May 11, 2012

Controversy still shrouds firing of Clark coach

The Clark College men's basketball team went 25-4 this season and won the NWAACC's Western Region. Now they'll have to go without their coach.

Arnold out as Clark College men's basketball coach
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When I heard through the grapevine that Clark College men's basketball coach Mike Arnold had been fired, I thought, or rather hoped, that it was a joke. 

You see, Arnold led Clark to a 25-4 season. They won the NWAACC's Western Region, and Arnold was named Western Region Coach of the Year. Coming in to championship weekend, Clark was ranked first in the coaches poll and second in the JOWARD Power Rankings. A week later, Clark was reeling from a pair of losses and left the tournament empty handed. 

Then Clark received yet another blow to the stomach. Arnold got a letter from Clark's new Athletic Director, Charles Guthrie, notifying him that his contract would not be renewed for the next season. 

It's a situation shrouded in a little bit of mystery, but there are a few facts that are concrete. The first is that coaches are evaluated from year to year, this from the mouth of Guthrie himself. The second is that, according to the letter, Arnold's firing was a result of his latest evaluation. That's as clear as things get. 

Judging by the reaction of the Clark fans, the letting go of Arnold came as an absolute shock. Many, like myself, questioned the validity of the article by the Columbian that announced Arnold's firing. Still others spoke about the character of Arnold himself, and his commitment to his student athletes. Even a few of his former players chimed in.

While there have been several unconfirmed reports of animosity and/or verbal altercations between Guthrie and Arnold, no other incidents have been brought to light, begging the question: why in the world did Clark let Arnold go? 

Mike Arnold  coaches at practice.
Arnold was let go as Clark' head men's
basketball coach after seven seasons.
Let's take a step back and look at Clark's mission statement

"The Clark College Athletics Department will enrich the greater community and the lives of student  athletes by instilling in them a lifelong enjoyment of sports and  physical activity.  With a commitment to diversity, integrity, and academic achievement, we provide a competitive and high quality range of sports programs that focus on learning teamwork and on student success."

There are several things that jump out. Firstly, the focus is to be on learning and student success, and that there was a commitment to academic achievement. That, and nobody would argue this, Arnold was a champion of. The second thing is the commitment to having competitive and high quality teams and that the department is to enrich the greater community.  

The second part is where things get a little more difficult. The balance has to be between drawing players from the local area and actually being good. That can be impossible, and it's extremely common for teams to reach far away to find the best talent they possibly can. 

The thing is, Clark had a fantastic season, and they did it with mostly local talent (roster). Excluding the one player from Georgia and the other player from Arizona, all the athletes grew up reasonably close to Clark. In fact, five grew up in Vancouver itself, while two came from across the river in Portland, and one from Camas. That's over half of the roster from the immediate area. 

One of the few remaining arguments is consistency. One commentor on the story by the Columbian, who also happened to be the AD at Clark College from 1982-95, suggested that Guthrie might just want to see better long term results out of his coaches.

"Charles Guthrie may have high expectations for his coaches - like I had," stated Rodger Daniels. "He may want to win championships."

Daniels went on to describe his successes as the Athletic Director, numbering the region championships (28), NWAACC championships (6) and NWAACC runner ups (9) during his tenure. 

What Daniels' comments suggest is that Guthrie didn't think the progress that Arnold had made was good enough after falling early in the championship tournament. Winning championships, it seems, is all that really matters. Not academics, not maturing as young men, not gaining knowledge and life-wisdom for the rest of their years. Championships. 

At the basic root of things, it looks every bit like Clark and Gunthie have made a wild mistake. If Gunthie's "new direction" happens to be the tank, then his head will surely roll, especially if Arnold is hired elsewhere in the association and finds success. 

In the meantime, Clark has begun a precious little PR campaign to back their new coach. The article that the Clark College athletics department put out is full of superlatives, telling the bio of new head coach Alex Kirk, and adding "What people are saying about coach Alex Kirk" in which important people like Dan Dickau and Tony Bennett heaped enough praise on Kirk to break his back. 

In my eyes, that's a lot of pressure. The reputation of Guthrie and the anger, disappointment and expectations of the fans are all resting on his shoulders. I can't decide whether I want to see Clark stumble and fall, or if I simply want to see Arnold succeed elsewhere. Portland would be beautifully ironic. 

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As time rolls on, new dirt continues to surface. According to several sources, both inside and outside of the Clark athletic department, the decision to fire Arnold came not from Gunthie but from President Robert K. Knight. While this contradicts Gunthie's statement that he makes "any and all of the decisions pertaining to Clark athletics", when recent reports of Knight's conduct are taken into account the whole thing starts to make sense.

Knight has been painted as a huge sports fan, big enough that he has been known to loudly voice his suggestions to Arnold at basketball games. He was also rumored to have bought championship rings for the men's soccer team that won an NWAACC championship in 2007, his first year as president at Clark. 

This, combined with the whisper that Knight and Arnold didn't see eye to eye, begins to make the situation a little clearer. Several others have also mentioned that Arnold, while he was a good coach, often had professionalism issues off the court that may have contributed to his being let go.