Bibby Moves On After Taking USC Nowhere

By Off the BASN Sports WIre
Updated: December 7, 2004

Henry Bibby

LOS ANGELES — What happened to Henry Bibby at USC is that, for the first time in his basketball life, he stayed in one place too long.

And so did his team.

Fired Monday and replaced by assistant Jim Saia for the interim, Bibby packs his bags again after his 20th stop on the college and professional playing, coaching and scouting circuit since he was an All-American guard on three UCLA national champions in the early 1970s. He had never spent more than three years coaching anywhere, let alone the nine-plus seasons he was an assistant and head coach with the Trojans. He was a wanderer and a mercenary, armed with the bridge burner’s personality, which the Trojans could put up with as long as he was winning or the stakes were low.

In his first full season as the Trojans’ boss, at this time of the year in 1996, Bibby talked about the nomadic career path of someone who would go anywhere to coach hoops, and you could only admire his dedication and root for him to make himself welcome here.

There’d been the time a decade ago when he quit a Venezuelan club team before the end of the season and angry locals tried to refuse him a seat on the flight north. “I got out of the country about 10 hours later,” Bibby said, “after I slipped a guy a $20 bill.”

There’d been the time a decade before that when he and the CBA’s Baltimore Lightning traveled 18 hours by van to a game in Toronto. They arrived at 4 p.m., tipped off at 7:30 and won. Then they traveled 18 hours home, played that night and won. “Sometimes we drove vans with no tags and no insurance,” Bibby said, and if those weren’t exactly desert-warfare hardships, it was a case of a man paying his dues.

There were all those one- or two-season stops with the Lancaster (Pa.) Lightning and the Savannah (Ga.) Spirits, with the Tulsa Fast Breakers and the Jersey Jammers, with Quebradillas of Puerto Rico and the jauntily named Trotamundo of Venezuela, groundwork for the coach who was supposed to take the Trojans places.

“This is where God wanted me to be, to be an educator, to be able to pass on my experiences,” Bibby said all those years ago when his USC career was full of promise. “He just gave me a lot more experiences than most coaches.”

You wanted the world for Henry Bibby, who’d played for John Wooden and fed the ball to Bill Walton in his college playing days in Westwood, who took over at USC after the controversial firing of Charlie Parker in 1996 with a chance to change things.

In ’96, USC football was going into the rough patch that began at the end of John Robinson’s second tenure and lasted until the arrival of Pete Carroll. Trojans basketball could have become the biggest team on campus. In ’96, UCLA basketball was going from a national title to the turmoil of the Jim Harrick firing and the Steve Lavin era. The Trojans could have become the biggest basketball team in town.

But it didn’t happen.

There were moments: Bibby’s first full season, when the Trojans went 17-11 and made the NCAA Tournament with Stais Boseman and Rodrick Rhodes. In 2001 and ’02, when they put together their first back-to-back 20-win seasons since World War II and went to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight led by Sam Clancy. In the ’01 and ’02 drafts, when Brian Scalabrine, Jeff Trepagnier and Clancy each went in the second round.

In the long run, though, the Trojans are right back in the place they always were, coming off two consecutive losing seasons and shivering in the shadows of USC football and UCLA basketball.

Athletic director Mike Garrett’s “gut feeling” that he should fire Bibby now, four games (and two wins) into the season, might seem oddly timed. Actually, it makes all the sense in the world.

Sophomore guard Rodrick Stewart’s decision to quit the team last month and twin brother Lodrick’s subsequent threat to leave were the latest examples of dissension on a team whose rotation also features four seniors and freshmen Gabe Pruitt and Nick Young. One of the two defeats, last week at La Salle, was an embarrassment.

The Trojans football team is No. 1 in the nation and raising the bar for every team in Heritage Hall. The Bruins basketball team is on the way back, although its 4-1 record overstates its progress.

And, making this the moment for Trojans basketball to display some life — instead of the sour face Bibby usually shows the world — USC’s long-awaited campus arena is scheduled for completion in 2006.

The imminent opening of the 10,000-seat arena could help Garrett to lure a coach who brings with him more credentials than luggage tags. Among the names in the wind Monday were Rick Majerus and Pepperdine coach Paul Westphal. Majerus would mean national attention for the program, and former USC All-American Westphal would inspire cardinal-and-gold pride.

Henry Bibby moves on — to whatever will become the 21st stop of a basketball lifer — having coached the Trojans to 131 wins and 111 losses but taken them no closer to that happy place on the horizon.