Ken Bone, a Seattle native, returns to his hometown on Friday. Perhaps that will make it easier for him to catch a breath after being left hanging all season.
Washington State athletic director Bill Moos, a man of a million words, has said nothing that would indicate Bone’s coaching stint in Pullman is anything but going, going, gone at season’s end. Moos’ deafening silence has been accompanied by the ever-increasing roar of WSU fans demanding a new basketball coach.
Such sentiment is understandable. During Bone’s five-year run, the Cougars have not consistently played well, recruited well nor drawn well. That’s a hat trick that will get any coach fired. Most everyone presumes that is the fate awaiting Bone once this train wreck of a season concludes.
Bone acknowledged at the end of last season that he was not certain he would be retained this season. Moos waited forever before confirming that Bone would return, even though last season marked Bone’s first losing campaign at WSU.
Speculation is rampant that Bone kept his job only because the cash-strapped Cougars owed $2.55 million on the seven-year contract Bone signed with Jim Sterk, Moos’ predecessor. Now Bone is owed “only” $1.7 million, and Moos says finances will not prevent him from pulling the plug.
The marriage between Bone and Moos was a shotgun affair doomed from the get-go. Moos is a gregarious back-slapper from rural Cougar Country, a former WSU football star who has oozed crimson since birth. Bone is a reserved, soft-spoken gent from The Big City, the polar opposite of Moos’ biggest and flashiest hire – football coach Mike Leach.
The Cougars enter Friday’s game at Washington (7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) with six straight losses, a 9-18 record and a 2-13 Pac-12 mark. Over the past two seasons, Washington State is 22-37 overall and 6-27 in the Pac-12. The Cougars lack size, depth, athleticism and the ability to toss balls through metal hoops with any sort of regularity. Tiny crowds have turned Beasley Coliseum into an echo chamber.
Bone has recruited just two major impact players to Pullman: Former Rainier Beach High School star Reggie Moore, who was kicked off the team prior to last season for undisclosed disciplinary reasons; and ex-Curtis High standout DaVonte Lacy, Washington State’s current scoring leader. The Cougars are making a determined bid to finish last in the Pac-12 for the second straight season, and the third time during Bone’s tenure.
Washington State has not employed a true point guard since Moore’s exodus. Danny Lawhorn, a junior college transfer brought in to play the point this year, left school prior to the season. Bone said Lawhorn was playing behind Royce Woolridge when he was suspended for – where have we heard this before? — undisclosed disciplinary reasons.
Bone’s supporters point out that he won more games (70) his first four seasons than any coach in WSU basketball history. He’s the only coach to post winning records each of his first four seasons. He’s one of just three coaches to guide WSU to national tournaments two consecutive years. He ranks sixth in school history on the career wins list.
Bone’s detractors note that longer schedules and additional national tournaments made such accomplishments easier to attain. Two of Bone’s winning teams finished just one game above .500. None have finished in the top half of the conference standings. Several recruits failed to qualify academically or were delayed in gaining eligibility due to academic shortcomings.
The Cougars reached the 2011 NIT semifinals and the 2012 CBI finals, but those are just letters in the alphabet to those who watched Bone’s predecessor, Tony Bennett, steer the Cougars to back-to-back, 26-win seasons and NCAA tournaments. Bennett compiled a glossy 69-33 record (32-22 Pac-12) in three years in Pullman, with an NCAA Sweet 16 showing in 2008. Bone’s record is 79-83 (28-59 Pac-12), with no winning seasons in conference play.
Bennett now coaches 12th-ranked Virginia. Xavier Thames, a Bennett recruit who transferred to San Diego State after playing a reserve role on Bone’s first Cougars team, is a standout point guard for the 13th-ranked Aztecs. Tanner Lancona, a California high school forward whom Bone coaxed into giving up his scholarship so Lawhorn could be brought aboard, is a reserve at 10th-ranked Saint Louis.
Over the years, numerous close losses marred by poor execution at crunch time have raised eyebrows regarding Bone’s game management. Bone did nothing to lower those eyebrows last month when he started little-used senior Will DiIorio (who was averaging 1.1 points per game) against Oregon, one of the national leaders in scoring. DiIorio went scoreless and the Cougars — the Pac-12’s worst offensive team, by far — scored 44 points and lost by 27.
Hey, it could be worse. After all, the Cougars scored 25 points and lost by 35 at Arizona.
It will be no easy feat for Bone’s replacement – perhaps Boise State coach Leon Rice, a WSU alum and longtime Gonzaga assistant? – to reverse fortunes on the Palouse. Lacy, a junior guard who averages 19.3 points, is a talented player and respected leader. Guards Que Johnson and Ike Iroegbu and forward Josh Hawkinson are freshmen with promise. Tramaine Isabell, a high-scoring point guard at Garfield High, has said he will honor his letter of intent with WSU next season regardless of Bone’s status.
That status should be clarified in two weeks, when Bone figures to become the first coach in Pac-10/12 history to go 0-5 all-time at the conference tournament.
Bone most likely would not be unemployed for long. He was a respected assistant at Washington when the 2004-05 Huskies went 29-6, won the Pac-10 tournament and reached the Sweet 16. Bone, who played at Shorecrest High, Edmonds and Shoreline junior colleges and Seattle Pacific, enjoyed considerable success as a head coach at Seattle Pacific and Portland State.
Even Bone’s harshest critics, for the most part, regard him as a good man. Unfortunately for Bone, few WSU fans regard him as a good coach. The $1.7 million owed Bone is chump change compared to the additional revenue that could be generated by a successful basketball program.