By: Ryan Token
The Haith era at Tulsa is over. As of Saturday, March 12th, 2022 – exactly one year after we wrote a blog post on The Odd Case of Frank Haith – Frank Haith has resigned and is no longer the head basketball coach at The University of Tulsa.
I put my initial thoughts about this on Twitter, but an event like this deserves more thought, perspective, and room to breath.
Let me be clear: Frank Haith was a fantastic representative and leader for TU over his eight years here. There was no drama, no scandal, and no shortage of great memories with him at the helm. He also represented a rare stable presence for a school that has gone through nonstop instability throughout effectively his entire tenure.
I have a great deal of respect for Coach Haith and wish him well going forward. He ushered TU through an era of tight budgets, leadership turmoil, and COVID-19. Just one of those circumstances makes things difficult for any coach. He rolled with the punches, handled it as best he could, and did it all with humility and grace.
TU hired Frank Haith in April of 2014. Tulsa was coming off of an NCAA Tournament appearance, Danny Manning had just left for Wake Forest, Frank Haith had just completed his second 23-win season in a row at Mizzou, and Matt and I were about to complete our freshman years.
Born and raised in St. Louis, we both grew up Mizzou fans. Yes there was some drama near the end of Haith's tenure with the Tigers, but I (and I think Matt, too) was optimistic about Haith's prospects at a school like TU. Tulsa was a lower-pressure job than Mizzou and in a lower-profile league, but was also a program with plenty of upside, recent success, and a stacked roster. The table was set nicely for Coach Haith to come in and succeed immediately.
And succeed he did – for a time. His first two seasons at Tulsa resulted in final KenPom rankings of 85 and 65, including an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2016. Those first couple of years created a lot of the passion for TU athletics in us that resulted in our podcast and blog. Those were the days of James Woodard, Shaq Harrison, Rashad Ray, and D'Andre Wright. Clearly successful seasons, albeit with a roster that he did not recruit.
But then those guys all graduated. The 2016-17 roster, replete with Haith’s own recruits, was completely different. Along with sophomore returner Sterling Taplin and freshman Martins Igbanu came a host of transfers including Junior Etou (Rutgers), Corey Henderson (Wichita State), and Jaleel Wheeler (JUCO). Pat Birt, another JUCO transfer, had arrived at TU the season prior. Due to the massive roster turnover, there was a significant drop during the 2016-17 season. Tulsa ended the year ranked #144 in KenPom.
From the 2016-17 season on, it became a roller coaster. Over the next several years we got to watch the rise of guys like DaQuan Jeffries, Brandon Rachal, Elijah Joiner, Jeriah Horne, Darien Jackson, and more. Many of them talented, NBA-level, players. But the results over that six-year stretch were disappointing, to put it lightly.
2022 KenPom results not yet reflected in this chart - we are #172 in KenPom as of publishing. Chart originally from @TulsaHop
Looking at the chart above, there was just one definitively good season after 2015-16, an average KenPom ranking of 124, consistently declining attendance, and a particularly bad two-year stretch over these most recent seasons.
In Haith's defense, that good 2019-20 season was indeed fantastic. Tulsa was the co-regular season AAC champion, Haith won AAC Coach of the Year, we would've received at least an NIT bid were it not for COVID-19, and one of my single favorite memories from any TU game happened – Joiner hitting a three at the buzzer to take down Wichita State in front of a packed Reynolds Center. Half of the fans were Shocker fans, but that made the buzzer beater even sweeter.
Even during that 2019-20 year, though, the issues at the root of the program were still evident. Namely, attendance. Bill Haisten noted in his article about Haith's resignation that a new program low of 4,043 fans per game was set during that season. It cratered to an average of 2,911 this season.
Doug Wojcik was fired for attendance issues almost exactly ten years ago. It matters. Winning aside, would attendance have been better had Frank Haith focused more on Tulsa-area and Oklahoma-area recruits? There has only been one Tulsa high school recruit throughout his tenure, and that came this most recent season with freshman standout Anthony Pritchard - who we didn't actually offer until he had already committed to Tennessee Tech.
Further, I think fans appreciate when a team has a true identity. Temple football's "Temple TUFF" sounds silly, but it means something to the team and to the fans. It's something they can fall back on even when the wins aren't coming. "Yes this year has been a struggle, but we know we play tough, we play hard, and we won't quit". That has an impact. After Rod Carey destroyed that culture and identity for the Owls, he was gone.
What do you think of when you think Tulsa basketball? Early in the Haith era, I probably would have said a slow but precise offense paired with an interesting and effective defense. And we had the players to execute it on both ends. Not the most entertaining brand of basketball, but it worked. Over time, the offense has remained at about the same pace but has gotten less precise, and the defense has fallen apart. That results in an unexciting brand of basketball that doesn't work and that fans aren't going to show up for.
Attendance and identity problems aside, making the postseason just once over the past six years should not be acceptable. And not coming anywhere close in most of those seasons is worse. This year made a coaching change feel inevitable.
All-time low attendance, a program-worst 14 conference losses, no identity as a team, and a lack of interest in the basketball program at large made it clear that it was time to go in a different direction.
More than anything else, though, this has to hurt for the players. Some, like Darien Jackson, have played for him throughout their entire college careers. They like and respect him as a man and as a coach. I imagine they may even feel a small sense of responsibility for Haith's resignation. It is them out there on the court, after all. And that sucks. Players should bear no responsibility for what happens with a coach.
I think we all know that Haith is a genuinely good man. I feel sad for him about this move. So before we get too down, let's take a quick look back at some of the good times.
Despite the resignation, there have been some incredible moments during Haith's time leading the team.
To look back at some of these, I've compiled three of my favorite Haith-era memories.
1. This picture
Joiner's three at the buzzer to beat Wichita State. The photo makes it one of my favorite TU memories ever
2. The 2016 NCAA Tournament game vs Michigan
My brother and me at the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Dayton, Ohio
Just a fantastic game from start to finish. Yes we lost, but it was the last go-round for Shaq, Woodard, and their crew. Matt and I both went to this game and had a blast.
3. Beating UConn over and over again after they won the national championship in 2014
I think this picture is from the 2016 win against them, but we also beat them in 2015, 2017, twice in 2018, 2019, and 2020. Delicious.
I have a ton of respect for Frank Haith. If he ever wants to come on the podcast, we'd love to have him. But it was time for a change. The program desperately needs new life. A coaching change can provide the activation energy that a university and a fanbase need in order to generate new interest and passion for the program. That's what I'm hoping for out of this move more than anything else. For people to care about Tulsa basketball again.
Matt and I just went on The College Basketball Stories podcast to talk about the 1980-81 Tulsa basketball season. Nolan Richardson had just been hired after Tulsa endured five-straight losing seasons. No one cared about the program then. At the end of that 1981 season, thousands of people welcomed the new NIT champions back to the Tulsa airport in the freezing rain at 2:00am. Several thousand more joined the NIT championship celebration in downtown Tulsa. All of this just one season after university administrators took a chance and made a change. It can happen. It will take someone who's hungry, who's outgoing, and who's willing to do whatever it takes to turn this ship around.
I wish nothing but the best for Coach Haith moving forward. He represented TU with class, dignity, and respect (and style) for eight years. He took pay cuts, weathered serious storms of instability throughout the university, and had moments of true greatness here. Unfortunately, the wins weren't consistent enough and he wasn't able to generate the level of excitement we're used to seeing around TU basketball. In today's game, that's enough to warrant a change.
So we move on. On to the 31st head coach in Tulsa men's basketball history.
I’m excited for the future of Tulsa basketball. This is the first coaching search in football or men’s basketball since we started the podcast in 2018! It’s sure to be as exciting as it is unnerving.
Looking forward to digging into it with all of you.
What do you think about the change? A head coaching move like this is always polarizing. We want to know what you think. Leave your comments below with your perspective and maybe even your favorite memories from Haith's tenure.