SAN DIEGO — Travis Ford glanced up at the scoreboard as the final seconds ticked off it Friday afternoon, puffing his cheeks slightly and raising his eyebrows a bit.
A look of exasperation.
Those are common among Oklahoma State types right now. Losing to Gonzaga on Friday ended OSU’s season, Ford’s sixth in Stillwater, and during that stretch, the Cowboys have been to the NCAA Tournament four times but have won just one game. Failing to win even one tournament game in a season that started with so much promise will reignite a big question.
Is the program heading in the right direction?
OSU athletic director Mike Holder must decide whether it’s time to make a coaching change in the coming days. This season could definitely be used as Exhibit 1 against Ford, but ironically, it could also be used in the argument for him.
Yes, this season fell well short of the Big 12 title and Final Four run that was predicted. It was erratic. It was disappointing. It was frustrating. But like it or not, Travis Ford haters, it was also a triumph for this team to simply make the NCAA Tournament after all the unexpected issues that befell this team.
Michael Cobbins’ injury. Stevie Clark’s problems. Marcus Smart’s suspension.
None of those things were Ford’s fault. Oh, some might say Ford recruited Clark or enabled Smart, so those are on him, too. But really, at the start of the season, who would’ve thought Clark would be arrested on a complaint of “outraging public decency” and Smart would shove a fan at Texas Tech? No one saw those things coming. Can’t really pin those on Ford.
Any one of those three issues with Cobbins, Clark and Smart could’ve crippled the Cowboys. Could’ve left the season in the tank. Could’ve kept OSU out of the NCAA Tournament.
“A lot of my mentors and people who I trust in this business kind of said that,” Ford said as he stood against a whitewashed cinderblock wall down the hall from the Cowboy locker room Friday afternoon. “What we went through is not easy. Some teams never recover from it. Ever.”
When the Cowboys went to Texas the game after Smart was suspended and got drilled by the Longhorns, you could see a season on the brink. But after that night, OSU was never blown out again. It was in every game it played the rest of the season, putting together that four-game spurt after Smart’s return and muscling its way into the NCAA Tournament.
“There were so many things that we did as a team that was amongst our family that we were doing to try to keep things together and battle,” Ford said. “People were criticizing me.”
He shook his head.
“They had no idea what we were doing, no clue what we were doing. I don’t always tell of things that we do. I don’t get into all that. But we did so many things to try to keep this team together.
“They responded. They kept believing. When it was four losses, five losses, in that locker room we never acted like it. We tried to keep them up, and they just kept responding. They kept looking at us — ‘OK. All right.’ That part, I’m so proud of them.”
Ford’s right, you know. We often don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, how fragile a team’s psyche might be, what buttons a coaching staff might be pushing.
Heck, Ford and Co. were still pushing them Friday against Gonzaga. The Cowboys came out slow. Again. They had foul trouble. Again. Kind of hard to follow an aggressive, attacking game plan with those two issues. But Ford got his guys going.
They were in it to the end.
Listen, I’m not here to defend all of Ford’s in-game decisions. Not Friday. Not throughout the season. His shortcomings in that area are well-documented. But I am here to say that Ford needs to get some credit for what he does well. Recruit. Develop. Motivate.
“When I look back, I’m always going to be proud, proud to see the progress I’ve made in four years,” senior Markel Brown said. “Helluva coaching staff. I mean, I love those guys. They did a heckuva job with this ball club, even when we had adversity. They had it also.”
Everyone fought through.
“It obviously didn’t go as planned; I’ll be the first to say that,” Ford said. “But that’s life. I’m proud of some of the things that we were able to do because it’s not easy.”
Will the things that these Cowboys did be enough for Ford to keep his job?
It should be, but only time will tell if this season counts for or against Ford.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.