Darner generally contended despite a lackluster budget
In a season with so much uncertainty and so few coaching changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Green Bay’s decision to fire Head Basketball Coach Linc Darner on Sunday was a shocking development. After a brutal non-conference slate, Darner’s Phoenix finished third in the Horizon League and lost to eventual tournament champion Northern Kentucky in the Horizon League Semifinals. Darner ended a nearly two-decade NCAA Tournament drought in his first season with the Phoenix and went 92-80 overall in five seasons.
While an argument could be made that a record 12 games over .500 shouldn’t necessarily guarantee job security, when you consider Green Bay’s financial situation the team has been punching above its weight class for a long time. Only Youngstown State’s Jerrod Calhoun and IUPUI’s interim coach Byron Rimm made less than Darner among Horizon League coaches last year, but outside of the 2017-18 season Darner’s teams have finished top four in the league every season. The Phoenix have been cash-strapped enough to lose basketball coach Tod Kowalczyk to a 4-28 Toledo team, soccer coach Kris Kelderman to Horizon League archrival Milwaukee who finished six places below them in the league standings and Athletic Director Ken Bothof to Horizon League rival Northern Kentucky.
The economic disadvantage that the school faces has led some to hypothesize that finances may have played a role in the move in the wake of COVID-19, but with no news that would help the Phoenix avoid paying Darner’s buyout that outcome doesn’t seem particularly likely right now. That’s especially true if Scott Venci of the Green Bay Press Gazette is correct and Darner’s contract stipulates that he is due the entirety of his remaining salary through 2026.
With no shocking allegations on the table, a more likely potential reason for the seemingly late decision to move on from Darner is Michael Alexander’s hiring as UW-Green Bay’s newest chancellor at the start of this month. With a chancellor and an athletic director who were both brought on after Darner, the decision to bring in their own hire makes sense. Similar moves have happened recently at UIC, Wright State and Milwaukee.
It’s entirely possible that the leadership at Green Bay is gambling on its ability to elevate the program from solid to the top of the league. However, the aforementioned financial difficulties could complicate that plan. Wright State’s Scott Nagy left Summit League power South Dakota State for Wright State after two decades thanks in part to the Raiders more than doubling his salary by offering him five hundred thousand dollars per year. UIC hired Texas Assistant Luke Yaklich — who previously seemed to be out of the school’s price range — for five hundred thousand dollars per year as well. With zero indication that Green Bay can afford to get to half that figure even without considering a buyout, the information we have right now suggests this move could backfire spectacularly on Green Bay unless there’s more to the story.
We weren’t the only ones blindsided: the move was shocking to Green Bay’s players and recruits as well. Top returning scorer and 2020 Horizon League Freshman of the Year Amari Davis voiced his displeasure on Twitter:
When do the nightmares end 🤦🏾♂️ https://t.co/b3jPn5srab— Amari Davis (@Amari937) May 17, 2020
The decision was a puzzling one, particularly given everything that’s going on and the uncertainty that the future presents. For now, we’re left doing the same thing we’ve done for so much of 2020: sitting around waiting for more information to come out in order to figure out what’s going on.