Originally created 07/13/97

Jaguars' job-seekers enter final interviews



One week down, one to go.

Augusta State's search for a new men's basketball coach kicks into overdrive this week with the final three interviews.

Wil Jones, recently reinstated as head coach and athletic director at the University of the District of Columbia, interviews Monday. Former Furman coach Butch Estes comes in Wednesday, and St. Thomas University coach Gary Tuell concludes the process Friday.

Gregg Gierke, formerly of Kishwaukee (Ill.) College, and Thomas College coach Michael Leeder have already come and gone.

Jaguars athletic director Clint Bryant has said the school hopes to name a new coach by July 25.

As the process heats up, it has become clear that the Jaguars must sell the position as much as the candidates must sell their own merits. Interviews with all five finalists revealed a high curiosity level about a program that won just 27 games total the last three seasons.

All of the candidates have great respect for Bryant, who resigned May 7 after compiling a 106-147 record in nine years as head coach. His presence no doubt helped the applicant pool reach a whopping 160. But his ultimate failure also makes the candidates wonder privately whether a winning program is possible here.

They marvel at Augusta State's still-gleaming home arena - which is far better than what any of them are accustomed to - but wonder whether winning alone would solve the attendance woes.

They comment on a roster that returns 10 players from last year's team, but then consider the 8-19 record Bryant's last team managed and wonder whether all that depth is necessarily a good thing.

They appreciate the $60,000 total package that comes with the job, but wonder whether it's that high merely to mask some of the job's more painful aspects.

Like what? Like competing in the 12-team Peach Belt Athletic Conference, for one thing.

As Augusta State has turned away from recruiting junior college players in recent years, the Jaguars have slipped in the conference standings. Those at the top, teams like Georgia College, Columbus and South Carolina-Spartanburg, have a strong JUCO presence. Those in the bottom half have largely eschewed JUCO products.

Bryant has joked with the other cellar dwellers about playing for "the junior varsity" title, and the situation isn't likely to change anytime soon.

Augusta State President William Bloodworth, at the start of the coaching search, stressed the school's determination to avoid the quick fix of junior college players.

This would seem to hurt the candidacy of Gierke in particular. He spent 12 seasons building Kishwaukee into a national junior college powerhouse and has endless contacts at that level.

But the 37-year-old coach said his philosophy was closer to Bloodworth's than you might expect.

"I really would prefer not to build a total program around junior college players," Gierke said. "That may sound funny coming from a junior college coach, but I believe in having players four years. You want to be able to develop players. Two years is too little to have a player and bring them along."

But, Gierke added, a total prohibition of junior college players doesn't make sense either.

"Any program needs to supplement what it has with the occasional JUCO player," he said. "I would think one recruit a year would be all right. As long as the constant number is three or four on the team, that's OK. The key is to get three or four real good ones, and I believe I can with my connections."

Tuell, who served on the same University of Miami staff as Bryant in 1987-88, cautions against a total prohibition of JUCOs as well.

"They're not lepers," Tuell said. "There are good kids on that level as well."

That's just one of the issues the search committee will have to sort out before naming the fourth coach in Augusta State's 32-year basketball history.