One week after informing men’s basketball coach Billy Donlon he would not be back next year, Wright State athletic director Bob Grant officially announced the move Friday.
Grant cited a reduction in fan engagement and overall success on the court as the primary factors in his decision to dismissing Donlon with two years left on his contract.
“This was a six-year analysis, a long-term analysis,” Grant said. “This was not one thing. I’m not a knee-jerk administrator. It really came down to this: I think we have the best fan base in the Horizon League. That’s the engagement piece — Billy and I have had conversations about this numerous times — and it’s starting to lag. I think the reason is, the fan base is energized by high-level performance.”
Wright State went 22-13 overall and 13-5 in the league this season while advancing to the HL championship game for the third time in four seasons. The Raiders were 109-94 in Donlon’s six seasons as head coach after he was promoted from assistant in 2010 when Brad Brownell left to take the job at Clemson.
“When we brought Brad Brownell here 10 years ago, I remember asking Brad during the interview process, can we consistently be a top 100 RPI school in the country?” Grant said. “Can we jump up and beat ranked teams and get those little gold nuggets that you see schools getting? And can we make it to the NCAA Tournament? Not every year. I’m a realist. But can we do that? Brad’s exact quote was, ‘Heck, yeah.’ And we did it.
“When I hired Billy, I think both of our vision was we’re going to keep it going or get it to an even higher level,” Grant added. “At that time Butler was getting ready to leave, and we wanted to be the one to fill the Butler void. But for whatever reason, we have slipped back. And that’s caused a lack of engagement by our tremendous fans. Among all the sports we have here, basketball is our lone revenue sport. It’s got to energize our fan base. So in the final analysis, that really is the driver here.”
Donlon declined comment after the university released its statement Friday.
The 13 HL wins the Raiders recorded this season equaled the most in program history, and it was the fourth time since becoming a Division I program in 1987 they finished second or higher in the regular season.
That success came on the heels of a disappointing 2014-15 campaign in which WSU was decimated by injuries and went 11-20 overall and 3-13 in the league, finishing on a 10-game losing streak.
A report earlier this week indicated Grant told Donlon prior to the season that he had to win the league to keep his job, but Grant denied that.
“That was not the edict to Billy,” he said. “The edict was we need to have a special season that re-energizes our fan base. We had a pre-conference schedule that I think had the potential to energize the fan base. We didn’t take advantage of that. In the conference we had a good year, but fans sometimes tend to make their decision early on whether you’re worth their resources and their effort. They’re going to form an opinion early on. And it didn’t come back like we need it to, like I thought it would, like I think it should.”
Grant also addressed the university’s week-long silence before announcing the move, something that left many fans, analysts and coaches confused and angry.
“We met on Friday (March 11), and we left the meeting saying we’re going to figure out how this separation is going to look, timing, things like that, and we’re going to keep it confidential,” Grant said. “There’s rules of engagement. There was a very small circle of people who knew this was happening. We’re going to manage it. We’re going to release this at the appropriate time when the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed when it’s done.”
The separation document still has not been finalized, but the heat Grant and the university were taking led them to make the official announcement Friday.
“The university decided this was dragging on longer and it’s not good to have only one side of a story out there and inaccuracies out there and assumptions out there,” Grant said. “I think it was prudent to come out now and say something, say here’s the analysis that led to this. We’re turning a page. As difficult as this type of stuff is, and it’s really a crappy side of our business that I don’t like, there’s the other side, too, of the excitement of a new basketball coach.”
Grant said he’s received “about 75” texts, e-mails and phone calls from coaches since the news of Donlon’s firing first broke Wednesday.
“I’ve got coaches currently playing in the tournament calling me, saying hey, that’s the best job in the Horizon League,” he said. “Those kind of phone calls excite me. I know that we have high aspirations, but I think they’re fair. We’ve been to where we want to go.
“We want to move very quickly, as quickly as possible,” Grant added. “I’ve got a short list for virtually every position in our office. My short list for men’s basketball, I’ve massaged monthly for 10 years. I like that list right now. My hope is we can start some sort of phone interview process really, really soon.”