ATLANTA — For more than two years, the tenor of the Georgia Tech basketball program was hyperbolic in nature.
At times, it could be classified as cool, calm and in control. When that was the case, success made it seem all was perfect in paradise; all was right with the world.
Then, when those feelings faded, the story lines and events that circulated around the Yellow Jackets churned away with a wild, arrhythmic, reckless, emotion-fueled abandon that seemed to hint at deep, dark problems gnawing away at the team. Something wasn’t right.
What those issues or problems were and what led the program to dwell in abject mediocrity when it had the talent to do otherwise, no one could seem to put a finger upon that.
But Saturday morning, Georgia Tech’s athletics association made a move it believes will provide a solution to such seemingly unanswerable dilemmas. It was a move officials hope will change the school’s basketball direction and restore its harmony.
During an afternoon news conference, athletics director Dan Radakovich formally announced the firing of head coach Paul Hewitt, ending an 11-year relationship with the man who led the program to four NCAA tournaments and a Final Four appearance.
“We both met and talked about the future of Georgia Tech’s men’s basketball program,” Radakovich said, citing a 10 a.m. Saturday meeting. “It was during that meeting that I informed him that we would be moving in a new direction and he would not be retained as our head basketball coach.”
Since Georgia Tech has elected to relieve Hewitt of his coaching obligations, the school now is on the hook for an approximately $7.2 million buyout that it will pay Hewitt monthly during the next five years, Radakovich said. He’ll receive payments beginning in April.
Approximately 30 minutes after the 15-minute morning meeting, Hewitt was reached by The Telegraph by phone. At that time, he said he had been fired.
“I was not necessarily surprised,” he said. “In this business, you come to expect anything.”
It could be argued the death knell came Thursday in Greensboro, N.C., where the Yellow Jackets fell to Virginia Tech 59-43 in the opening round of the ACC tournament. The loss capped a season that saw the Yellow Jackets finish 13-18 overall and 5-11 in the ACC. It also marked the team’s third losing season in four years and its fourth since reaching the Final Four and the national championship in 2004.
Radakovich, however, all but admitted that the decision to fire Hewitt was made before the tournament. Before the Yellow Jackets faced the Hokies on Thursday night, he met with school president G.P. “Bud” Peterson in Greensboro and there the two came to a “concurrence” about Hewitt’s future. But he added that there was no finality to their decision until he met with the coach Saturday morning.
The reason the meeting was held Saturday and not sooner was because Radakovich had meetings all day Friday in Greensboro with other ACC athletics directors. Saturday morning was his first chance to sit down with Hewitt since they had returned to Atlanta.
Guards Iman Shumpert and Jason Morris attended the news conference and spoke solemnly about their former head coach.
“It’s tough,” Shumpert said, speaking slowly. “It’s like you just played your last game of the season. And — I’m just sort of blank about it right now.”
The All-ACC junior said Hewitt’s firing “could” affect his decision whether to leave school a year early for the NBA draft. The ACC’s leader in steals, he drew vast attention this season despite playing for a losing team.
Morris was asked about playing amid an oftentimes hostile home environment. With calls for Hewitt’s firing coming from members of the media as well as fans, the mood at Alexander Memorial Coliseum the past two seasons was hardly inviting. Such animosity wore on the players.
Morris minced no words about it.
“I would never support the ridicule that he went through,” the freshman said. “It almost became a distraction at some point. You could tell because it would affect the team on the road. Even at home. Having to deal with that on our own home court. Having our fans be against our own coach definitely wasn’t something that we would support, and it’s definitely something that you can’t ignore.
“I wouldn’t think that any coach would have to go through that.”
Looking into the stands and seeing a mostly Carolina blue-clad crowd the night the Yellow Jackets hosted North
Carolina brought the entire situation to a head, he said.
“What got me was, (Shumpert) was actually shooting a free throw, and I looked into our own student section, and I saw our own students wearing powder blue,” Morris said. “That was pretty much the last straw.”
At that point, the players were driven to discount the naysayers, he said. At home, they did it, going on a three-game winning streak. But eventually, the situation went from driving them to “becoming an annoyance,” Morris said.
“It was one of those things that you were just ready to get rid of,” he said.
Hewitt expressed remorse for not being able to reverse the negative on-court trend that led to the losing.
“I didn’t adapt to change swiftly,” he said.
Regardless, he said he was thankful for the opportunity to coach at Georgia Tech for the time that he did. Speaking with the same professional grace Radakovich referenced multiple times in the news conference, Hewitt bowed out still holding high regard for the school.
“I hope the team can turn things around,” Hewitt said. “I have nothing at all to be angry about or upset about.”