The next basketball coach at Texas-Arlington will have to meet an unfathomably high standard to keep his job.
University administrators made that clear Monday when they cut loose the most successful coach in school history.
Texas-Arlington fired Scott Cross after 12 seasons, a dumbfounding decision considering what he has accomplished recently. The Mavericks averaged 24 victories the past three years, finished in the top four of their league each season and defeated the likes of Ohio State, Texas, Saint Mary’s, Memphis and BYU out of conference.
One of the only blemishes on Cross’ record was that Texas-Arlington made the NCAA tournament just once during his tenure, a surprise appearance back in 2008. Both times the Mavericks captured regular season league titles under Cross they had to settle for NIT appearances after falling in the semifinals of their conference tournament.
The ousting of Cross was so surprising that many initially assumed it must have been sparked by something besides wins and losses. A source told Yahoo Sports that’s not the case, and athletic director Jim Baker basically confirmed as much to the Dallas Morning News.
“Some people say, ‘Well, you’re UTA,’ you should be happy,'” Baker told the newspaper. “That’s not our president. That’s not me. We want to be the best at what we do. Your aspirations have to be that you can get to the NCAAs every year. That’s what we want.”
If Baker is truly measuring success based on NCAA tournament bids, that’s a foolhardy approach for an athletic director in a one-bid league like the Sun Belt. The randomness of a single-elimination conference tournament is an exciting way to award an NCAA bid, but an 18-game conference slate is a far more reliable way to determine what coaches are doing a good job.
It was only a year ago that Texas-Arlington won 27 games and captured the Sun Belt regular season title under Cross. The Mavericks finished fourth this season despite being projected to repeat as conference champs by the league’s coaches thanks to the return of top players Kevin Hervey and Erick Neal.
Texas-Arlington may struggle to avoid a rebuilding period considering 90 percent of its scoring and rebounding is set to graduate, but that alone is not reason to fire Cross. He has earned the right to endure a transition season and fight back from it after making five postseason appearances at a school that had reached zero NCAA tournaments and one NIT prior to his arrival.
Credit Cross for his grace under difficult circumstances after his firing. He released a statement that was more gracious than most coaches would have been if 72 wins in three seasons landed them in unemployment.
Since I have not been able to respond to everyone that has reached out, I decided to write a statement about the events of today! Two things that I believe & will continue to do: #TakeTheStairs & #TrustTheGoodLord! pic.twitter.com/VmZuAKhqCn
— Scott Cross (@CoachScottCross) March 27, 2018
The two pillars of Cross’ final Texas-Arlington team were not nearly as understanding about their university’s decision.
Idk what’s going on upstairs with the UTA basketball team but it’s not right at all. They made the biggest mistake ever today. I really hate that I missed the meeting
— Erick Neal (@ErickNeal01) March 26, 2018
Molded me from merely a boy, into a man. We had the best 4 year run in uta history. I wish nothing but the best for you and your families, and couldn’t have asked for a better staff!! May greater things lie ahead in you, and your families future @CoachScottCross
— Kevin Hervey (@kherv_25) March 26, 2018
The lingering question now for Texas-Arlington is how many prospective candidates for the vacant job will be scared away by the expectations of its administration?
Texas-Arlington should be one of the best jobs in the Sun Belt given the size of its recently built arena and the ambitions of its athletic department, but the burden of sky-high expectations will surely leave some coaches disinterested.
For some coaches, 72 victories in three years would merit a raise and a contract extension. For Cross, it wound up getting him fired.
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