Just six games into the Syracuse Orange women’s basketball season, it seemed like an open and shut case. Acting head coach Vonn Read would stay on for the remainder of the season and be replaced by a new, permanent leader.
But now, after Syracuse’s surprising success over the last month, the acting head coach’s future isn’t so cut and dry.
Read was appointed acting head coach on August 4, just three months ahead of the 2021-22 season. The program was in turmoil after losing a mind-boggling 11 players to the transfer portal in the weeks after the 2020-21 season came to an end. Then, in late June, a damning story from The Athletic shed light on why those players left: shockingly rude, egocentric, and inappropriate behavior from then-head coach Quentin Hillsman.
On August 2, Hillsman resigned after a 15-year stint running the program. His replacement, Read, had been named the associate head coach in 2013 on the staff since the 2011-12 season. There is little doubt that he had a front-row seat to much of the abuse throughout the nine years where he and Hillsman coached together.
Still, there was nowhere else to go. It was too close to the upcoming season to bring in an entirely new coaching staff. It seemed like Read would serve as a sort of lame-duck coach with a roster cobbled together with transfers and very few expectations. After a winless trip to the Bahamas, which included a loss to Buffalo, coached by former Orange standout Felisha Legette-Jack, the team could have quit on its coach. At 2-4, Syracuse and Read looked destined to take their lumps with the goal of merely finishing the season.
Instead, they haven’t lost since.
The Orange are in the midst of a six-game winning streak, which includes a win against No. 18 Ohio State and a 40-point shellacking of ACC foe Clemson.
Syracuse currently sits in the First Four Out of ESPN’s latest bracketology, in a position where not even its most optimistic fans saw them being after the Bahamas. If the Orange continue to win against ACC competition, they could, against all odds, find themselves in the Field of 68.
But winning also creates a problem for John Wildhack: What do you do with Read? He was brought in to stem the tide, hence the “acting head coach” title. At first, it seems simple. If he continues to win, make him the permanent head coach.
Yet it’s not that simple. Winning isn’t everything. Hillsman was the winningest coach in women’s program history, but he built a toxic culture. Read, simply by association, is a part of that culture. Now, no one except the players and coaches knows what happens in the locker room, but this team had a chance to quit on their coach. Instead, they haven’t lost in a month.
The scars of the Hillsman era still cut deep. How will Read sell the program and himself to recruits that know he was part of Hillsman’s staff for such a long time? If Syracuse does decide to hire him on a full-time, does that mean they are downplaying those events? Appearances-wise, that’s sort of what it implies.
Going in a different direction could mean starting from scratch for a second straight season. It has the chance of undoing Read’s recruiting work (if and where applicable) and could send the existing roster scrambling toward the transfer portal.
All of this makes for a fascinating next couple of months. The Syracuse athletic department wants its teams to be successful, they want to win. But with every victory the Orange tacks on in ACC play, the waters get murkier. Does Wildhack really want to hang onto Read? Probably not. But if Syracuse defies expectations and keeps winning, what choice does he have here, especially as it pertains to the current roster?
Indeed, it’s almost a no-win situation. Fair or unfair, Read is a figurehead of the Hillsman years, but hiring someone new will likely lead to more upheaval in the short term. It’s a decision that might give Wildhack some sleepless nights, regardless of which way he plays this.