Puck Swami: Defending Rodney Billups

Photo: Rodney Billups. DU coach Rodney Billups is in year four of his five year contract. Photo: University of Denver

“It’s not working”

“It’s been four years – DU’s record is getting worse each year”

“He’s in over his head”

“High school programs draw more fans”

We’ve all heard all these complaints before, and all of these statements have an element of truth to them. And, we continue to want to hear your voices – even if you may disagree with us.

We’ll be honest – we don’t like what we’re seeing, either. We’re die-hard DU fans, and our Pioneer men’s basketball program is indeed struggling, big time.  We’re concerned.  We see the losses mounting (now 10 straight) and the fans staying away. And the chances for landing in the Summit cellar for a second consecutive season appear likely.

Why should the head coach be defended?

Here’s are our five reasons why I, (and other staff here at LetsGoDU), think Billups should have more time to guide Denver men’s hoops:

1. DU Family Loyalty– Yes, hiring Billups, a DU alumnus, comes with an extra obligation that goes beyond the mercenary reality of hiring many Division I coaches in this country. The people who run this blog are alums, too. As fellow Pioneers, we bleed Crimson and Gold just as Billups does, and believe we owe Rodney every reasonable opportunity to turn the program around. Cutting off a fellow hardworking Pioneer before his contract is up is just wrong and sends a message that DU doesn’t give its coaches a full shot.  If non-alum Kerry Cremeans could post a .278 winning percentage as DU’s women’s coach over her five year tenure (which ended in 2017), the least DU can can do is keep its alumnus Billups (currently at a .398 winning percentage) for his full contract, sending an important message to the coaching world that DU honors its full contracts for its hires. He was a great player and student at DU. He didn’t forget how to play/coach basketball over the past two seasons.

2. Young Team with Promise:  The current team has only one senior and a single junior, who transferred in this year. They are very young and young teams typically take their lumps in college basketball. We knew this would be a tough season when we presented our pre-season analysis of this year’s squad, and the Summit League coaches picked DU to finish last. So, the current season is pretty much as predicted so far.  That said, we do see flashes of talent in these young players. Big men David Nzekwesi and Robert Jones both have the potential to be dominant big men in the Summit League.  Nzekwesi, a sophomore, needs to refine his physique, show a harder work ethic and get his conditioning right so he can play effectively for longer stretches.  Freshman Robert Jones needs time and experience to win battles under the basket against more experienced players. And sophomore Jase Townsend continues to stack up 20+ point games with strong shooting and a solid floor game. These are talented players (that other good hoops schools wanted) and that a coach can build around.  We’d also like to see a bigger developmental jump from sophomores such as Joe Lanzi, Alperen Kurnaz, and Taelyr Gatlin, who should be delivering more impact than they are. This is on them as much as it is the coaches.

3. New Assistant Coaches: While this is Rodney’s first head coaching job, his first set of assistants, Ricardo Patton and Steve Snell, are no longer with the program. Frankly, the recruiting job they did looks somewhat underwhelming at this point, and it remains to be seen how many recruits will become legitimate NCAA D-I basketball players. The new assistants, Bacari Alexander and Raman Sposato, have already helped to change the culture of DU basketball. The defense has improved, particularly on three-pointers (from worst in the league to best in the league), which has forced opponents to try and beat the Pioneers in the paint. Unfortunately, the paint is where the Pioneers are very inexperienced right now. We’re also seeing DU fighting to be competitive in every game, taking many opponents into the final minutes before the inexperienced Pioneers usually don’t have the experience to close out wins.  On the offensive end, field goal percentage has been down significantly, but it does not appear that shot selection is the major problem – and shot selection is all about coaching. We believe that this staff, with more time, will close those gaps.

4. Eye test: This is a softer observation but we like the attitude and fight of this team. They are not hanging their heads or pouting on the bench. The effort level is high on the floor and they encourage each other. We also like the increased fight by Billups and his assistants to challenge players and even referees. A 10-game losing stretch would tear most team’s apart but these guys seem to have their head in the game. Finally, we have heard from reliable sources that, with very few exceptions, these are good student-athletes. Just like the Joe Scott days, DU is bringing in kids that will not embarrass us in the classroom or off the court. If we really want DU basketball to improve over time, we need consistency from coaches and Denver needs to retain a solid core of student-athletes. With transfer mania happening with most basketball programs, Denver is retaining these players because they want to be here.

5. Athletic Excellence Takes Time: This DU athletic department is known for excellence across almost all its teams, and that excellence puts a bit more peer pressure on the basketball programs to be great. The truth is that DU’s athletics programs are excellent because DU invests the money that it takes to be great in many sports. For example, Hockey and Lacrosse are resourced at the top level of those sports among all schools. Basketball is not resourced for national prominence, but is resourced for Summit League excellence. With the state of DU hoops as it stands today, the athletic department has the most to lose in reputation and money. They see the basketball coaches, staff and players every day and are best suited to make an evaluation of the program. If they are willing to support Rodney using their best judgment, their track record with other sports programs proves they know what they are doing. We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. That being said, we understand why many fans are frustrated, but we often forget DU’s basketball historic struggles extend well before Rodney Billups.

In the meantime, we hope DU can give Rodney all the help he needs to do his job, and Pio fans should get behind him, as we are here at LetsGoDU. We came out early in favor of alum David Carle before he was selected as the head hockey coach to succeed Jim Montgomery. He inherited a rock-solid program and continues that excellence. Rodney did not inherit a culture of positivity and consistent winning. Given time and support, we believe Rodney can develop a squad that can compete for titles in the Summit League.

And, rest assured, we will continue to accurately report what happens on the court to the best of our ability, good or bad, so you can draw your own conclusions.

Go Pios!

16 thoughts on “Puck Swami: Defending Rodney Billups”

  1. Most of what you’re saying seems to have been written yearly on this blog.
    Fans, students aren’t going to go out and watch a losing team, so figure attendance will continue to dwindle this season.
    Recruiting will be tough because who wants to go to a losing program.
    Don’t be so sure that current underclassmen won’t transfer out.
    On paper and historically the program isn’t getting better.
    Loyalty only goes so far. Just because he went to DU doesn’t mean you have to keep him when his program isn’t progressing on paper. All of this behind-the-scenes, reliable source is b.s. People look at wins and losses, period.
    The coach is Rodney, not Chauncey, Billups.

    1. DU is doomed in Hoops. Apathy and to many Dakotas on the schedule. Sorry Denver is a major market and DU hoops isn’t sexy

  2. DU is doomed in Basketball. DU needs to be in a conference that has regional appeal. Sorry, nobody gets Jazzed for all the Dakota schools coming to Magness. Would the Mountain West consider DU without football?

    1. Mountain West would be awesome but they would require football. We are on an island. The West Coast Conference, Big East and even Missouri would require we elevate hoops. Until we consistently turn around hoops, we will continue in the Summit League. Over the long term, DU has to get better to open up options.

  3. –“The truth is that DU’s athletics programs are excellent because DU invests the money that it takes to be great in many sports. For example, Hockey and Lacrosse are resourced at the top level of those sports among all schools. Basketball is not resourced for national prominence, but is resourced for Summit League excellence. With the state of DU hoops as it stands today, the athletic department has the most to lose in reputation and money” —

    That’s the problem! (if you can even argue the University is investing for Summit League excellence. The standings prove otherwise).
    Billups or no Billups, the direction of the program will not change until University Leadership takes the time for a bit of introspection…and you know what they will find: their predecessors (and them) have failed the program for years.

    –“With the state of DU hoops as it stands today, the athletic department has the most to lose in reputation and money.”–

    I disagree. DU is by FAR the most funded university in the Summit League…by hundreds of millions of dollars. It is inexcusable that we are continual bottom dwellers in the Summit League. Also, how does our reputation get any worse as of right now?

    Bottom-line – we are stuck in a never ending cycle…fan attendance is awful because the product on the floor is subpar and we play in the Summit League, recruiting is tough because we lose to the Western Illinois’s of the world (I truly feel sorry for Billups trying to motivate 18yrs olds in front of ~25 fans in Macomb, Ill), internal perception is rough because the program is viewed/treated as third rate to hockey and lacrosse and so on and so on. This cycle will not end until leadership decides to make it end through meaningful investment of time, money and internal support.

    –“We often forget DU’s basketball historic struggles extend well before Rodney Billups.”–

    That’s why we are frustrated. The continual acceptance of incompetence is tiresome. As fans (and alums) we should demand more.

  4. Is it talent, coaching, tradition, or a combination of everything?

    I have a difficult time accepting North and South Dakota have more to offer a recruit in terms of education, climate, demographics and amenities than DU and the Denver area.

    Metro State in Denver enjoyed a lot of success in basketball. I don’t accept the excuse DU is being out recruited by the likes of the Dakotas and Division II schools.

    Billups is from Denver. Is this somehow implying he doesn’t have any connections with local high schools and coaches?

    I have no illusions of DU being a hoops powerhouse. It should be marketed as a privilege to earn a scholarship to DU. The least I expect is given the above, they could at least be competitive.

  5. One of your positions is as a young team, Billups should be provided an opportunity to develop this core, and I agree. But the same can be said when Joe Scott was fired…he had the youngest team returning in the Summit. I would argue Joe would have had those players competing for conference championships and we would not be in the position we are in. The fault lies in administration, not in the coaching talent. I support Coach Billups and hope he is given the tools to succeed.

  6. Great to see all the different opinions here, all thoughtful.

    Taking the time to write a comment here means you cared enough to do so, and that’s really important. I’d be more worried if no one bothered, and showing your thoughts here will certainly get them seen by the people who matter. I can assure you that the administration, coaching staff and athletes do read this blog, and they should all know how some of the most invested fans feel about the programs they follow.

  7. I think we all wanted Rod to succeed. He’s a home town kid and Alumni. It’s just not working out. That said, where does DU turn for it’s next Head Coach?

  8. The average pay this past your of NCAA Tournament coaches was $1.47 million dollars. Paying a ‘proven, established winning coach’ at the mid-major level could cost 500k-800k. If DU was to start paying in that range, there are several risks. First, the current coaches room would be asking “why not me? I win and create revenue.” (Tierney, Kutcher-Rinehart, David Carle). Second, the gap between the women’s/men’s team and coaches pay creates a potential Title IX issue with unequal pay (See he DU law school – they made that mistake twice.). Finally, there is the mercenary issue – the new coach may turn the program around and get taken by a Power Conference for the million dollar pay day and we are back to square one. So, DU would likely hire someone we have never heard of, not a proven winner at a high level who would have to prove themselves like Rodney. This would also mean another ‘reboot’ of Denver basketball.

    I am as frustrated as anybody but I think Rodney deserves the full 5-years to prove his worth. I am not ready to reload with another flyer at this point. As much as I like George Carle and Larry Brown, there day has come and gone and they are not the right fit for DU.

    I am disappointed about the recruiting for Colorado kids. Chauncey Billups runs an elite AAU team and we have not gotten one player from them in four years. Northern Colorado is doing quite well with Colorado players. I believe the issue is talent, more than coaching. And the losing doesn’t make it easier to recruit/retain top prospects. (Example: Rosga fell in Joe Scot’s lap because he could not pass the Air Force vision test). Ultimately, we need some of these kids to develop and follow this with another strong recruiting class.

    I understand all the frustration and desire for change but, frankly, hope Rodney turns hings around over the next year and a half or DU athletics will have some difficult decisions to make.

  9. As indicated in many comments above, two major things lead to less patience: 1) success of DU’s other sports (recent example…DU gymnastics is second in the country); and 2) DU hoops is struggling to stay afloat in what people perceive as crap conference, and people legitimately question why a great school in a major metro area can’t not only succeed, but dominate, schools that are in the antithesis of basketball hotbeds. Item #2 is particularly glaring. Rodney is helped by the fact that DU has historically enjoyed very little basketball success, but I do believe that he was hired to change that. I’m not saying that he should be fired. I like the guy, and think that if he can start building momentum, then it will build. But the confusion about the lack of competitiveness is understandable.

  10. Wow. So much to process here. I’ll list my takeaways from each point made above.

    1. Being an alum does not give you a free pass if you suck at your job. He’s not a great coach, nor is he a good fit for the program any more. If the hoops program wants to improve, he has got to go. WAKE UP, PEOPLE.

    2. First, hard to develop players when the coaching is crap. Secondly, hard to get division one talent out of players that don’t have any in the first place.

    3.See number 2…coaching is crap. WAKE UP, PEOPLE!

    4. Transfer mania…lol. So, the players that have transferred from DU, how many went to D1 programs? Bueller? Bueller??? Exactly. NOT ONE. The coaches aren’t retaining these players because they want to be here. The players are staying because they have little talent and would never make it on another D1 team. Ahem, WAKE UP, PEOPLE!

    5. Athletic EXCELLENCE does take time, sure. We aren’t asking for excellence. We’re asking for something other than embarrassment. It’s time for everybody to WAKE UP and realize that the program needs a HUGE OVERHAUL. Starting from the top. Rodney has got to go. Get somebody competent in there. Just because Rodney knows how to play ball doesn’t mean he’s good at it. Start over. Can’t be any worse.

  11. New to this forum here but I think believe there is a way to communicate and discuss the issues without emotion. Yes there are alums reading this and DU fans too. But there are also players, prospects and friends and family members of these players and prospects that may be following along as well. Yes the team and program are struggling. I can’t imagine what might be going on in the minds of these young student athletes as they participate this season. They have aspirations and made decisions to attend DU for lots of reasons to help them achieve their goals on and off the court.

    1. Good points, Anon. Glad to hear a new voice. Always welcome new/different perspectives. Frankly, I am glad to see the passion for hoops – even if people disagree. But, oftentimes our opinions can have far reaching effects and do more damage than good. I think we can all agree that we want this team to be able to compete for titles in the Summit League. Like I have said before, if the players and coaches are ‘all in”, I am willing to wait for better days. But, we have all waited a long time – this the frustration.

  12. Compelling and thought-provoking article. Thanks PS.

    While the 10-game losing streak is awful and this team appears to be heading towards a historically bad season in terms and wins and losses, I remain interested in and excited about going to games. The product this year is far better than what I saw last year. That’s a sign of improvement. I know in the grand scheme of things it’s not much, but it’s an improvement nonetheless.

    I think Billups deserves the rest of this season and next to prove himself. If these guys can scratch out a few more Ws this year and bring in a couple impactful recruits for next season, maybe brighter days are on the horizon.

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