Houston Fancher’s first day as the Charlotte 49ers’ interim men’s basketball coach was spent in meetings, on the telephone and – most importantly – preparing his team for a game Monday at East Carolina.
Fancher was promoted Thursday after former coach Mark Price was fired. Price was just beginning his third season at Charlotte, but the direction the 3-6 start was taking the program was enough for him to be dismissed by athletics director Judy Rose.
This is somewhat familiar territory for Fancher, a former Appalachian State head coach. Fancher was Tennessee’s video scouting coordinator when he was asked to serve as Tennessee’s interim head coach when Bruce Pearl was fired after the 2011 season.
Fancher never coached a game for the Volunteers, who soon hired Cuonzo Martin to replace Pearl. And Fancher, 51, couldn’t avoid a sense of déjà vu Thursday morning when he was summoned to Rose’s office to hear her surprising news.
Fancher spoke with the Observer’s David Scott on Friday about his reaction to Price’s firing, and what his plans are for his new team, which has lost four games in a row:
Q. Can you describe what Thursday was like for you?
A. I was a little bit shocked, with the quickness with which it happened. I was brought upstairs to meet with the administration and they said changes were being made. They asked me if I wanted to take over the program in the interim. I sat there, and thought, ‘Man, this isn’t the first time I’ve been in this situation,’ from my time at Tennessee.
But I agreed to do it out of respect to the kids and the program. Mark was released after that and then it was a whirlwind.
Mark told the team what happened first; we weren’t in there. But then we went in and talked to them and offered them our reassurances. They voiced their opinions and talked. We had to comfort some of them. Then there were parents and recruits for us to call. We wanted to explain to them first, so they didn’t hear from anybody else. We wanted to get ahead of that.
We practiced for a couple of hours (Thursday) night and I thought it went very well. There was a lot of energy.
Q. Was there any part of you that didn’t want to accept the job, and was there any sense of awkwardness for you in taking it?
A. Yes, because of my loyalty to Mark. I came in with him to help build the program and then he’s gone so suddenly. But it had to be a spur-of-the-moment decision for me. I hope everybody understands that somebody needed to be here for the team, for these kids. I decided to do it for the players. The attention needs to be turned toward them, not me getting a job.
Q. Did you have any idea that Price’s job might be in danger?
A. No. But we weren’t playing well. Nobody was happy. I wasn’t happy. The players weren’t happy. We were focused on trying to find ways to improve it. But as a coach, you don’t spend time worrying about your job. Your next thought is how to improve the team. You spend more energy on that than your job security.
Q. How did the players take the news?
A. This is a difficult time and they’ve never been through something like this. So everybody on this staff is trying to breathe some life back into these guys. It was a shock for them. They’re kids, but what I’ve learned from my own kids is that kids are resilient. There are going to be some lingering emotions that are there. But they’ve got a good attitude and good energy. It’s incumbent on them to turn this around and we’re all working through this the best we can.
Q. What was Judy Rose’s message to you?
A. It was very short and direct. She didn’t go into much detail, but she said she wasn’t happy with how we were playing. She said she wanted me to try and see if we could get the team playing better, better on defense, general things. Nothing specific was laid out or mandated. Just coach the team the best you can with your staff.
Q. Do you understand what Rose meant when she said Price had “lost the team?”
A. I don’t think that’s a question I can answer. Those were her thoughts, her assessment.
Q. What will a Houston Fancher-coached team look like at Charlotte?
A. I’m not going to come down and sprinkle any magic dust and fix things right away. But we’ve got to play with more energy and get off to better starts. We’ve got to have better confidence and play through adversity better. I know that sounds like coach-speak, but we’ve got to get better with those things.
They’ve got to start feeling good about playing again. For whatever reason, they weren’t feeling good about playing. They’d lost their energy. They were getting tired of always having to fight from behind. We need to get above and beyond that. That falls back on all of us.
Q. Charlotte has signed three recruits for next season -- guards Cooper Robb and Isaiah Bigelow and forward Dravon Mangum. What have you told these kids and any others you might still be recruiting, since there is no guarantee you will be there next season, much less Price?
A. The thing is, we only have one (contributing) senior. So we don’t have to sign anybody else in the next class if we don’t choose to. But we got a great response from them. We explained what’s happened. Right now they’re steadfast. A big reason they’re coming here is because of Charlotte, not who the coach might or might not be.
Q. Rose said you will coach through the end of the season and then be evaluated. Do you want the 49ers job permanently?
A. We’re going to coach like it’s our job right now and that’s all. We’re going to coach to win the next game and to make these kids better. I know that sounds blowoff-ish, but I sincerely want to do what’s best for these kids right now.
We’ve got a great staff in place – that Mark put in place. I’m confident in all of us and it’s going to be seamless in that way.
I still hurt in my heart for Mark. I’m also concerned in my heart for our players, the coaching staff and our fan base. We’re going to work hard to repair this.