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Why Orlando Antigua Had to Go

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Even if it doesn’t feel quite right, USF made the correct move.

NCAA Basketball: AAC Tournament - Temple vs South Florida Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

By all accounts, Orlando Antigua is a good guy. My interactions with him were always pleasant, and as far as I know, he’s always been friendly and engaging with the staff here, and the media in general.

He was also, if nothing else, a proven, valuable asset at the highest level of college basketball. That’s not to say that Antigua was a sure-fire hire when Mark Harlan inked him to a deal in March 2014— far from it. USF was Coach O’s first major head coaching job of any sort, and fantastic assistant coaches don’t always translate into fantastic, or even passable, head coaches. But that’s the thing: he was, by any measure, a fantastic assistant coach. It’s not very often that you get the deputy recruiting mastermind behind John Calipari’s Kentucky machine— a guy who spent five seasons signing and developing the nation’s premier prospects— to come coach USF basketball. In a sense, Antigua felt like the splashier alternative to Harlan’s original choice, Manhattan’s Steve Masiello. At the very least, there were a dozen reasons to give Coach O as much time as he needed to turn around a historically wretched program that had been absolutely decimated by transfers.

This was a general consensus around these parts until very, very recently (check Jamie’s piece from April, which succinctly and accurately stated “When is it time to put Coach O on the hot seat? How about never?”). It’s an unpopular opinion and an inconvenient truth, but USF basketball doesn’t have to be good for this athletic department to succeed. It’s good to be well-rounded and basketball is really, really fun to watch when the team is good, but if a well-rounded athletic department and a good basketball team were the keys to athletic advancement in today’s NCAA landscape, UConn would not be in the American Athletic Conference right now.

It seemed fair, then, to write off USF men’s basketball in the short term as an unfortunate casualty of the college football arms race, and to allow Antigua— as promising a hire as USF could muster, given the circumstances— as much time as necessary to repair a program that no one cared to see fixed in any sort of hurry. If you hire a man to fix your dilapidated house and give him just a hammer and ten nails, it’s unreasonable to expect him to have it in tip-top shape right off the bat.

It is, however, reasonable to expect a modicum of progress after two-and-a-half years, and perhaps to expect better results than half of the nails electing to transfer to another home improvement project. USF basketball can support failure, but it can’t support failure so blatant and unsavory as a 7-30 record in a mid-major conference, a steady stream of transfers, and an academic scandal to boot. Antigua likely isn’t nearly as bad a coach as his tenure in charge of USF would make it seem; his system largely relies on the individual instincts of talented players that he never managed to find at USF. But college athletics don’t exist in a vacuum, and as easy as it might seem to push the mess that is the USF men’s basketball program under the rug and keep it there until something vaguely respectable emerges a number of years down the line, that’s not how real life works. There are fans who pay money to see this team play, and boosters who pay money to help this team win, and most importantly, players on the team who work their tails off, and all of those parties deserve more than a tacit acknowledgement that the program they love is essentially departmental dead weight.

So Orlando Antigua had to go, and he would’ve had to go eventually even if a good portion of the problems that befell the program weren’t self-inflicted. It was easy to look at the team that Stan Heath left and the defections that followed and give Coach O a blank check to fix things up, but that display of faith can only last so long. It was easy to say that he didn’t have enough talent, but when Antigua is three recruiting classes into his USF tenure and still hasn’t managed to have a top-150 high school player enroll, that argument loses steam. It’s easy to say that the mass transfers created holes in this team, but when you take chances and offer scholarships to players who might opt to immediately go pro (Luis Montero), or are liabilities academically or in... other senses (Troy Baxter, Jahmal McMurray), you’re rolling the dice on at least one or two of them panning out and becoming stars. Antigua got none— that’s bad luck, yes, but it’s also the result of a premeditated gamble. Then, of course, there’s the academic scandal, which can’t happen no matter how successful or unsuccessful a coach is.

To ignore all of these issues would largely be throwing up the white flag on USF men’s basketball, an admission that it can’t be anything more than what it is now. We know that this isn’t true. Antigua’s failures aren’t necessarily representative of his talents as a coach, but they are failures nonetheless. He was dealt a rotten hand, doubled down, and ended up with an even more rotten one. Making a move was one of the only ways to salvage any sort of pride left in this program; to his credit, Mark Harlan made one, and we move forward now in hopes that someone else will be able to build on that. It won’t be easy.