Saul Phillips cracks a smile mid-sentence as he describes another one of his favorite stories of trips to the Final Four with a group of reporters.
It’s Thursday, March 7, and the Bobcats have just wrapped up practice.
Standing on The Convo floor, the fifth-year coach seems at peace with his team and the future.
Not once in the 10-minute conversation filled with on- and off-the-record stories does he seem down.
Not once does Phillips let on he was a day away from his last game in Athens, three days away from a first round exit in the Mid-American Conference Tournament or five days away from being told he would not return for a sixth season.
Phillips kept coaching until athletic director Jim Schaus told him he couldn’t. Never was Phillips’ time at Ohio about him — that’s not how the 46-year-old coach operates.
His quirky, optimistic attitude was a constant this season, even though he knew that this was the final year of his initial contract, that contract extension talks were nonexistent and that his team wasn’t winning enough games.
“You’re not certain of anything in this profession,” Phillips said that afternoon. “I can’t let that cloud what we’re trying to do. I’ve tried really hard this season to not make it about me and my situation. That’s not right.”
But winning games defined the Phillips era in Athens. He didn’t win enough or at a rapid enough pace. Two straight seasons of 20-plus wins were followed by two straight losing seasons. Of his five seasons at Ohio, just two finished with a winning record.
Never did he reach the finals of the MAC Tournament or win a regular season title. His crowning achievement was coaching Antonio Campbell to MAC Player of the Year honors in 2016-17.
His final record of 81-77 gives him a 51.3 win percentage, placing him ninth all-time — and behind every coach in the last 25 years. His 44.4 win percentage in the MAC (40-50) is the second-worst in Ohio coaching history.
Phillips’ predecessor, Jim Christian, owned a 25-9 record in the MAC and won a MAC regular season title. Before Christian, John Groce was 34-30 but brought home two MAC Tournament championships.
The back-to-back losing seasons were rock bottom for a program that considers itself the best in the conference. That hasn’t happened in almost 20 years since the Tim O’Shea era. While Phillips teams struggled, some of Ohio’s in-state rivals surged ahead.
In his first two seasons at Akron, Groce had the Zips in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. So did Jack Owens with the Miami RedHawks. Kent State coach Rob Senderoff’s Golden Flashes played in the semifinals last year and received a first-round bye this season. Bowling Green played in its first MAC Tournament Championship Game since 2002 on Saturday night.
There’s no doubt that the losing seasons came with turnover and injury problems, too. Phillips’ had eight players transfer in his tenure. Campbell never finished his senior season due to injury. James Gollon has medically disqualified himself; he only played a full season as a Bobcat. One of the top 3-point shooters in the country, Jordan Dartis, has undergone multiple hip surgeries and hasn’t played since last season.
Of late, Phillips had to rely on teams littered with minimal playing experience and loads of youth. This past season, he relied on a rotation of two upperclassmen, five underclassmen and a junior college transfer. Last year, only four of eight rotational players played in all 31 games.
Schaus was ecstatic Monday morning. He’d just finished introducing the 19th coach in program history, Jeff Boals. As the athletic director stood off to the side of the media room in The Convo, he began to tiptoe around questions about Phillips’ time in Athens.
Was there a disconnect between Phillips and Schaus the last two years? Did all contract talks come to an end? Schaus didn’t going into details, but he did reiterate that the decision to not renew Phillips’ contract was strictly a decision about the trajectory of the program.
Never did he speak poorly about the quality men being produced from the program. Problems in the classroom were never apparent.
Winning defines college sports. It defined Phillips’ time in Athens, too — because of the lack of wins.
Whether that’s to blame on recruiting, player development or bad luck is unknown. But it’s clear that the win-loss record didn’t meet the expectations Schaus has for Ohio.
“I think it was a very difficult decision. It’s always important to make the correct decision for the university,” Schaus said. “Saul and I had a great relationship and spent a lot of time together, not in meetings but on the side. He’s a great individual with great integrity and a great person. He cared greatly for this program, and he did so much for our student-athletes. He ran the program the right way.
“However, a component of that position at the Division I level is to consistently win. He did have some injuries last year for sure, but we want to be at a different place in terms of consistently winning. That is certainly what led to the decision ultimately, but that doesn’t mean he’s not an outstanding person.”
In the same media room where Schaus introduced the new coach of the Bobcats, Jason Carter had sat 10 days before.
Ohio had just defeated Miami 66-57 on Senior Night, riding high from yet another win in the last month of the season. Unsure of Phillips’ fate, Carter talked about the love he has for playing for his coach. Through a season-ending injury a year ago and the growing pains of a college basketball player, Phillips stuck with Carter through it all.
Carter’s just one example of the players the coach produced: a hard-working player who plays hard for his teammates and coaches.
“He’s been there for me since day one,” Carter said. “We’ve been through so much together, the ups and the downs. I know our group wants to keep this going for as long as we can.”
Now, the reality is different.
Players will adjust to a new coaching staff. Schaus will hope he tabbed the right person to take Ohio back to the NCAA Tournament. Boals will try to make sure the Bobcats return to their former glory.
Phillips will leave Athens. He’ll search for new work. He’ll see the players he recruited develop into the men he envisioned them being. He may part ways with his assistant coaches, too, as they head in different directions.
But that is the reality. No longer will he make Bobcat Nation crack a smile when he creates a ridiculous metaphor to describe a player. Now, a new fan base will experience that.
Saulball is no longer in Athens. Time will tell if that’s for the best.