With one of the two major revenue-generating athletic programs at Washington State in the midst of a golden era, athletic director Pat Chun decided it was time to revive the other.
After five years of futility on the hardwood, the school announced Thursday night it parted ways with men’s basketball coach Ernie Kent, as the Cougars look to get back on the college basketball grid.
A national search for a new coach will take place immediately, according to a school release.
“I met with Ernie earlier today and let him know I would be making a change in the leadership of our basketball program,” Chun said. “We appreciate all that Ernie has done for Washington State, but at this time we need a new direction to energize our fan base and return the program to prominence. I am optimistic that our returning students-athletes give us an immediate opportunity to move our program in a positive trajectory.”
After the 2018-19 basketball season, Kent had three years remaining on his current contract, which paid the WSU coach $1.4 million annually. Kent will be paid out per the terms of his contract and will be compensated $4.2 million over the next three seasons, The Spokesman-Review learned through a source.
Chun doesn’t plan to address the media until he meets with the men’s basketball team, the source said. That meeting wasn’t expected to take place Thursday night, with WSU students on spring break.
Kent didn’t immediately respond to a text message seeking comment.
The Cougars went 11-21 overall and 4-14 in the Pac-12 in Kent’s fifth season in Pullman, finishing the year with the program’s largest loss in the Pac-12/10 Tournament – an 84-51 defeat to sixth-seeded Oregon Wednesday night at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Under Kent, WSU never advanced past the first round of the conference tournament. Wednesday’s loss to Oregon marked the 10th straight opening-round loss for the Cougars.
WSU failed to reach the postseason in Kent’s five years at the helm and never won more than 13 games in a season. Kent, who was hired by former WSU athletic director and current Nebraska AD Bill Moos, finishes his tenure with an overall record of 58-98 and 22-69 in Pac-12 games.
Throughout Kent’s WSU tenure, many Cougar fans took issue with Moos’ decision to enact a rollover provision in the coach’s contract three times, despite the coach’s inability to put a winning product on the court. Moos triggered the rollover clause after the 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 basketball seasons – years that saw the Cougars win 35 games combined – which means the coach’s contract wouldn’t expire until the end of the 2021-22 basketball season.
Many presumed WSU wouldn’t be willing to spend the dollars necessary to buy out the final three years of Kent’s contract, especially as the school dealt with a growing athletics deficit. Last May, WSU projected the shortfall to reach $84.9 million by the end of fiscal year 2023.
It’s unclear if the school plans to rely on public or private funds, but Chun’s decision to finance Kent’s buyout three years before his contract expired reflects a sense of urgency to immediately transform the Cougars’ basketball program – one that’s gone seven years since making the postseason and 11 since its last NCAA Tournament appearance, the longest drought in the Pac-12.
Kent’s team posted records of 13-18, 9-22, 13-18, 12-19 and 11-21. By some metrics, the 2018-19 season could have been considered the program’s worst under Kent. WSU’s 33-point loss to the Ducks on Wednesday marked Oregon’s biggest winning margin in conference tournament history, but it was the third 30-plus-point defeat of the Cougars’ season.
WSU also lost by 32 points to Colorado earlier this season at Boulder and suffered the worst loss of the Kent era two weeks ago at Stanford, where the Cardinal dominated the Cougars 98-50. WSU lost two days later to a California team that ranked worst among Power Five teams, according to the college basketball NET rankings and the KenPom rankings.
The Cougars did have an unprecedented midseason feat, beating Arizona State and Arizona in the desert, but the 2018-19 season was also one that included two six-game losing streaks and one five-game skid.
Player transfers were also a black mark on Kent’s tenure on the Palouse.
In the coach’s five seasons, 15 players left the program voluntarily. A handful of those were fixtures of WSU’s starting lineup, including guards Malachi Flynn, Que Johnson and Ny Redding, and center Valentine Izundu. Former WSU guard Milan Acquaah, a 2018 transfer, was just named the WAC’s Newcomer of the Year.
The 2017-18 season started on a promising note as WSU opened with seven consecutive wins, defeated Saint Mary’s and San Diego State to win the Wooden Legacy, and collected Top 25 votes. But it quickly unraveled after that as WSU lost its next three games – a stretch that included a 91-64 loss to Idaho, the third-largest margin of defeat for the Cougars in the longest-standing college basketball rivalry series west of the Mississippi River.
Though he couldn’t churn out wins on the basketball court, Kent’s teams usually managed to do so in the classroom. The coach graduated 100 percent of the players who stayed with his program and had an All-Pac-12 first-team academic selection each of the last four years.