Friday, January 15, 2010

Chip Conner Ousted at USF, 1/15/80

Due to the recent firing of head coach Jim Leavitt, the University of South Florida football program finds itself at a crossroads. This week 30 years ago, the basketball program was in a similar situation: looking to find a new head coach and right a sinking ship.

On January 13, 1980, the Bulls traveled to Mobile, Alabama, to play in a regionally televised game against the defending Sun Belt Conference champions, the University of South Alabama. A rare TV appearance afforded the 4-7 Bulls a chance to answer critics who said the team played too soft and without emotion, and were just plain poorly prepared.

Instead, the Bulls seemed to confirm those criticisms by laying an absolute egg, dropping an 84-55 contest that was not even as close as the 29-point deficit might indicate. Head coach Chip Conner, who called the game "the worst we've played all year for 40 minutes," seemed to believe his team had quit playing hard in the second half.

After the game, the embattled Conner was despondent and dejected, unsure of his own future or of how to fix his team. His words were spoken by a man all too aware of his impending fate.

"I am at the low point of my life," he said. "I have never felt worse than I do right now. If they were to go ahead and fire me, based on today's performance, I couldn't blame them."

Of his team, Conner said, "I just can't seem to evoke any emotion in them. They just don't fight back. I can't understand how they can go out on the court like they did today and just get intimidated the way they were. I can't understand how they can play with no intensity."

He cited a lack of chemistry, experience and leadership among his players as reasons for the Bulls struggles.

"There are going to be some changes," Conner said. "I can promise you that." He could not have been more correct.

On January 15, university president John Lott Brown also came to the decision that a change had to be made, and that Conner would not be part of the solution. Dan Walbolt, vice president of student affairs, announced the decision to terminate Conner after four seasons in which he posted an overall 59-62 mark.

The change came not only because of the team's poor record, but because of the effect it had on attendance and overall interest in the program.

"It is apparent to me," Walbolt said, "that we have lost a significant amount of community and university support for our basketball team, and that we must make immediate efforts to regain that support. We have been concerned about the fact that our team has not performed as well as we hoped and expected."

The Bulls were expected to contend for the Sun Belt championship during the 1979-80 season. Coming off a second-place 14-14 finish the previous year, and with several key players returning, the team severely underachieved to open the season. Blowout losses to North Carolina, Florida State and Auburn, while disappointing, were somewhat understandable. Losses to schools like the University of Richmond and Florida Southern College, however, were not so easily excused. The crushing loss to South Alabama -- a game Walboldt called a "disgrace" -- proved to be the tipping point for Conner's career at USF.

In the wake of the well-liked Conner's firing, his former players came to his defense. Tony Grier objected to the decision, saying, "He wasn't given a chance. I think it stinks."

Hiram Green expressed disappointment at losing a coach the players felt close to: "He was a great man and we all had respect for him. I didn't expect anything to happen like this."

The university chose assistant coach Gordon Gibbons as Conner's replacement on an interim basis. The day after Conner's ousting, the Bulls responded to the change in a manner that hinted at a reversal in fortunes.

In front of 1,008 fans at Curtis Hixon Hall, the Bulls rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit to top the University of New Orleans, 70-67. The team hustled, played with emotion and refused to quit. Did the team turn a corner that night? Not exactly.

The Bulls would go on to drop their next 12 games, and not win again until Feb. 18 against Stetson. USF finished the season 1-13 in the Sun Belt Conference and 6-21 overall, by any measure the worst campaign in the nine-year history of the program.

Better times were just around the corner, however, as the hiring of Purdue's Lee Rose for the following season -- as well as the long-awaited opening of the Sun Dome -- signaled the beginning of a new and exciting era in South Florida basketball.

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