When life took Rob Ehsan from the potential of a cushy job in the financial services industry to coaching college basketball, he knew he was hired to be fired. It just happened sooner than he planned.
“There is a famous saying in the coaching fraternity, there are two kinds of coaches,” Ehsan joked. “Those who have been fired and those who will be. I guess overnight I went from one to the other.”
Ehsan, at 37, is still a kid in the profession. Any hopes of becoming another Roy Williams, Bill Self or Mike Krzyzewski, three of the senior citizens of the game who were never handed a pink slip, ended for the former University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) head basketball coach a week ago Friday morning.
“I never saw it coming,” the Sacramento, California, native said. “We had a good season. More importantly we won five of our last seven games including a first round conference tournament game. I guess the athletic director had other ideas.”
Ehsan believes if the Conference USA tournament hadn’t been canceled early because of COVID-19, his Blazers could have won four straight games and earned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
In four seasons at UAB his teams were 76-57 for an overall won-loss percentage of .571, good enough in most places to not only keep your job but also get a contract extension. But not at UAB where a combination of circumstances and a gorilla-in-the-waiting-room doomed him.
Back in 2005, right after he graduated from the University of California -Davis, Ehsan had an offer from Accenture, the international financial services and consulting firm, to come aboard as a business consultant. Ehsan played basketball for four years at UCD. As a senior he was co-captain and their floor leader as a 6’2” point guard. After graduation, and almost at the same time he was being fitted for his corporate suit, a graduate assistant basketball job opened at the University of Maryland. When it was offered, he didn’t hesitate. Ehsan headed East to begin his new vocation under the leadership of future Hall of Fame coach, Gary Williams.
“That was a dream come true for me, to be able to learn under Coach Williams,” Ehsan said. “I figured one day, if it didn’t work out, Accenture might still be there.”
Two years later, in 2007, he became a full-time assistant on the Maryland staff where he remained until Williams retired after the 2011 season.
He wasn’t out of work long. Ehsan found an opening as an assistant on Seth Greenberg’s Virginia Tech staff staying for only a year until Jerod Haase, the top aide to Roy Williams at North Carolina, took the UAB job in 2012 and invited Ehsan to join him.
“I recruited against Rob in the ACC and was impressed with him,” Haase told me a few days ago. “I knew he had what it took to be a head coach one day and I wanted him on my UAB staff.”
From the day Gene Bartow left UCLA in 1977 to start the basketball program at UAB, two years after becoming John Wooden’s successor, the college on Birmingham’s south side became a basketball school. It stayed that way for the next forty years, almost until Haase left to go to Stanford as its head man in 2016. Haase had a great four year run at UAB compiling an 80-53 record, which included beating Iowa State, a three seed, in the opening round of the 2015 NCAA tourney putting him on the national coaching map.
Ehsan had a chance to go to Stanford with Haase but deferred the decision hoping instead he could get the UAB top job. Boosters rallied around the 33-year-old who, when hired, was among the youngest five Division 1 coaches in the country.
UAB basketball under Haase and then Ehsan wasn’t the same caliber UAB basketball of years earlier. In 2003, less than ten years before Haase and Ehsan arrived in Birmingham, Conference USA included DePaul, Memphis, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Marquette, TCU, Tulane and Houston. All gate attractions. Now those schools have moved into more visible, competitive and lucrative leagues. UAB was left behind. Today’s Conference USA is Charlotte, FIU, FAU, Louisiana Tech, Marshall, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Old Dominion, Rice, Southern Miss, UTEP, Texas-San Antonio and Western Kentucky. No doubt all fine schools but StubHub doesn’t do much of a resale business on any of them. In fact, they probably do none at all.
Institutionally, UAB has become frustrated being bypassed by better conferences that all of its old friends and rivals have joined. The American Athletic Conference is UAB’s presumed upgrade target. Familiar faces in the AAC include Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis and Tulane. It’s a more lucrative league for its members with better media deals, sponsorships and football bowl game tie-ins than C-USA.
UAB knows the key to moving up to a pot of gold is a strong football program, something the Blazers never had nor seemingly thought was very important. Ironically, in an effort to save money in a bleeding budget, UAB terminated its financially strapped football program after the 2014 season. Nobody went to UAB football games. On any given Saturday there were maybe 5,000 in the stands at Birmingham’s decrepit 70,000 seat Legion Field. Everybody else in town was watching Alabama and Auburn. But community leaders did care. The community as a whole revolted when UAB football was terminated. They knew their local school, the city’s largest employer, needed football to be a well-rounded campus and institution. People stepped up with their dollars pledging support if football returned. UAB leaders caved to the pressure and brought football back in 2017. It’s been an unmitigated success ever since with over 20,000 showing up regularly on Saturdays and a new 40,000 seat facility being built a few miles from campus that will be ready for kickoff in 2021. UAB knows the only way to get out of Conference USA is with a visible and successful football program.
Unfortunately, the residual of that decision fell on Rob Ehsan. Though the administration will undoubtedly deny it, coincidentally to Ehsan’s hiring, virtually all marketing monies and energies have been rerouted from basketball to football. I was a part of the basketball program as a friend and booster for almost 20 years when we lived in BHM and saw it happen. As Haase told me right after leaving for Stanford, “UAB is a football school now.” The late Gene Bartow, no doubt, rolled over.
Haase wasn’t wrong. Under Coach Bill Clark UAB football has been to bowl games all three years of their renaissance, almost incomprehensible before the shutdown. While never replacing the Tide or Tigers, UAB football is something people in Birmingham care about for the first time.
Not so much for hoops, however. With marketing efforts and monies having gone elsewhere, basketball just languishes. Attendance at the 9,000 seat on-campus Bartow Arena has dropped from 6,000 a game only a few years ago down to maybe 3,000 now. Conference USA basketball is a much weaker league than its ever been. It’s a one-bid NCAA tournament league. It’s few and far between that an opponent in a conference above C-USA will come to Birmingham to play. Over the last couple of years Blazer basketball ticket holders have been forced to watch Mercer, West Alabama, Alcorn State, North Alabama, Utah Valley, Lamar and Thomas University, wherever that may be. It’s not Ehsan’s fault but a watered-down league leads to a watered-down non-conference schedule because no potential tournament bubble team wants to run the risk of a loss to a C-USA school on their resume.
With no help from the administration on product marketing and no help from a conference with few marquee opponents, Ehsan also couldn’t overcome Andy Kennedy, the gorilla hanging around town. Back in 1986-87, Kennedy spent a year playing for Jim Valvano at NC State before transferring to UAB and playing under Bartow from 1987-90. He finished as the program’s second leading scorer and a crowd favorite back in the days when UAB basketball was just as popular as Dreamland’s ribs. He also spent six years as an assistant coach at UAB, from 1995-2001, under Bartow’s son, Murry.
Kennedy, 52, become Cincinatti’s head coach in 2005 succeeding Bob Huggins and a year later went to Ole Miss where he stayed for a dozen successful years. His 245-156 record in Oxford distinguishes him as the all-time Ole Miss win leader. Kennedy was named the SEC Coach of the Year in 2007. He moved back to Birmingham a couple of years ago and became an analyst for the SEC Network. Kennedy also let it be known to UAB influencers that if the UAB job ever opened, he would have interest.
When Mark Ingram (not the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner but the Mark Ingram who’s the UAB Athletic Director) got word of Kennedy’s interest, and putting aside personal feelings for the likeable Ehsan, Ingram made a business decision. Is UAB basketball better with Andy Kennedy or Rob Ehsan as its head coach? Ingram thinks it’s Kennedy. With full disclosure, Ehsan is a friend of mine. I’m an unofficial mentor to him, a role that reminds me how old I am. He knows if he asks me a question he’s going to get a straight answer, maybe not necessarily the one he wants. When I was in the hospital two and a half years ago with my cinco de bypass, Ehsan was one of the first to come visit. He loved my ‘Big League Dream’, not for the content but because he read his kids a chapter every night and they fell asleep quicker than you could say ‘strike three.’ Even after I left Birmingham, Coach and I have stayed very friendly. He chided me a few days ago by asking, “You mean it takes me getting fired to get a Sunday Morning Coffee?”
In fact, we spoke at length a week ago Thursday, the day before Ingram paid Ehsan a visit to tell him he was making a “leadership change.” During our phone call, Ehsan was still flying high a day after their C-USA tournament win over Texas-San Antonio before the rest of the tournament was canceled. UAB finished the season a very respectable 19-13. Ehsan was unceremoniously slapped back down to earth by Ingram the next day.
Bottom line is Ingram had a decision to make and while I hate what he did, I understand why he did it. Andy Kennedy’s hiring, the worst kept secret in Alabama since Nick Saban left the Dolphins and said he wasn’t sure where he was going next, was made official this past Thursday. Kennedy’s UAB legacy and major conference coaching and recruiting experience will hopefully sell tickets and place the basketball program on an even footing with football, so they can become attractive to a better conference. For Ingram’s sake and job stability, it better happen. Ehsan was making $450,000 a year and half a ham sandwich, hold the mustard. Speculation is, give or take a few hundred grand, Kennedy will get close to a million and the all-you-can-eat grand buffet. That’s a lot of new tickets to be sold for a non-conference game on a Tuesday night in December against Jackson State. One thing is for sure: Kennedy will get ancillary support from the athletic department that Ehsan didn’t. For a program that can barely afford one seven-figure a year coach, the school is mortgaging its future on two of them — a head football and head basketball coach. The results — wins, fans in the stands and better competition — need to justify the expenditure.
For Ehsan it’s probably the worst time to be looking for work. Though he still has another year’s salary coming, this is normally prime hiring season for college basketball coaches. Programs make changes at season’s end and coaches converge at the Final Four to lobby, politic and campaign for jobs which are normally plentiful. This year, Ehsan’s year, because of COVID-19 none of that will happen.
“Is this the worst time ever to be looking for a job,” Ehsan rhetorically asked and laughed. “Yeah, it sure is. It hasn’t stopped me though. I am calling everyone I know and you use your agent the best you can. It’s like facing a press or a zone; you have to figure out a way to break it.”
Rob Ehsan is not only a good basketball coach but a quality gentleman, a great statesman for his program and someone who cares about his players and their progression from students/athletes to community leaders. He is also as ethical as they come and will make some institution a great head coach or even a top flight assistant at an upper-rung program.
Ironically, last week I was looking through some old emails and came across this one from Ehsan, sent to Andi and me on September 23, 2018, the day we pulled out of our Birmingham driveway headed for our new Las Vegas retirement life:
“Thinking about you two today. I am personally sad but at the same time happy for both of you. In our profession it’s inevitable that at some point I’ll probably be making the same drive you guys are today.”
Ehsan, his wife Lindsey and their three young kids will be loading up their car, likely sooner rather than later. Wherever they are headed, it will instantly become a better institution with Rob Ehsan a part of it.