- The Washington Times - Monday, May 2, 2011

There’s no way of knowing how a new coach will do, though there’s rarely a shortage of snap judgments. Typical reactions range from “perfect fit” and “great move,” to “bad choice” and “what were they thinking?”

Either way, the truth isn’t determined until some time has passed, and the selection of Paul Hewitt will be no exception. But in choosing him to replace Jim Larranaga as men’s basketball coach, George Mason University gave as much ammunition to the thumbs-down crowd as it gave to Hewitt’s supporters.

Credit athletic director Tom O’Connor for landing a coach who reached the national championship game in 2004, produced a winning record at Georgia Tech (190-162) and won 71 percent of his games at Siena.

That would make Hewitt a coup for most mid-major schools.

However, George Mason is one of the nation’s premier Davids, expected to compete in the NCAA tournament against Goliaths from The Six Major Conferences.

And it’s Hewitt’s recent results in the Atlantic Coast Conference that raise some concern.

In 11 years at Georgia Tech, his teams were just 71-104 in conference play. They had a winning record (9-7) just once - seven years ago. They had overall losing records in three of the last four seasons and four of the last six.

The downturn led to Hewitt’s firing and lessens the “wow” in his hiring. He’s simply been associated with too much losing too often to be overly impressive at the moment.

“I didn’t do a good job of managing our roster,” he said in a phone interview after Monday’s news conference, when he was supposed to be in St. Martin with his wife on a long-planned trip to celebrate their anniversary. “We recruited well, but I didn’t do a good job of looking ahead and planning ahead for departures. We recruited better players in the last six years than the first five years but didn’t have much to show for it. We fell short, and that falls on me.”

It’s not easy to win in the ACC, where it seems like Duke and North Carolina have standing reservations for the top two spots each year. And you can’t deny Hewitt’s ability to recruit, having lured several future NBA players including lottery picks Derrick Favors, Thaddeus Young and Chris Bosh.

But none of that means Hewitt will do as well as Larranaga, who posted 13 consecutive winning seasons and won at least 22 games in three of his last four campaigns before leaving for Miami. Hewitt’s previous success at this level was short-lived (three seasons at Siena) and a while ago (1997-2000).

Can a coach who won inconsistently in the ACC become a consistent winner in the Colonial Athletic Association?

“One thing I feel confident about is I know how to win,” he said. “I recognize that I’m very fortunate to be given this opportunity.”

Fortunate to be re-hired so quickly and fortunate to land at George Mason, where the Patriots return four starters and several key reserves from a team that won 27 games. In a sense, the expectations and pressure to win in Fairfax will exceed what he felt in Atlanta.

“That’s actually one of the reasons this job was really enticing,” he said. “You have a veteran group coming back. I told the guys this is your team and I’m going to put my stamp on it, but you have to keep the culture you have.”

He’ll have to re-familiarize himself with a culture of sustained success and not bring the wild swings from Georgia Tech, which posted win totals of 13, 23, 12, 15, 20, 11 and 20 the past seven seasons.

This isn’t to suggest that Hewitt can’t or won’t maintain the standard Larranaga established. Notwithstanding recent struggles, his overall resume is impressive enough.

But the Final Four trip doesn’t automatically make Hewitt more impressive than, say, a mid-major coach who has won a lot this decade, or an assistant at a major program that’s been a consistent winner. Such candidates could’ve been fine successors, too - arguably better in some cases.

I know what O’Connor was thinking. He made a safe choice. I’m just not sure yet whether it was a great choice.

That’s no indictment of Hewitt, though.

We never know how these hires will work out until after the fact.

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