Five weeks after giving Tulane men's basketball coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. a vote of confidence, athletic director Troy Dannen fired him.
Dannen pulled the plug Saturday morning, ending a three-year tenure in which the Green Wave went 24-69, had the most losses in a single season in school history — twice — and ended this year on a 21-game slide, going 4-27.
"I got to the point, is the program going to be better off a year from now if we stand pat or if we make a change, or will it be better off two years from now?" Dannen said. "I don't know if there was a day, but that switch kicked. It was really obvious over the course of the last few weeks that we weren't in a position to get better next year and the next two years based on what I saw."
Dunleavy, a longtime NBA coach who guided the Los Angeles Lakers to the finals in 1991 but was under .500 for his professional career (613-716), never had coached in college until coming to Tulane. He talked about using his experience as a coach who knew what it took to play in the NBA and his overseas contacts to build a winner in New Orleans, but the Wave went winless (0-18) in league action for the first time ever this season before falling to Memphis 83-68 in the opening round of the American Athletic Conference tournament on Thursday.
The low points included a 67-59 loss to previously winless Alabama A&M of the SWAC in December, a 32-point defeat at Cincinnati in the AAC opener that prompted a visit from Dannen to observe practice the next day and an 85-50 home loss to Houston.
Dannen said he will not use a search firm to hire the next coach and hoped to hire someone before the Final Four in early April — this time with plenty of college experience.
"Whenever you terminate a coach, almost invariably you hire the opposite," he said. "I'm not saying we're hiring the opposite, but my focus is going to be on sitting college head coaches, those who have been sitting college coaches, and I'm sure there will be a couple of elite-level assistants in there as well."
Dunleavy’s stint did not begin much better than it ended. Tulane went 6-25 in 2016-17, setting the school record for losses. The record improved to 14-17 overall and 5-13 in the AAC last season, when the roster included two players currently on NBA rosters, Melvin Frazier and Cameron Reynolds.
Without them, the Wave fell apart. After starting 2-1, it won only two more times, beating Tennessee-Martin and Texas Southern at home in December.
On Saturday, Dannen explained why he had said in mid-February that Dunleavy definitely would be back; at the time, he pointed to the season-long absence of starting point guard Ray Ona Embo due to patellar tendinitis, the unexpected departure of Frazier to the NBA after he blew up in his junior season and an uptick in recruiting.
"A lot of things happen in a season when you struggle," Dannen said. "A lot of people on the outside start trying to get to your kids convincing them that they need to go somewhere else. A lot of the kids we're trying to recruit, there's people telling them don't go there. And really it was twofold in mind. One to address that, (and also) to take some of the pressure off and give everybody a chance without that pressure to come down the stretch and see what we can do."
Elijah Wood, a top 150 prospect in the class of 2020, committed to Tulane in February. Wood, however, would not have arrived until two years from now, and as the losing streak mounted, retaining Dunleavy became untenable. He won only three conference home games in 27 tries during his stint, and attendance at Devlin Fieldhouse was sparse.
Dunleavy has lauded the development of sophomore guard Caleb Daniels, a St. Augustine product who averaged 16.9 points and erupted for 36 points in the regular-season finale against Wichita State. He also expected Ona Embo to return next season, looked forward to the eligibility of Seton Hall transfer point guard Jordan Walker and predicted significant jumps for freshmen Kevin Zhang, Connor Crabtree and Moses Wood.
"I am obviously disappointed I will not be coaching the team next season," Dunleavy wrote on his Twitter account. “I know the optics of this season’s record are disappointing. However, I feel like we have made great strides in developing the players. I believe the returning team is in a good position to have a major turnaround and to set the base we all envisioned."
Dunleavy is the fourth coach Tulane has fired since Perry Clark left for Miami in 2000, joining Shawn Finney (60-86 from 2000-05), Dave Dickerson (68-64 from 2005-10) and Ed Conroy (92-103 from 2011-16).
The Wave made its only three NCAA tournament appearances under Clark in 1992, 1993 and 1995 and played in the NIT four times, including 2000.
Since then, its only postseason berths were the CIT in 2013 and the CBI in 2014, both under Conroy. The Wave has finished above .500 four times in the past 19 years.
Dannen's task is to change those negative numbers with his second hire and win in the very competitive AAC, which had three teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 recently and could be a four-bid league in the NCAA tournament.
"We have six or seven schools in this league who are basketball-first schools who have great traditional, historical success and made great investments," Dannen said. "We're trying to catch them. The program is structurally stable. I feel good about that part of it, and if you don't feel good about that part, you really don't have a chance to get going on the scoreboard."
Dannen praised Dunleavy for everything but the bottom-line results, pointing to a team GPA that improved to 3.15 from 1.99 in his tenure and the Wave's effort level this year despite miserable results.
"They played as hard the last minute of the season as they did the first, and I'm very proud of that," he said. "But that also goes back to Mike's leadership and the commitment inside the program."
After firing Dunleavy, Dannen said he urged the players to wait to meet the new coach before deciding whether to leave in a college basketball world already rife with transfers.
"My only job as an AD really is to empower other people's success, and I told them I want to empower your success," he said. "Hopefully that's here, but give the next coach a chance and see where it goes from there."