JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Desmond Oliver is out as East Tennessee State University’s men’s basketball coach after two seasons at the helm, ETSU announced Friday morning. He had completed two years of a five-year contract.
ETSU Athletic Director Richard Sander told News Channel 11 the decision came after a standard post-season evaluation that is standard with all the school’s sports. He said he had met with Oliver about the decision Friday morning.
“One of the first and foremost things is the experience of the student athlete … and I think every college basketball player wants to compete for championships and play meaningful games in March, and so we really weren’t getting to that level,” Sander said.
He mentioned attendance at games, revenue generation and the coach’s engagement in the community are among the other information that is aggregated in the decision-making process.
“There’s no magic formula as to how it works but as we looked at those different things they all kind of came into play.”
The program plans a national search for a replacement. Joe Hugley, an assistant and former player with the team, was tabbed as interim coach while the search is underway.
ETSU confirmed that Oliver’s termination was considered “without cause” according to the terms of his contract. That contract stipulated — as college coaching contracts typically do — that Oliver would be paid if he was fired before the end of his contract.
With a termination date prior to March 31, 2023, that “termination payment” was $400,000. It would have dropped to $350,000 April 1 of this year.
Oliver replaced Jason Shay, who resigned after one season in which the team posted a winning record but drew controversy over its players kneeling during the National Anthem.
Oliver, who had most recently been an assistant at the University of Tennessee, signed a five-year contract in April 2021 that paid him a base salary of $325,000.
Oliver’s teams posted a combined 27-37 record during two consecutive losing seasons — a first for ETSU basketball in the 21st century. The teams were a combined 15-21 in Southern Conference play and failed to get out of the conference tournament quarterfinals in either year.
Asked whether two seasons was enough time for Oliver to make a mark on the program, Sander that was “pretty quick,” but said the current realities of college basketball shorten that window.
“With the transfer portal I think the ability to build a team quickly is certainly a lot more possible,” he said. Then Sander referenced Brenda Mock, who just led the ETSU women’s team to a 23-win season after her predecessor was essentially fired after a six-win campaign.
He called Mock’s first year a major accomplishment in obvious contrast to Oliver’s two years.
“Coach Mock didn’t get the job here until August 8th, she had never even seen any of our players, she had never even had a conversation with the assistant coaches, and yet she was able to come in and build a team that played with great energy, with great passion, with great enthusiasm,” Sander said.
“It’s quick, there’s no doubt about it, but I didn’t think we were making any progress. It just looked to me like as time was going on the team wasn’t getting better.”
Sander said the buck stopped with him in terms of Oliver’s tenure. He made the recommendation and President Brian Noland signed off.
“He trusts me, so this was my decision.”
Sander demurred when asked whether Oliver’s coming in on the heels of the National Anthem kneeling incident that led to Shay’s resignation after one year. He said every coach encounters hurdles in a new job.
“He’s a wonderful person, great man, worked really hard, but in the end it just came down to where I thought this program was going and it just needed a change in direction.”
Sander acknowledged the players weren’t the only people involved with ETSU basketball who carry high expectations.
“ETSU has a long history and tradition of successful basketball. It just didn’t seem like we were moving in that direction to get back to those days that the people were proud of that team that we put out there,” Sander said.
In the 18 years prior to Shay’s single season (2020-2021), ETSU averaged almost 21 wins per year and had only two losing seasons, qualifying for the NCAA tournament six times.
Sander hastened to add that the individual players are good young men and players.
“We just hadn’t gotten to that standard that ETSU has developed and earned over the years, and that’s where I think we need to get to.”
Some of the best of those years came during Steve Forbes’s five seasons from 2015-2020 – the current Wake Forest coach won an average of 26 games a year – but Sander said he avoided those comparisons while evaluating Oliver.
With the national search under way, Sander said ETSU is focusing on someone who can demonstrate they’re a leader.
“That they have a plan, that they can communicate that plan, that they can get the players to buy in, that they have enough experience they can really run the schemes that put our players in the best possible situation to succeed, but also for (players) to develop this connection to the university that lasts a lifetime.”
He mentioned T.J. Cromer and Isaac Banks as a couple former players who come back frequently in the summers and exhibit a continued love for the school and program.
“A lot of those guys do that, and that’s what we kind of want to get to. This becomes their place where they feel good about it and they’re glad that they’ve come to ETSU and had a great experience.”
Sander had praise for the assistant coaches and said while he wouldn’t want to tie a new coach’s hands, he would “advocate very strongly for the assistant coaches who are here.”
He was coy about any potential replacement. He said some people had crossed his mind but he hadn’t talked to any of them yet.
“As we move along I’m sure those names will surface.”
Oliver’s agreement calls for him to be paid the $400,000 in monthly increments until his contract would have been up.
In the past two years, ETSU has had to pay out for the resignations or terminations of four basketball coaches and one athletic director: men’s coaches Shay and Oliver, women’s coaches Brittney Ezell and Simon Harris and AD Scott Carter. All told those payments add up to more than $1.2 million over time.