The beginning of the end for Lynn Archibald may have come on a gloomy fall day last November at the Little America Hotel.
It was there in the Arizona Room that the assembled media votedArchibald's Utah team as the WAC favorite for the 1988-89 season. When Archibald was informed of the selection he seemed stunned - you could almost see the color leave his face. He had expected Colorado State, New Mexico or UTEP to get the No. 1 billing. But for the first time in his six years as coach, he had the pressure of being picked first.
In nearly all of Archibald's previous five years, the Utes had the luxury of exceeding their expectations. In 1984-85, they made a late-season run from nowhere that nearly put them in the WAC finals. In 1985-86, they were picked for third and ended up first. In 1987-88, they were picked for fifth and ended up second. But suddenly they were picked for first and had nowhere to go but down. With the pressure of the No. 1 tag placed on them, the Utes couldn't come through and stumbled to a sixth-place tie.
And one thing about Archibald's teams at Utah; they never seemed to perform well under pressure. During his six years as coach, the Utes couldn't win the big games. From 1985 until this year, the Utes lost seven straight postseason games, four in the WAC tourney, one in the NCAA and two NIT games.
Had the Utes finished first or second this year and won more than 20 games and gone to the NCAAs, it's unlikely that Utah would be looking for a new coach right now. But a 16-17 record added to several other factors meant the end of Archibald's stint at Utah.
Archibald never looked for excuses, but he knew what a big factor it was not having Tommy Connor, who sat out with a back injury, to run the point. "It was obvious that we had no leadership in tight situations," he said. "We couldn't find someone to be a quarterback.
"And (Boo) Singletary never played up to what he did the year before. A lot of people don't know that he had two knee operations this year."
One of the most frustrating things to Archibald was his team's shooting. He thought he had one of his best outside shooting teams ever, but "shooters" such as Keith Chapman, Van Gray and Bill Perkins all ended up hitting around 30 percent.
The bright spots on this year's team was the play of Josh Grant and Jimmy Madison. Grant hardly looked like a freshman in averaging 10.4 points and 7.2 rebounds a game. Madison finally fulfilled his potential in his senior season as he became the team's second leading scorer (11.5) in a sixth-man role.
As usual, Mitch Smith played harder than anyone in America, but he was plagued with inconsistency in his final year at Utah. Mark Lenoir played well early and in the last two games, but did little in between. Three-hundred-pound Walter Watts went from all-tournament in late December to forgotten man by March. Jon Hansen earned a starting spot, but wasn't the answer to the team's off-guard problems.
The Utes started off decently at the Great Alaska Shootout, where they were beaten by a pair of NCAA-bound teams in Seton Hall and Florida. A 34-point blowout of Iona in the second round showed the kind of potential the Ute squad had.
But in the home opener against an unheralded Cal State-Fullerton team, the Utes blew a 13-point lead in the second half. It was a Utah trait in recent years to blow big leads and hang on for victory, but this time they couldn't hang on.
A couple of weeks later at Purdue, the Utes suffered their second-worst loss in history to a team that ended up with a losing record, and it was televised in living color for Ute fans to see.
At that point, the Utes made a brief run, winning five straight to end the preseason at 9-6. But the start of WAC play was an indication of things to come as they were blown out by UTEP and New Mexico.
The Utes did come up with some wins here and there, the biggest probably being the come-from-behind win over BYU at home. But four straight home losses finally did the Utes in. They tried but couldn't recover enough in the WAC tournament on their own home floor, losing to Colorado State in the quarterfinals by two points.
The final game of Archibald's Utah career at Utah brought back memories of his initial season. That was the year the Utes lost six games by two points or less and another in double overtime.
Although Archibald would never admit it publicly, his career at Utah seemed snakebit. He had more than his share of close losses on last-second shots. Nearly every year he had a significant injury to a key player, Kelvin Upshaw in 1985, Jerry Stroman in 1986, Gale Gondrezick in 1988, and Connor and Singletary this year.
Unfortunately for Archibald, he won't get the chance to continue next year, but returning players such as Grant, Lenoir, Hansen, Chapman, Watts, Gray and Perkins, will be the foundation for the a new Ute coach in the 1989-90 season.