Monday, March 6, 2017

Turning Point

"Something needs to change, or something needs to change."

That's how I ended my last blog post back in December. That was three full months ago - and unfortunately, nothing changed. Today, RPI decided that what needed to change was the head coach. After 11 seasons in Troy, Seth Appert is out.

I must admit, I found the news simultaneously shocking, and not shocking at all. After all, the team managed just eight wins this season, failing to win 10 for the first time since 1982. 28 losses was a school record for a single season. And a .230 winning percentage was the lowest since the benchmark for disastrous RPI seasons, 1966 (still tops at .136). This was a historically bad season.

Worse, it was almost entirely unexpected. This team was supposed to do much better than this. Expectations coming into the year weren't that the Engineers were destined to be cellar-dwellers. They may not have been world-beaters, but they weren't the worst team in the conference either. Amazingly, they didn't end up being the worst team in the conference (thanks, Brown). But it was a brutal, harrowing experience this year.

If this was a serious aberration, it may not have led to a change in management. But the problems really were adding up on a level that the school really couldn't keep living with. By now, they've been repeated over and over again. No ECAC semifinals since 2002. Just four winning seasons in the last 11 - just one 20-win season (at exactly 20) against five 20-loss seasons (all with 23 or more). The frustration has mounted, and a season this bad, against expectations much higher was too much to bear.

Even now, looking back, it's hard to say that Appert's extensions weren't warranted when they happened. His first extension was in 2011, after an NCAA tournament appearance. The feeling was that the program had turned the corner. A second-place finish in 2013 seemed to justify that feeling, and serendipitously for him, the head coaching job at Denver came vacant at the exact same time - one of the few jobs, it was felt, that he'd leave RPI to take. Some reports even suggest that he was offered the Denver gig, and went back to RPI to see if they wanted to counter. The star was on the rise, no doubt, it seemed. RPI anted up. Unfortunately, it appears they lost the bet.

The 2014 Engineers were tabbed to be among the best in the ECAC and potentially among the best in the nation. And then Jason Kasdorf suffered a freak injury that drastically altered not only his own career but the trajectory of the program. That was bad enough. Having to watch Union go on to win the national championship that year only twisted the knife even more. It's not super fair to include that in a list of reasons why Appert is gone, but it's human nature.

There was just never a recovery. A year after the Engineers were supposed to be the toast of the league, they lost 26 games. Last year, they underperformed regularly in a better season, finally killing the home playoff bugaboo but still failing to reach Lake Placid. And then this year.

Eating four years of contract is tough for a big school with a big budget. RPI is neither of those things. We don't know how much Appert was making in his position, but you can bet that the absolute, bare minimum floor of this buyout is well over a quarter of a million dollars - possibly even reaching upwards of half a million. That's why this move is at least a little bit shocking. It cannot have been easy for the athletic department to have made this move. But ultimately, the results of this season left few good options on the table.

The buyout is going to have an impact on the amount of compensation the school can offer a replacement - let there be no doubt about that. Whoever takes this position is likely to be doing so for a salary that's well below the Division I average. That's a reason why I thought it may make sense for RPI keep Appert, who, for all of his well detailed flaws, is at least at this point a well-experienced Division I coach. A low salary will more likely attract a head coach without such experience, making RPI an entry-level position for someone who will either fail to improve the program or will be gone just as soon as improvements start becoming evident to other programs. For those celebrating this moment, we're going to find out in the coming weeks if this is more of a "be careful what you wish for" situation.

Personally, I'm neither celebrating nor lamenting this action. I can understand why it happened. And most people also understand that RPI does lose a class act in Seth Appert as well.

But this story isn't finished being told, either. Who comes in next will play just as big of a role in determining the future of this program as today's decision did. 

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