Less than 24 hours after the Cougar men’s basketball team suffered the worst Pac-12 tournament defeat in the event’s history — a 33-point rout to Oregon — the plug was pulled on coach Ernie Kent.
On Thursday, Washington State athletic director Pat Chun announced that the school will part ways with Kent after five seasons. WSU will begin a national search for a new head coach immediately, according to a release sent out by the school.
“I met with Ernie earlier (Thursday) and let him know I would be making a change in leadership of our basketball program,” said Chun, quoted in a written news release.“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.”
Kent still has three years fully guaranteed at $1.4 million each remaining on his contract, which former AD Bill Moos had extended three times — after the 2015, ’16 and ’17 seasons — with a rollover provision.
According to a Spokesman-Review source, the school will compensate Kent $4.2 million over the next three years, per his contract.
The announcement, though not completely unforeseen, did come as a shock to many in the WSU community. Because the school is currently dealing with an ever-growing athletics deficit — which is projected to balloon to $85.1 million by 2022 — followers of the team expected Kent to finish out his contract as coach.
But Chun’s decision reflects an aspiration for a swift transformation of the program.
Under Kent, the Cougars compiled a 59-98 record (22-68 in Pac-12 play), failed to win a conference tournament game, never won more than 13 games and saw their Beasley Coliseum attendance dwindle as time passed.
The program hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament in 11 years, the longest drought in the Pac-12.
WSU finished its 2018-19 season at 11-21 overall, 4-14 in Pac-12 play. The Cougs ended the year on a six-game skid — one of three five-plus-game losing streaks on the year.
Kent’s ’18-19 Cougar campaign featured embarrassing nonconference losses to low-majors Seattle U, Montana State and Santa Clara. There was a slight upswing in early February — highlighted by a road sweep of the Arizona schools and a home win over Colorado — but soon after, WSU endured a 48-point trouncing by Stanford, and was upset by lowly Cal.
The loss to the Cardinal was WSU’s worst of the Kent era.
The Cougars ranked last in the league in most defensive categories, and 293rd (KenPom) out of 353 Division I programs in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Despite two all-leaguers in NBA probable Robert Franks and freshman CJ Elleby, WSU ended the season with a KenPom ranking of No. 213 nationally, making it the second-worst high-major program, just ahead of Cal.
Kent’s WSU teams finished respectively at ninth, 12th, 10th, 11th and 11th in the league.
Over the past five years, 15 Cougars transferred out of the program, despite remaining eligibility, as WSU struggled to string together any kind of success. One recent notable departure is Milan Acquaah, who last week was tabbed WAC Newcomer of the Year with California Baptist.
The low point came in 2015-16, when the Cougs went 9-22 overall and 1-17 in league, and dropped their final 17 games.
The high point? Wazzu opened its 2017-18 season 5-0 and garnered some top-25 votes. But a handling to UC Davis and a 27-point defeat at Idaho quickly dashed any hopes of lasting prosperity.
Kent was hired by Moos — now the Nebraska AD — in 2014 on a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in program history and about double what his predecessor, Ken Bone, made.
Before his hiring, Kent took a four-year hiatus from coaching, during which he worked as a broadcaster.
For 13 years prior (from 1998-2010), Kent guided his alma mater, Oregon, after Moos — then UO’s AD — brought him on following the 1996-97 season. The Ducks made four NCAA Tournaments and had two Elite Eight showings during his tenure.
From 1991-97, Kent headed Saint Mary’s. In his final season, he steered the Gaels to a 23-8 record and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
The Cougars’ last winning season came under Bone in 2011-12. WSU went 19-18 and qualified for the College Basketball Invitational tournament.
Clark may be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @coltonclark95 or by phone at (208) 848-2260.