There Are No Real Winners In Gillian's Departure From LU

Published 4:02 pm Tuesday, March 19, 2013

To look at the calendar, it's been ten seasons since former Longwood University men's basketball coach Mike Gillian was beginning his tenure at the school.

In many ways, it doesn't seem like it.

In May of 2003, I sat in Gillian's new office just outside of what was then called Lancer Hall. Well, it was new to him, and new, in terms of anything measured by carbon dating.

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It was a 10×10 space, and the amenities included a small bathroom and a couch.

State housing at its finest.

The couch, something that made This End Up furniture look comfortable, was ripped on one side and showed a gaping hole in the seat as far as a flickering fluorescent light 20 feet into suspended ceiling could reach.

I chose to sit on the other side.

After a spring hit me in the…ummmmmm…absolutely correct position, I decided to take my chances with the hole.

At least the bathroom was clean.

That was Longwood basketball ten years ago. A truly middling Division-II program (that was coincidentally 140-140 in its final ten seasons in D-II) that was aspiring to play Division I basketball, starting out on seven scholarships.

A 38-year-old Gillian, fresh off Jim Larranaga's staff at George Mason (before Mason's Cinderella run to the Final Four), sat across a well-worn desk that has likely become part of a Longwood tag sale, and talked about a day when Longwood would be challenging for Big South Conference championships.

Both he and I thought the BSC was in the Lancers' future. Both parties thought ten years down the road, Longwood would no longer be playing in Lancer Hall.

Both were right. It took about eight years longer than imagined, but Longwood just completed its first season in the Big South.

It shouldn't have taken that long. That it did, is no fault of Gillian, or the coaches and players of other Longwood teams that struggled through Division I independence.

Longwood's basketball teams now play in Willett Hall. A different name, and a good one, but it's still the same building. But at least they found a sale on blue paint and light fixtures at Lowe's.

As for his office, the couch was put out of its misery, perhaps sent to a West Virginia football fan, when the athletics department moved into modular housing. It's hard to impress The Big South with a couch that bad, no matter how much you fancy your new trailer.

What was promised to Gillian was never fulfilled. Still, he didn't complain. He remained optimistic about the program's future.

For ten years, he sold Longwood, and what Longwood men's basketball could one day be.

Even when things looked their darkest. Even when people who generally wouldn't be considered pessimists, started to have questions whether the school would've been better off having gone Division III with the likes of the University of Mary Washington, did Gillian waver from his optimism about the future of the school and of the program.

Even when the team had to suffer 50-point losses to the elite college powers just so keep the athletics department in the black, he didn't complain.

What we called impossible challenges, he called opportunities.

Longwood finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel last January, when the school was announced to become a member of the Big South. It was a banner day for the school and athletics program.

Unfortunately, with Atwan Carter, who was soon to become the school's all-time leading scorer in men's basketball and a pretty solid senior class on the way out, Longwood's first Big South campaign was going to be a rebuilding season.

Anyone could see that.

Gillian did, and he and his staff hit the recruiting trail hard, and came up with what turned out to be a solid freshman class that, along with two juniors, was more than holding its own against Big South competition toward the end of the season.

And now that the program is within a step of having a realistic shot at the NCAA Tournament, the University has decided to let someone else get them there.

Yes, according to the school, Gillian resigned, and that's how it will be recorded, but the only ones that truly see it that way are the ones that apparently couldn't see that this was going to be a rebuilding year.

Or the same ones that couldn't see that playing a Division I schedule as an independent for ten years was a recipe for a losing record.

One week ago, things appeared to be looking up. There are no guarantees, but the future appeared to be bright for the Lancers.

Now, the men's basketball program at Longwood University appears to be at yet another crossroads.

What is to become of the recruits that came to Longwood knowing it had a legitimate shot at a NCAA Tournament bid?

What's to become of the freshmen that could transfer and still have solid junior and senior seasons at another school?

And there are a lot more needless questions that will now have to be answered.

Had Gillian and the team suffered through another long and losing season in his final contract year, a change would've been warranted.

The buck would've stopped on Gillian's desk. It's safe to say he would've agreed.

Now, with Gillian gone, and the season only months away, the only sure thing is that the buck will stop somewhere, and on someone's desk. Not Gillian's desk, and not the desk of his yet-to-be-named replacement.

But that buck will stop. And it will stop on someone's desk. And it will be a desk a lot nicer than the one Gillian sat at ten years ago.

The ball is now in the court of the University, and it's imperative to the success of the school, and the community in many ways, that it can name a new coach that can save what has been damaged over the past week, and quickly put the program back on the road it looked like it was on after the final buzzer sounded in the Big South Conference Tournament Quarterfinals.

The only problem is that the best man for that job has already been shown the door.