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Gene Frenette: A-Sun Tournament may be must-win for JU coach Cliff Warren

Posted: March 3, 2014 - 10:31pm  |  Updated: March 4, 2014 - 11:12am

When the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament begins Tuesday night on the road for Jacksonville University and North Florida, head coaches Cliff Warren and Matthew Driscoll, respectively, find themselves in far different places on their career path.

The cruel reality for Warren, and it’s the most distasteful part of his occupation, is he might well be one loss away from the unemployment line. The No. 7-seeded Dolphins, who travel to Macon, Ga., to face a Mercer team that has beaten them twice this season, likely have to win the A-Sun tourney and an automatic NCAA bid to assure Warren of keeping his job.

Job security can evaporate quickly in the coaching business. The Warren arrow that had been pointing way up three years ago is gone. A fabulous five-year run, in which JU went 65-29 in conference play, has regressed into three consecutive losing seasons and a 23-31 A-Sun record in that span. Other circumstances besides not winning enough — being in the last year of his contract, plus having an athletic director, Brad Edwards, who didn’t hire him — also factor into Warren’s job being in jeopardy.

When you add it all up, the coach with the most wins in JU history (126-149 record), and the first African-American coach the school hired in any sport, is a long shot to see a 10th season on the Dolphins’ bench.

For the record, I think JU will be hard-pressed to hire a coach that will surpass Warren’s overall body of work, especially with the program not having a more modern on-campus facility than 1,400-seat Swisher Gym. And if Warren is gone, the Dolphins (12-17) may need more time to rebuild as his replacement adjusts to an overhauled roster.

Driscoll, now in his fifth season at UNF, has had nowhere near the run of winning Warren enjoyed when the Dolphins had things rolling. But he’s turned a previously floundering program around, at least enough for the administration to want to see if Driscoll can elevate the Ospreys into a championship contender.

UNF is 28-26 in league play the last three years, but Driscoll knows the Ospreys (16-15) must rise above middle-of-the-pack status. He was hired by AD Lee Moon to ultimately win an A-Sun championship, not hang around .500.

“I don’t disagree with that,” said Driscoll, whose No. 6-seeded team travels to USC-Upstate for its first-round tournament game. “We were headed in the right direction until we took a step back last year. In order to make that step and get in the upper echelon, you’ve got to beat those teams.”

The Ospreys were 2-4 this season against the league’s top three teams, including a pair of 11-point losses to Upstate. While Driscoll’s job is not in jeopardy, the outgoing, hug-happy coach has reached a point in his career where UNF must show more progress.

Driscoll’s high-octane personality and salesmanship, which has helped create a raucous student atmosphere at home games, can only carry the program so far. The good news is, with the second-youngest roster in the league, the Ospreys should be in position to make a legitimate run at an A-Sun title.

While JU’s roster faces serious change, UNF has five players who were starters or significant backups with at least two years of eligibility remaining, plus transfer Trent Mackey, a 6-foot-4 sharpshooter.

Mercer and East Tennessee State are leaving the A-Sun after this season, so there’s no reason UNF shouldn’t be able to challenge Florida Gulf Coast or whomever for league supremacy the next two seasons.

But first, let’s see if UNF or JU can make a run this week in the A-Sun tournament. Two coaches in their first job as head coaches need that to happen for vastly different reasons.

After the longest coaching run in JU basketball history, Warren finds himself in the brutal position of likely having to cut down the nets to keep his job. Driscoll is still building for the future, but he better not wait too long.

In this business, it doesn’t take much time to go from being a secure coach to the hot seat.

 

gene.frenette@jacksonville.com,

(904) 359-4540