Commentary: Costly buyout may be only thing that keeps UW from firing Mike Hopkins
March 9, 2023 Updated Thu., March 9, 2023 at 5:04 p.m.
SEATTLE – This is a column about Mike Hopkins’ future at Washington, but first, a reference to Pete Carroll.
A bit more than four years ago, the Seattle Seahawks coach was asked about an infamously bare-effort play on the part of kicker Sebastian Janikowski, who made no attempt to tackle the returner who had sprinted past him on the way to the end zone.
Said Carroll the next day: “I wish he would’ve tried anything. … We’ll take anything.”
I have to think that Washington athletic director Jen Cohen and the Huskies fan base have a similar feeling regarding the UW men’s basketball team’s effort over the past three games. They would have taken anything.
But they got the opposite of anything as the Huskies wilted into a .500 squad, ending their season at 16-16 after falling to Colorado in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament on Wednesday.
And though it appeared Hopkins might keep his job two weeks ago when 20 wins seemed possible, his status as the head Huskies hoops coach now seems as tenuous as a Miami igloo.
Where the Huskies were: After a relatively surprising home sweep of the Oregon schools, followed by a win over Cal, Washington had 16 wins with two regular-season games remaining – one against Stanford (10th in the conference) and one against Washington State (sixth). The thought was that the Dawgs could pick up two wins, get a favorable first-round matchup in the conference tournament, and with a victory in Las Vegas, play for win No. 20.
Where the Huskies ended up: Instead, Stanford dominated them, WSU handled them easily in Seattle, and ninth-seeded Colorado beat them 74-68 on Wednesday. The skid put a stench on the season no spin cycle can remove. Hopkins was the first to admit it.
“I take full responsibility for this season. I felt like we had a chance to really make some steps, we had a lot of new guys – I couldn’t get them to where we needed to be,” Hopkins told reporters after the Colorado loss. “I’m really disappointed for our fans, our alumni, our ex-players, our community in Seattle. It’s not our standard. There’s no one more disappointed than me.”
It’s such a contrast to where this program was at this time four years ago, when the Huskies won the Pac-12, advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eight seasons and won their first-round game against Utah State.
Cohen giving Hopkins a massive extension at the time sparked little if any criticism, and when Washington landed two top-10 recruits in Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, the $12.3 million coming Hop’s way seemed like a bargain.
Then came the losses. And they just kept coming.
Over the past four seasons, the Huskies have gone 28-50 in conference play, finishing last one season, second-to-last another and eighth this season. Only once in that four-year stretch have they finished above .500 cumulatively, and they barely accomplished that with their 17-15 effort in 2021-22.
Moreover, there is little sign that things will improve.
Washington is not winning the recruiting war, as its 2023 class is ranked 62nd in the country, according to 247Sports.com‘s consensus. Even when UW landed the whales, Hopkins did little to turn the team into contenders.
It’s hard writing these words about one of the friendliest, most engaging and optimistic figures in college sports, but it’s the truth. Hop hasn’t delivered.
So can his buyout save him? The $6.3 million Washington would owe him may be the best thing Hopkins has going for him. Remember, UW is forking over $4 million per year to football coach Kalen DeBoer and $2 million a year to offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb – while NIL deals for pigskin standouts such as Michael Penix Jr. may be costing boosters big bucks.
There simply may not be enough cash to move on from Hopkins pragmatically – but you couldn’t blame fans for wanting a change.
For more than two decades, Hopkins was an assistant under Jim Boeheim, the successful Syracuse coach who, as it was announced Wednesday, will not return to the school for his 48th season. In 2019, Hopkins likely would have earned (much deserved) consideration to replace him. But those days seem so very long ago.
“This program deserves championships – playing for them, and I haven’t gotten it there,” Hopkins said. “But I’m excited for the future.”
Can’t fault the man for being excited. But hard as it is to say, one couldn’t fault Cohen from going another direction.
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