Fresno State basketball coach Rodney Terry has accepted a job at Texas-El Paso, taking a step back to leave a program that he built into a conference title contender with two all-conference players returning next season and still three years remaining on his contract.
That is not a good look for Fresno State — UTEP, which plays in Conference USA, is a couple of steps behind the Mountain West Conference.
But the Miners have basketball tradition on their side and they do invest in basketball. UTEP has a dedicated practice facility with two courts, a strength and conditioning center, a sports medicine center, film and locker rooms and a lounge for its men's and women's programs. It also invests about $850,000 more per year on basketball than Fresno State, $4.13 million to $3.29 million.
"It's the right fit, right opportunity and right time for me and my family," Terry said. "There's a great basketball tradition at UTEP and hopefully I can go in and build on it."
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That infrastructure was a sticky point with Terry, who despite sitting in the bottom half of the Mountain West in basketball spending led the Bulldogs to three 20-win seasons in a row and four in five years with a Mountain West Conference Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament berth in 2016 and an NIT appearance in '17.
Fresno State this season was 21-11 and 11-7 in the Mountain West, and lost to San Diego State in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. Its season is finished.
"I love my team. I love what we have done with this program. I think we've taken it to another level," Terry said after the San Diego State game. "Is there another level that we can go to? Yeah, there is another level, but there has to be a commitment behind the expectations."
Seven building years
That did not stop Terry and his staff from building a program that was in poor shape on and off the floor upon arrival. The Bulldogs had just finished in seventh place in the Western Athletic Conference, a year away from taking a long step up to the Mountain West. The program had issues with its NCAA-mandated Academic Progress Rate, and a very thin roster.
Terry recruited and developed guard Marvelle Harris, who became the leading scorer in school history with 2,031 points. Harris was the Mountain West Player of the Year in 2016, when the Bulldogs advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 16 years.
Paul Watson was conference Freshman of the Year in 2014. Tyler Johnson played for Terry for three seasons on his way to the NBA, growing from a freshman who scored 4.4 points per game to a senior who scored 15.9 and was a second-team all-conference selection.
"We did a lot of things here, now," Terry said. "Finishing in the top four of this league in the past three years, that's not easy to do. This is a great basketball conference. I think I'm going into a really good basketball conference. That's not easy.
"We had some good players. I had an extremely good staff behind me and we were able to build a really good culture here where guys came in and worked hard, carried themselves the right way off the court and really bought in to being good kids and good players."
Behind the curve
It did, though, lead to questions how far the program could go given the athletic department is saddled with 21 programs to support. The Bulldogs' next coach will have to continue to hammer away despite some challenges his Mountain West Conference peers might find quaint.
There is no basketball practice facility at Fresno State, its programs bouncing between the Save Mart Center and the North Gym.
To practice, they go one place. To watch film, they go to another. To get treatment, players go to another. To get in a weight training session, they go to another.
In the Mountain West, Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State, Nevada, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, Utah State and Wyoming all have basketball facilities.
There also are travel issues, limited guarantee money to schedule home non-conference games and a declining fan base. Fresno State this season averaged only 6,033 at the Save Mart Center, seventh in the 11-team conference.
Fresno State will conduct a national search for its next coach, but despite its warts is at least in a better spot than it was when Terry was hired.
NBA veteran Quincy Pondexter, a Fresno native and San Joaquin Memorial High grad, took to social media to express interest in the job, saying on Twitter "Coaching at Fresno St is my dream job." He later added: "Oh, and I'll donate my first year salary to the city of Fresno."
Two early candidates to emerge are Fresno State assistant Byron Jones, who was with Terry for all seven of his seasons and knows the Bulldogs' players and how to navigate the program's challenges, and San Diego State associate head coach Justin Hutson. Hutson, who has been at San Diego State for five seasons, is a Bakersfield native.
"We think we have a program that's moving in a great direction," interim athletics director Steve Robertello said. "Do we want to continue to move? Absolutely. We want to be in there year in and year out in the league."
Rodney Terry's career record
2011-12: 13-20 overall, 3-11 Western Athletic Conference (7th place)
2012-13: 11-19, 5-11 Mountain West Conference (6th)
2013-14: 21-18, 9-9 (5th), College Basketball Invitational runners-up
2014-15: 15-17, 10-8 (6th)
2015-16: 25-10, 13-5 (2nd), won Mountain West tournament, NCAA first round
2016-17: 20-13, 11-7 (4th), National Invitation Tournament first round
2017-18: 21-11, 11-7 (4th)
Overall: 126-108, 62-58