Winthrop booster: 'Anything less than the NCAA Tournament is a failure'

adys@heraldonline.comMarch 6, 2012 

— The end came Monday just like the last two seasons of Winthrop University basketball, a wake without mourners.

Coach Randy Peele was gone - and almost nobody noticed.

A single guy at the Winthrop Coliseum - where dreams came true for so many years when the men's basketball team turned tiny Winthrop into a national phenomenon - wiped the basketball backboard with window cleaner in preparation for a women's game.

This week there is no mention of the Winthrop Eagles on every ESPN SportsCenter every 30 minutes as an automatic qualifier in the men's Division I basketball tournament - as happened nine times in 12 years.

The whole reason for Peele's getting canned was summed up best Monday by Joe Versen, former president of the Eagle Club - the boosters for Winthrop's sports teams - and a guy who supported Peele for years and likes Peele, too.

When it comes to men's basketball, Versen said, "anything less than the NCAA is a failure."

There is no thrill anymore at Winthrop, just the worst sin of all - boredom.

Peele, fired with no fanfare, excited nobody and in five seasons lost more than he won.

Before that, Winthrop basketball did not lose. It won.

So if you coach and you lose, what happens is what Vito the foreman used to say to the day laborers who didn't pull their weight: "You go."

This week each year for nine out of 12 years - in the days after Winthrop demolished everybody in Big South basketball to advance to March Madness a week later - the school raked in millions in free publicity. Applications for admissions soared.

Teams like UCLA and Duke and North Carolina and Kentucky go to the big tournament each year. At one time, so did Winthrop.

Even when Winthrop lost in the NCAA Tournament, got creamed, people across the country would say, "There goes Winthrop. They play in the tournament every year. Sure, I heard of Winthrop."

So what if the conference is the Big South? Nobody downplays Gonzaga or Butler, in mid-major conferences that nobody ever heard of, winning almost every year.

Winthrop is ours. It has the best success record in the past 13 years of any Division I team in the state - including South Carolina and Clemson.

Fan leader: 'We are spoiled'

Winthrop gave Rock Hill and York County identity and pride. When its basketball team won, we won.

Former coach Gregg Marshall's team routinely demolished Big South opponents to get to the goal - the NCAA Tournament. Winthrop, under Peele, loses to a religion - Presbyterian.

"Gregg Marshall raised our expectations to be in the NCAA tournament," Versen said. "We are spoiled. The standard has been set."

There are no office pools for college baseball, or high school wrestling or the NBA. But for nine years, people all over America had to pick Winthrop in an NCAA men's basketball tournament bracket.

The fact that those brackets are illegal - secretaries as secret criminals - or that Winthrop the little guy lost, makes it even better.

Beating Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament in 2007 was not Big Time - it was The Holy Grail. Winthrop, which for decades churned out lady schoolteachers, was on the cover of The Sporting News.

Winthrop received exposure the school could never afford. All the big shots at the school admitted it. Basketball made Winthrop more than a college. Basketball made Winthrop matter.

Until Winthrop was not big time anymore.

Plainly, Peele had to go.

Paying Peele a year left on his contract - $165,000 - is chicken feed compared to the millions in free advertising that a spot in the NCAA tournament brings the school.

Kathy Bigham, vice chairwoman of Winthrop's board of trustees and a huge Eagles fan, said Monday she could not comment on Peele's firing because it is a personnel matter.

But Bigham never had to comment when she was so proud at those NCAA games and cheered until her voice was gone. Her smile said it all.

To be fair, Peele surely tried.

"Nobody worked harder than Randy Peele," said Versen. "I feel bad he lost his job. Nobody is happy about that. But the record just hasn't been what he hoped for - or what we hoped for."

'Genius at basketball'

Peele was coach for the last two of the Eagles' NCAA appearances. His first year, 2008, Peele finished second in the Big South's regular season but won the conference title.

It mattered little that Winthrop lost by 31 points in the NCAA tournament, after a tie game at halftime. The other team, Washington State from a huge conference with a huge budget, was far better.

Peele's third year, the team finished third in the Big South regular season and won the conference tournament again, then lost in the NCAA tournament to Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

Problem was, Arkansas-Pine Bluff was not far better and came from a small league just like Winthrop - and still Winthrop was shellacked.

Then, it got worse.

Since then, for two seasons the team was mediocre at best, and at times unwatchably bad. Crowds have been small and virtually silent.

Marshall got a million dollars a year to coach elsewhere because he always won. Marshall, brash and a braggart, made Winthrop matter.

Peele's backers say he won some and worked hard and is a nice, loyal guy.

"I love him," said the Rev. Mike Lowery, team chaplain for more than a decade. "He's a good man. He's a genius at basketball."

But making the NCAA tournament should be the benchmark at Winthrop.

The whole basketball program became pedestrian, a mediocre bore.

Nice and OK are not good enough after you've been to the big time. Not after so much success and thrills, because sports is about thrills and joy and yes, big money and exposure for winning.

Winthrop under Marshall showed that anyone in Rock Hill could be as great as anybody else anywhere.

When Marshall quit in 2006, then changed his mind and came back for another year, it was a big deal and a huge news event because Winthrop almost always made the NCAA tournament.

On Monday, Winthrop sent out an email announcing that the coach had been fired. No press conference. No report on ESPN.

Just a guy on a ladder wiping down a backboard before a women's basketball game - underneath those NCAA banners that hang from the rafters.

After years of cheers and national success, almost nobody notices as the guy wipes the streaks away.

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