the foundation. We need to make sure everybody knows
what’s important, and then we have to get out and coach them and get them to
play at a higher level than they have played at.

“I think the goals are we want to be a winning team in the upper
level of the ACC and we want to go to the NCAA Tournament. Would I like to
win the league? Yes, I would like to win the league.”

That was very early-Seth-Greenberg-like. Wolff also dipped into Greenberg’s
bag of tricks by using self-deprecating humor. Greenberg said back then,
“Jim [Weaver]’s priority was looking for a guy that has less hair than
him.” Wolff’s line was, “Any athletic ability [my kids got] was from
their wife.”

So yes, it’s a “curious hire.” Some might judge that Jim
Weaver, who has Parkinson’s Disease and is in the final years of a long career, might not have put much effort into the hire. But Weaver didn’t address the process this time
around, so we’ll never know exactly how he came about his decision. Wolff could
be a home run, or he could be a dud, or he could be something in between. We’ll
know in a few years.

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