The Case of Paul Cormier: Breaking down the release of men's basketball's head coach

by Alexander Agadjanian | 4/17/16 5:02pm

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In March of 2015, the Dartmouth basketball team — under the tutelage of then-head coach Paul Cormier — reached new heights as it worked to rebuild, playing in its first postseason tournament in 56 years. A downward turn from this apex ensued, however, and led to plans to reshuffle the struggling program once again.

On March 21, nearly one year to the day after that College Insider Postseason Tournament berth, Dartmouth athletics director Harry Sheehy announced that Cormier would not return as head coach for the 2016-2017 season.

“I don’t think our recruiting was operating at a level that was necessary for us to move up in the League, and I also thought our player development was spotty,” Sheehy said in explaining his decision. “Paul did a wonderful job of dragging us out of the mud, but my feeling was that we needed new leadership to scale the mountain.”

Coming less than three weeks after the conclusion of the 2015-2016 season, the decision in all likelihood marked Cormier’s permanent departure from Hanover. In two separate tenures, he coached in three different decades at the school, collecting a 141-211 overall record in the process.

“I was surprised that they wanted to go in a different direction, but it’s part of the business,” Cormier said about the situation. “Although I didn’t accomplish everything I wanted to, the program is in better shape than when I came. I wish I could be here for another year, but I understand the business, I wish them nothing but the best. I really appreciate everything Dartmouth has done for myself and my family. [I’ll] certainly look back with fond memories of the people that I met and the school itself.”

In the first stint that lasted seven years from 1984 to 1991, Cormier led the team to a 87-95 record, good for a .478 winning percentage, and a span that included two of the three winningest seasons in the last 50 seasons at Dartmouth. During the 1987-1988 season, Cormier came closest to an elusive conference championship, when a one-point loss in the final game prevented the team from grabbing a share of the Ivy League title. Much like his second tenure at Dartmouth decades later, Cormier’s declining success at both the overall and Ivy League level led to his departure.

After moving to a coaching job at Fairfield University, during which he clinched a conference championship and NCAA tournament berth in the 1990s, Cormier later returned to Dartmouth in 2010 after having scouted and coached at the NBA level for 12 years. During his second tenure at the helm, Cormier started with a much poorer preceding foundation. In accumulating a 0.322 winning percentage with a 55-116 record in six years, he failed to replicate the same level of success of his first time around.

Cormier will leave Dartmouth following an abrupt reversal in his program’s trajectory during this past year. Before the 2015-2016 season and during his second stint, the Big Green had not experienced a year-to-year decline in overall or conference win percentage. Instead, the team almost always improved on the previous season. Yet during this past campaign, the program experienced a sizable decline from its upwardly-trending winning ways.

While that came in large part due to the graduation of two key seniors from the prior year, it was also driven by the early and unexpected departure of one of the team’s best players, Alex Mitola ’16. Mitola graduated his junior year and joined the George Washington University basketball program as a graduate transfer.

Nevertheless, Cormier had the reigning and future Ivy League Rookies of the Year in Miles Wright ’18 and Evan Boudreaux ’19, respectively; a senior leader and strong post presence in Connor Boehm ’16; and an adequate surrounding cast at his disposal. At the same time, going by several metrics, the team’s dominance in games often went unreflected in win-loss totals, an outcome ascribed to some degree to poor luck.

Perhaps if it was not for Mitola’s early departure, the program’s best player at the time, the Big Green would not have taken a step back in 2016.

When looking back at his decision to graduate early and leave, Mitola points to the slow development of the program as one of his chief motivating concerns.

“That was definitely a major reason in my decision,” Mitola said. “Coming from high school, I knew the situation I was getting into in that I was joining a team that had five wins, but I don’t think I was aware of how difficult and long it could be to turn a program like that around. It was approaching my senior year, and I didn’t really see the progress I envisioned when I came in freshmen year.”

Though he chose not to comment on Cormier specifically, forward Brandon McDonnell ’16 said he enjoyed his four years as part of the basketball program.

“I definitely had a positive experience in the last four years,” McDonnell said. “We went through a lot of ups and downs, but formed great relationships, and that’s definitely been the best part for me. That even if we weren’t winning games, we always had a great group of people that kept us together.”

McDonnell also noted the stability that the latest senior class — of which he was a part — brought to the program.

“There was a lot people in my class, we had seven people coming in,” he said. “[Only one person left], which in the past has been very rare. All the classes before, only half the kids would make it. I think it says a lot that six [of seven] kids who came in finished together.”

Wright described an overall positive experience playing under Cormier, praising him for the strides the program has made since arriving for his second stint.

“It was a good experience, I’m thankful for the opportunity he gave me to come here and play,” he said. “I think he did a good job of [bringing the program out of the dumps]. But like Mr. Sheehy told us, we needed someone new to bring us to the top.”

Wright also lauded his former coach’s recruiting ability and generally style of managing the team.

“I think Cormier did a good job of bringing in players, he was a very good recruiter,” the sophomore said. “He brought a lot of different talent to the program that might not have been there in the past. He had a good basketball mind, he had good core values, I think he promoted a positive culture.”

However, at least one other former player coached by Cormier revealed a decidedly negative experience under the former coach. The player, who requested not to be identified so he could speak freely without fear of backlash, expanded at length about a disconnect between players and the coach, as well as a poor approach from Cormier during his time at Dartmouth.

“I would say 95 to 97 percent of the players that have been here the last four years [would say] they had the same negative experience with [Cormier],” the player said. “He’s a poor communicator, he didn’t encourage, he didn’t promote confidence, he didn’t make the game fun. It was a hassle going to practice every day. Having to deal with him every day, it kind of overshadowed the game of basketball.”

When asked to respond to this comment, Cormier disputed the notion of these communication issues.

“My door was always open,” Cormier said regarding communication with his players. “Anyone who wanted to come in and talk with me could. If I made a mistake, I certainly didn’t do it for personal reasons. If I didn’t like an individual, that person would not have been on my roster.”

The player also felt Cormier couldn’t connect with current players, speaking to a generational issue.

“He just didn’t know how to handle personalities, he wasn’t really in touch with this generation of young men,” the player said. “He didn’t understand how to reach players.”

Another criticism raised regarding Cormier was his propensity to too quickly pigeonhole players into certain roles and identities on the team — little, it seemed, could change after the coach’s initial assessment of a player.

“[The environment] wasn’t strict more than it was restrictive,” the former player said. “Each player couldn’t express who they wanted to be. [Players] have to express themselves to a point within the team.”

The player also said that he and his teammates took issue with Cormier’s approach during team speeches, recognizing attempts at motivational messages but saying they had the opposite, adverse effects.

“He would go through a whole story during a scouting report, why he couldn’t get a [future opposing player] into [Dartmouth], and that this kid would be a starter had he been here,” he said. “And we’re about to play against this kid tomorrow. I guess he was trying to be motivational, but it [wasn’t]. He would tell us, ‘We’re not that good as individuals. One by one you’re not better than these guys, but as team you can beat them.’ He was trying to build a team camaraderie, but all it did was pull the team further away from him.”

Cormier said fostering a team identity and his style of bluntness was what drove this.

“I probably did tell them what I thought was the truth,” Cormier said. “I felt that there were teams that maybe were better individually. The reason I mentioned that is because one, it was true in my opinion, and the best way for us to beat them was collectively by teamwork. I said, ‘We may not have the best individuals on our team, but we can still be the best team.’ And I said that many times, and I believed that whole-heartedly. I always tell my players, ‘I’m going to tell you the truth, I’m going to be real.’ If we go play as individuals we’re not good enough to beat this team. But if we go as a team, we can beat anyone on our schedule.”

Tactical aspects of Cormier’s approach also made for a rift.

“There would be a new offensive system every week,” the former player said. “That’s one reason why we would always start the season off badly. [In the early parts of the season,] as soon as we lost a game, he’s switching the whole system up. From there on out, it’s a week-by-week thing.”

It should be noted that such sentiments directly reflect the experience of just one former Dartmouth basketball player. However, few others — outside of Wright — offered overt support: multiple players could not be reached, did not respond to or declined requests for comment on their experiences with Cormier as coach.

Whatever the case may be, and whatever discord within Dartmouth basketball the last six years remains uncovered, the program marches on and sets its sights on a new era. Brimming with young talent — the best freshmen in the conference the last two years — one can’t help but view the near future as unquestionably bright. Looking forward, the athletic department will have to decide who is best to pull everything together and resume a revival process for the basketball program.

For Sheehy, the same facets of program management that persuaded him to let go of Cormier will now guide him in this new search: program development within the team and player recruiting outside of it.

“There’s tons of way to win basketball games, so I’m not so much wed to any particular system,” Sheehy said. “But what I am wed to is a very strong development program. They should look pretty different after four years.”

Luring high school talent up to Hanover represents a difficult but essential task, and accordingly Sheehy emphasizes it when discussing how to build up the basketball program.

“I used to have a sign on my desk [that said], ‘Recruit daily or perish,’” Sheehy mentioned in reference to his time as a basketball coach. “Recruiting’s a full-time gig, I think you have to have a strategy, and it can’t be done randomly. Particularly at Dartmouth it’s really important, because we’re a little unique in the Ivy League.”

At the same time, Cormier had at least two significant recruiting prizes in Wright and Boudreaux, both of whom garnered Ivy League Rookie honors the last two seasons. In other words, Cormier was not necessarily at a loss for attracting talent to Hanover.

Additionally, Sheehy points to gauging the evolving coach-player relationship properly in selecting a new person to helm the program.

“Coaching the athlete in 2016, it’s a different skillset that was needed 20 or 30 years ago for a coach,” he said. “It’s become much more about connecting with players and helping them develop as people and players. The landscape is different, but I would say that [the] kids are the same. But they’re coming from different environments. The Amateur Athletic Union environment is a huge piece of the puzzle now. Many of today’s players haven’t been told, ‘That’s not good enough.’ So the new coach for this new era needs to find ways to say, ‘That’s not good enough’ in a way these athletes will understand.”

When talking to former members of the program, one consideration comes up again and again: the need for an infusion of enthusiasm.

“I think one of the main things to look for is a coach who is excited and enthusiastic and really wants to change the culture here,” McDonnell said. “I think the athletic department is starting to realize that some things needed to change. We have a bunch of talented players, good pieces. We have everything here to make a successful team, but it’s just a matter of putting it together in the right way.”

McDonnell said that non-graduating players on the team who participated in interviewing prospective new coaches also emphasized the importance of enthusiasm in a coach.

When asked what the program should look for in the search process for a new coach, the aforementioned anonymous player stressed a similar point: finding a coach who was positive.

This is the second in a series about coaching at Dartmouth. The first article can be found here.