Each loss makes it tougher and tougher for Air Force Academy Athletic Director Hans Mueh to explain to a growing number of critics why men’s basketball coach Jeff Reynolds should return next season.
Last year, in his second season as head coach, Reynolds’ team didn’t win a regular season conference game, although Air Force did beat Colorado State in the play-in game of the Mountain West Conference tournament. This season hasn’t gone much better. Halfway through the conference schedule, the Falcons have just one win — over equally awful Wyoming.
Mueh has heard the calls for a new coach. After Action wrote in its season preview that if the losing continued Mueh would be justified in relieving Reynolds of his duties. However, Mueh told the Denver Post in January he still supports Reynolds and thinks he is guiding the program in the right direction.
“People send me nasty-grams, saying I should fire the coach,” Mueh told the Post. “This is his third season. He had a winning season his first year. I’m probably more patient than some of our fans. But most of our fans still are with us.”
Some fans are, but many are leaving in droves as the losing continues. Over the past three years, average attendance has dropped from 5,100, when a postseason trip to the NIT or NCAA Tournament was a regular occurrence, to 2,800.
And that’s just it. It’s not like Reynolds took over a rebuilding project in Colorado Springs. He took over a program that had made the NIT once and the NCAA Tournament twice in the four seasons before he got the head job. He should know: He was an assistant at Air Force for two of those years.
It made sense at the time to promote from within, since coaching a service academy team is such a unique challenge and the team had so much recent success. The Falcons, though, are just 35-49 overall and 9-33 in conference play since Reynolds was promoted.
Mueh points to the team’s 16-14 record in Reynolds’ first year as a positive sign, but the team has since fallen off the cliff. The Falcons have won just one Mountain West regular season game in two seasons. It’s like watching someone drive down the wrong side of the highway and the guy in the passenger seat just nodding to the other cars blaring their horns at him to turn around.
Reynolds and Mueh pointed to this year as one that would prove to antsy alums the program is turning around. But the team has been blitzed by a litany of injuries to key players. Concussions — a fairly uncommon injury for basketball — have plagued the Falcons all year.
Injuries or not, the losing has led Colorado Springs Gazette columnist David Ramsey to blame Reynolds for watching over the destruction of a once successful program.
“Reynolds is nearing the end of his third season as head coach, and I’m still waiting to see his positive imprint on the program. So far, almost everything I see is regression,” Ramsey writes.
An official from another team who scouted the Falcons this year agreed with Ramsey’s assertions that Reynolds has failed to properly teach the complex Princeton offense, which Reynolds’ two predecessors also used to make up for talent gaps on the roster.
“The players don’t run it nearly as well or as disciplined as they used to and that has to be blamed on coaching,” said the official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivities of criticizing another coach.
Air Force has set a high bar for its basketball program, much higher than its fellow service academies who play in the far less competitive Patriot League (compared to the Mountain West). Allowing the program to fall from the peaks it had reached under former coaches Jeff Scott and Jeff Bzdelik is a dangerous precedent to set.
The team could bounce back once it gets healthy and once a freshman class, which was ranked 61st nationally by recruiting analysts, hits its stride. But another one- or two-win conference season should be unacceptable for the Falcons, who used to be in the discussion for conference championships.