Did Rodney Terry just coach his final game at Fresno State?
Feels like a real possibility.
Barring an invitation to a postseason tournament – it certainly won’t be the Big Dance – the Bulldogs men’s basketball team played its final game Thursday afternoon in Las Vegas. San Diego State knocked them out of the Mountain West Tournament quarterfinals, 64-52.
There’s a decent chance it ends up as the last game of Terry’s Fresno State tenure as well.
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Our first clue that he might be looking for an exit door came in a Wednesday report by the El Paso Times that listed Terry’s name among seven candidates who interviewed for the UTEP vacancy.
The reaction from Bulldogs faithful could be summed up in one acronym and a couple punctuation marks: UTEP?!
“What does it say about our program and our fans if a school like UTEP seems attractive?” asked one of my Twitter followers. “The administration and alumni should be embarrassed.”
I get why people around here might feel that way. El Paso, Texas, is even more remote and isolated than Fresno, and Conference USA ranks well below the Mountain West in men's basketball both by analytics and reputation.
In other words, it would be a lateral move at best and maybe a step down. So why would Terry, 126-108 overall and the third-winningest coach in Fresno State history, even take UTEP's phone call?
He would if he thinks he's taken the Bulldogs as far as they can go.
I'm not saying Terry ends up at UTEP. There are some good coaches on that list, so he's not exactly a slam dunk. Nor do I think it's a ploy by Terry's agent to extract more money from Fresno State. That happened in the middle of last season when Terry signed a five-year contract extension through 2020-21. He's slated to make $625,000 next season and $650,000 in the two after that – the exact same amount UTEP was paying Tim Floyd.
So this isn't amount the Benjamins.
More than that, I think this is about a sense that things here have plateaued. Even though the Bulldogs just recorded their fourth 20-win season in the past five years, attendance at Save Mart Center has dwindled. This year's average dipped to 6,032, the lowest figure in the arena's 15-year history.
For all of Terry's wins, his program has not been able to win over casual fans.
Fan support is just one ingredient in this stew. Bulldogs basketball doesn't get much administrative support, either. Terry's budget ranks in the bottom third of the MW, which means less money for recruiting, scheduling and travel. Also, his team lacks a dedicated practice facility. When SMC isn't available due to concerts or events, men's basketball shares the North Gym with other teams. The Bulldogs don't even have a locker room at the North Gym. Another project that didn't get done.
Other MW programs have their own dedicated hardwood space, as does UTEP. No sharing necessary. And by the way, UTEP spends about $800,000 more per year on men's basketball than Fresno State, and attendance was slightly higher (6,155) even in a season when the Miners finished 11-20.
Terry might also be wondering about the future direction of Bulldogs athletics. I know other coaches are. Nearly five months have passed since Fresno State and Jim Bartko parted ways, and the university has hardly lifted a finger to find a new athletic director.
Even if Terry doesn't end up at UTEP, which would represent a return to his home state, I expect his name to come up in other vacancies. No, he probably won't land the Big 12 Conference job he covets. Still, there are plenty of schools that could use a proven-program builder with a track record of recruiting and avoiding messes.
Could Terry have done more? Sure. His teams haven't won a MW title and have a disturbing tendency to lose at home in front of the toughest opponents and biggest crowds. See Oregon, Nevada, Boise State and Wyoming.
We may have reached the point where Terry believes he can't take the Bulldogs any further with the resources he has. That he's smacking his head against an artificial ceiling and wants to go someplace where there's more room to grow.
Which is why he's looking for a way out.