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The Crucible in Carbondale: Inside the tumultuous final year of Barry Hinson’s tenure at Southern Illinois

In 2018, Hinson got an ultimatum: Make the postseason in 2019 or you’re done.

NCAA Basketball: Southern Illinois at Minnesota Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Barry Hinson wanted to take one more bus ride. He didn’t watch any video or listen to music during the two-hour trip from Saint Louis back to Carbondale. He instead savored the familiar silence of defeat that hung in the air. Tears streamed down his face, interrupted only by recurring smiles as he reflected on his 38-year coaching career — the past seven seasons at Southern Illinois — and the dramatic events of the last 12 months.

According to Hinson, a basketball coach’s job is to serve the fan base, which is why the absence of a single NCAA Tournament appearance on his head coaching résumé weighs on him so heavily. Earlier that evening, his Salukis fell 61-58 in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, ending Hinson’s latest chance to reach the Big Dance. He announced his resignation in an emotional press conference afterwards, choking up as he relayed a final message to SIU fans.

“I am so sorry that we couldn’t get back to the tournament,” he said. “It’s haunted me. It’s haunted me my entire life.”

The news concluded a yearlong saga between Hinson and an athletic department battling extreme financial strain, with an increasingly hostile fan base stuck in the middle.

When SIU’s bus pulled into campus, Hinson stood up from his regular seat and walked to the back to address his team on final time. He said thank you. As the players exited, he stood at the bottom of the steps and gave each one a handshake and a hug.

“I felt like I let the players down, I let a university down, I let a fan base down,” Hinson said, speaking to Mid-Major Madness from his home in Carbondale. “That’s how I felt at the time and quite frankly that’s how I still feel today.”

Not long ago, Southern Illinois operated like a mid-major powerhouse. The Salukis made six straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 2002-07 under the direction of Bruce Weber, Matt Painter and finally Chris Lowery, whose ‘07 team took Kansas down to the wire in the Sweet 16. Home attendance that year averaged 7,743, filling historic SIU Arena to near capacity for every game.

Then came the perfect storm. A renovation of SIU Arena prior to the 2010-11 season displaced long-time season ticket holders, many of whom walked away forever. Declining performance on the court combined with an increase in academic and disciplinary concerns led to Lowery’s firing in 2012, and local newspapers reported a loss of $500,000 in ticket revenue over his final three seasons. Average attendance in his final year was 3,299.

When the school hired Hinson as Lowery’s replacement, the program was on the verge of academic probation. Its Academic Progress Rate was alarmingly low, and extraordinary measures were required to rescue the program over Hinson’s first few seasons. Eventually, Hinson and his staff steadied the ship, but his teams suffered through three losing seasons.

Goals soon shifted toward a return to the NCAA Tournament. In 2015, SIU hired Tommy Bell as its new athletic director under the theme of “restoring the glory.”

However, the state of Illinois began a two-year budget impasse the same summer, under which public universities state-wide suffered reductions in government funding. Enrollments plummeted. Between 2011 and 2018, Southern Illinois-Carbondale saw its student population fall 35 percent, putting the institution in financial peril. Dormitories closed, colleges and departments merged, and staff got laid off.

Enormous pressure fell on the school’s flagship athletic program, the men’s basketball team, to create revenue and boost exposure for the school. SIU needed to reach postseason play, something Hinson’s teams simply weren’t doing. A 22-win campaign in 2015-16 was not rewarded with an NCAA or NIT bid, and pay-for-play tournaments like the CIT and CBI were out of the question. A 17-16 season followed, leading to the 20-13 mark last year.

Looking back, the 2017-18 season served as a signpost for the current state of mid-major college basketball. The Salukis played a solid non-conference schedule, yet failed to secure any signature wins as they battled a seemingly constant stream of injuries. An 8-5 record practically eliminated them from contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament before Christmas. Even after finishing alone in second place of the country’s eighth-best conference by RPI, they didn’t stand a chance on Selection Sunday.

With attendance numbers stagnating around 5,000 and season ticket sales continuing to drop, the school hired Jerry Kill. The former successful SIU football coach was tasked with fundraising, and among other things, helping lift SIU from its ninth-place ranking in Missouri Valley men’s basketball budgeting.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Carlo Montemagno and Bell considered parting ways with Hinson. The issue was once again money, some $350,000 needed to buy out the final two years of his contract. The school didn’t have it, so, a source says Bell reached out privately to donors and secured a significant portion of the money.

“Barry Hinson is a really good man,” Bell says now. “I know how much he likes the Southern Illinois institution, but we all have responsibilities.”

On March 15 of last year, Hinson received word of his imminent firing. He remembers watching Kansas play its opening round game of the NCAA Tournament on television when his phone rang. It was Kill, mere weeks away from being named athletic director, calling not as a decision maker, but as a friend.

“Have you read the message boards?” Hinson recalls Kill asking.

Hinson replied he never did.

“I think they’re going to fire you tomorrow,” Kill warned. “You need to be prepared for it.”

The call stunned Hinson. He immediately texted Bell, but received no reply. He warned his staff, in case they needed to start looking for new jobs. Later that night, he even called Bill Self, whom he started his career working for as an assistant at Oral Roberts in 1993, to ask for advice.

After a sleepless night, Hinson appeared in Montemagno’s office at 9 the next morning. The chancellor put his arm around Hinson, and let him know he was not being fired. Hinson says he broke down due to relief and fatigue. Then Montemagno gave him an ultimatum: reach the NCAA Tournament or the NIT in 2018-19, or you’re out. Hinson agreed.

Two weeks later, as Hinson was watching Loyola University Chicago’s Final Four game against Michigan, his phone buzzed with bad news once again. Numerous messages poured in, some from numbers he didn’t even have in his contacts, telling him he needed to read a letter that Bell had published.

The “letter” was actually the latest edition of Bell’s newsletter, sent out online every month since he first took over as a way of engaging the portion of the fan base that had fallen away.

In the March 2018 edition, he was transparent about the struggles of the basketball program, using bold font at one point to reinforce that the “sole objective in 2019 is to win a conference championship and advance to the NCAA Tournament.”

The newsletter did not outright announce the ultimatum, but Hinson felt it legitimized the message board opposition and did irreparable damage to recruiting. He reached out to donors to see whose side they were on, and the metaphorical battle lines were drawn.

“The one thing that finally got us was the letter, and we just couldn’t overcome it,” Hinson said. “It divided our campus, it divided our alumni, it divided our booster base, and that’s the worst thing you could ever want as a head coach.”

On April 26, Southern Illinois announced it would not be renewing Bell’s contract, and effective immediately, Kill would take over as acting athletic director. Bell neither confirmed nor denied any connection between the Hinson situation and his employment status.

In June, Montemagno announced that hip and back pain, which he believed to be cysts, was actually cancer, writing on his blog that he was “treating it aggressively and I am confident that I will be around for a long time.”

He died unexpectedly on October 11.

Less than a month later, Southern Illinois tipped off the opening game of its 2018-19 season at Rupp Arena against preseason No. 2 Kentucky. Hinson’s job was on the line.

Southern Illinois v UNLV Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Whether or not Hinson paid attention to the vitriol online, he couldn’t help but notice the signs and hear the jeers this season. “Fire Hinson” could be seen and heard at nearly every game inside SIU Arena. With six seniors and the top four returning scorers from the previous season on the roster, fans expected nothing less than a return to 2007 form.

A win over Saint Louis in December gave reason for optimism. Then Hinson suspended all-conference guard Armon Fletcher indefinitely for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Without the team’s leading scorer and rebounder for six games, the Salukis picked up three straight losses to end non-conference play. At 7-6, they were once again eliminated from at-large contention. Hinson’s last hope was to win the conference’s season-ending tournament in Saint Louis.

Hinson decided before the year not to share his ultimatum with the players, hoping to protect them from undue stress or distraction. But days after a tough mid-February loss at Missouri State, he gathered them all in the film room after a particularly low-energy practice and revealed what was going on.

“Hey guys, this is it,” he remembers saying. “Let’s go out on a bang.”

The message seemed to reinvigorate the team, which finished the season on a three-game winning streak to grab the 3 seed heading into Arch Madness. In the quarterfinals, it drew Northern Iowa, a team the Salukis swept in the regular season.

Northern Iowa came out strong, but SIU fought off a double-digit deficit in the second half to take the lead with 30 seconds remaining on a three-pointer from junior Aaron Cook. UNI struggled to find a shot on the next possession, until freshman AJ Green hit a contested jumper with 12 seconds left to put the Panthers up one. It proved to be the dagger, and after two free throws, the 61-58 defeat was sealed.

Hinson calmly shook hands with UNI coach Ben Jacobson before crossing the court to handle a radio interview. Walking off, he was ambushed by a chorus of boos and screams of “you suck!” from a large contingent of SIU fans in the stands. Hinson paused and glared back at them for a moment, then dropped his head and trudged toward the tunnel. There he found Kill, who he told to join the team in the locker room.

Standing in front of the team, Hinson thanked the players for their effort during the season and let them know he’d be resigning at the postgame press conference.

“I want every one of you to graduate, you underclassmen I don’t want to hear about anybody leaving or transferring, I want everybody to come back,” Hinson remembers saying, adding, “I wanted [Kill] to hear that because I don’t want anybody misquoting me.”

Hinson exited the locker room with Kill and a conference representative, moving down a hallway toward the interview room when they received one final heckle.

“There goes the firing squad,” Hinson recalls hearing from a bystander. Kill admits the comment got him “fired up,” and instructed security to remove the man.

“I thought he was going to fight the guy,” Hinson said.

With that, Hinson stepped on the dais to speak with the media. Even more than his postseason performance, Hinson will forever be remembered for his work behind the microphone. His viral postgame rant in 2013 is perhaps the signature moment of his career. Yet on this night, Hinson describes his press conference persona as “a blubbering baby.” After taking questions from reporters, the players were dismissed and the floor ceded to Hinson for his announcement. With tearful eyes and a shaky voice, he thanked the conference he coached in for 16 years. He revealed the ultimatum, apologized to fans, and repeatedly asserted just how blessed he felt throughout his career.

Back at the hotel, Hinson prepared for the final bus ride with his team. His 8-year-old grandson entered the room, devastated by the news of the resignation because it meant no more trips to Carbondale to splash around in Hinson’s backyard swimming pool. But he offered a solution.

“Hey Pawpaw, I’ve got a job for you,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“You can be my mom’s assistant for my Upward Basketball team.”

His serious tone brought a smile to Hinson’s face. Don’t worry about me, Hinson tells those who ask about his employment status now, I’m going to be my daughter’s assistant for Upward Youth Basketball in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“That was his way of saying it was going to be okay,” Hinson said. “So you know what, I think we’re going to be okay.”

Hinson started his first day of unemployment the same way he started every morning: with a trip to McDonald’s. His order is always the same, and employees call it the “coach burrito” — a breakfast burrito with no onions to accommodate Hinson’s allergy, plus an iced tea. When Hinson approached on this particular morning to ask for the usual, he noticed tears in the cashier’s eyes.

“My God, this is not happening,” Hinson thought, struggling through his order as he too began to tear up.

Breakfast was the first of many places Hinson and his family got emotional as they began to say goodbye to Carbondale. A few days later came a tearful meeting with a realtor as Hinson prepared his house and five acres of land to sell. A list of chores awaits him each day.

“You can only alphabetize the canned goods on the shelf so many times,” he said of his new role as full-time homemaker.

The additional free time allows disappointment to linger, and Hinson admits to still being hurt. But he’s trying his best to focus on his blessings. A man of faith, his wife reminds him, “It doesn’t do us any good to get mad at God.”

“I don’t know if I’m going to coach again,” Hinson said.

He would love to lead another program, but is open to work as the “old guy” assistant to an up-and-coming coach. He’s even considered getting into athletic administration, or as a last resort, television.

Meanwhile, Southern Illinois faces a monumental coaching decision. The institution seeks stability at the top — Hinson worked under three presidents, five chancellors and three different athletic directors during his tenure — and a reversal in enrollment numbers sooner rather than later. There’s no denying the impact the men’s basketball team can have on those trends.

“It’s the brunt force of the university,” Kill said. “We have to win in that sport, there’s no doubt about it.”

All indications point toward Bryan Mullins as the leading candidate for the coaching vacancy. Now the assistant head coach at Loyola, Mullins was a two-time conference defensive player of the year for the Salukis. He has proven himself as a capable developer of talent and a gifted tactician, but more importantly, he was a member of SIU’s Sweet 16 team in 2007. With those ties, he could be the school’s best chance to rekindle excitement within a weary fan base.

“People get a taste of [the Sweet 16], it don’t matter if it’s 10 years ago, 12 years ago or what, that’s what they want here,” Kill said. “Barry has taken it and done a great job, now our vision is one more step further.”