PRACTICALLY SINCE THE DAY HE took the job almost six years ago, Lynn Archibald has been under fire in his job as University of Utah basketball coach.
Many folks were upset that the university handed him the job, without any national search, when Jerry Pimm left for Santa Barbara. Others haven't been pleased with the progress of the Ute program over the past six years. They can't understand why the program can't be a consistent 20-game winner with a national reputation, like it was in the 1970s. Others are frustrated by the slow, patterned style the Utes have employed under Archibald.It's all come to a head this year with the Utes struggling from Day One to their present mediocre 15-16 record, after being picked to win the WAC. Archibald's detractors feel now is the time for a change. They're afraid if he doesn't go now, he might recover with a better season next year and the Utes will keep sliding along with sub-20-win seasons. Archibald's supporters point to the talented young players already in the program, and those coming in next year, and to the clean program he has always run.
Although he has said in the past that he doesn't worry what people say about him, Archibald isn't oblivious to his tenuous position.
"I know what's going on, but I think I'm OK," he said. "The administration has been very positive with me and has told me not to worry in the past. This season has been disappointing to me, but I've felt all along this team can turn any time."
The problem is, time is running out for the team to turn, with the WAC tourney starting Wednesday.
Not surprisingly, Utah athletic director Chris Hill is not saying anything substantive about the situation.
"We sit down at the end of the season and evaluate every program and go over the pluses and minuses," said Hill. "It's unfair to even be saying anything about it (basketball) right now. We don't need the players worrying about what the A.D. thinks. We need to let the season play out."
Hill said he basically makes the decision about his coaches, but he admits he needs to have the support of the administration. In other words, if President Chase Peterson and Vice President Ted Capener are adamant about keeping Archibald, he'll stay. The administration has been very supportive of Archibald throughout his tenure, but like Hill, is being very noncommittal right now. Capener said late last week that nothing has been decided and won't be until after the season.
While the season has been frustrating to Ute fans, it's been doubly so to Archibald. Just before the year began, he lost two probable starters in Tommy Connor and Michael Bullock.
Connor, the starting point guard last year, needed to have a back operation and is redshirting. Bullock, a 6-4 guard who had averaged nearly 30 points a game for Salt Lake Community College, couldn't make it academically.
And the guardline is where most of the team's problems lie. Not only has there been a lack of leadership, the shooting has been atrocious all year. The six guards on the team have combined for 39-percent shooting.
Boo Singletary, the second-leading scorer and rebounder from a year ago, had to have knee surgery, not once, but twice, the second time in the middle of December. Although he's back in shape now, Singletary has not been the same rebounder he was a year ago (3.3 this year, compared to 7.1 last year).
Then there are the perplexing cases of Mitch Smith and Keith Chapman. Smith, a four-year starter and all-WAC player the last two years, was expected to have a great senior season. Instead, his play has been inconsistent - 20 points and 11 rebounds one game, five points and one rebound the next. His free-throw shooting has fallen from 77 percent last year to 64 percent this year.
Meanwhile, Chapman, after coming on strong at the end of last season as a starter, has struggled all year, shooting just 33 percent from the field and 13 percent from 3-point range after shooting 47 and 49 percent, respectively, a year ago.
All of this has added up to Utah's frustrating season. Although Archibald can't control whether his guards are making their outside shots or whether Mitch Smith is making his foul shots, he is responsible for how the team meshes together. And that has been a problem this year. The team has lacked the chemistry of past Archibald teams.
Some close to the program say that the players aren't relaxed enough - that they're so worried about doing the right thing, they don't play as well as they're capable. There's also been criticism of Archibald's substitution patterns and his lack of flexibility in making changes.
What Hill and the Utah administration have to decide is whether they can see improvement in the Ute program on the horizon. They have to look at things like attendance, which has been down the last few years, and lack of support from top boosters. They also have to consider that when you make a change, there's always the chance you'll end up with someone not as good as you had.
After six years at Utah, it's unlikely that Archibald's future will rest on these last few games. Hill admits Archibald's future won't be determined just by the coming week. But another early exit from the WAC tourney after first-round losses the last three years could spell doom.
On the other hand, if the Utes finally do turn it around and somehow win the WAC tourney, it might be tough to let Archibald go if that's the way Hill and others are leaning.
"We're not taking a vote or anything," said Hill. "We just have to do what's best for the program."
Archibald is the first to admit that he shouldn't stay if he can't win. The question will be whether a .500 season this year and a 97-85 record in his six years at Utah is enough winning to stay around another year.