Amid the excitement of historic NCAA Tournament runs for Oregon’s basketball teams, you might have missed the start of the Ducks’ beach volleyball season. And also the middle. And also the fact that Oregon has a beach volleyball team, now coached by 32-year-old Matt Ulmer.
One gets the impression that Oregon might prefer it that way. No administrator in a position of authority has commented since Oregon forced out longtime volleyball coach Jim Moore and his wife, assistant Stacy Metro, a month ago. No players have been available for interviews.
When Ulmer finally met with reporters last week, he was uncomfortable discussing anything related to his hiring, Moore’s departure, team dynamics or concerns about Moore’s coaching style — in other words, any topic that might shed light on the situation.
I can’t say for sure that Oregon timed Moore’s ouster to coincide with the start of March Madness, when fans and media would be preoccupied with basketball. But if that was the plan, it worked splendidly. That’s how the school could force out a successful coach and, four weeks later, still be avoiding the basic question of what it was doing and why.
The only explanation was a vaguely worded statement announcing Moore’s retirement, effective May 15. “Coach Moore and the UO have come to realize that his coaching style is mismatched with the standards of the University of Oregon athletic department,” it read in part. “He has acknowledged that his coaching style may have been viewed negatively by some student-athletes and, for that, he is sorry.”
Both sides can cite non-disclosure agreements and negotiated settlements in refusing to provide more substantive answers, the usual protocol in these situations. Just because no one is talking doesn’t mean the questions go away. Among them:
Moore coached 12 seasons at Oregon, took the Ducks to 10 NCAA Tournaments and coached for a national title in 2012. At what point, exactly, did his style become mismatched with Oregon’s standards?
If players were being mistreated in practice, what role did Ulmer have? He was the team’s associate head coach. He spent three seasons at Moore’s side. Maybe he was blameless in all of this, but it’s fair to ask what he saw and what he did about it.
Is Ulmer getting a fair chance to succeed? Oregon did him no favors by sticking him in front of the cameras last week, forcing him to handle questions best directed at an administrator. And if Oregon believes strongly that he’s the right person for the job, why is he working on a one-year contract?
Ulmer was in a tough situation last week, but some of his answers strained believability. He said he had no discussions with Oregon administrators about the direction of the program before he was offered the head coach position. He also said it “wasn’t really (his) role” to know about any concerns players had about the way they were being treated.
“I would say that I’ve always been supportive of Oregon volleyball,” he said.
In other words: I’m not a whistleblower. I didn’t undermine my boss. All of this happened above my head.
Maybe that’s true, but it still leaves the question of why. Moore was a quirky guy, intense and certainly demanding. Coaching with his wife created a dynamic that some schools might find uncomfortable.
He also won a lot — Moore is Oregon’s career leader in coaching victories — and had the respect of former players, 17 of whom signed a letter of support sent to Oregon president Michael Schill.
Moore wasn’t one to sit quietly if he felt his program was getting shortchanged, which might not have helped his cause. When it came to beach volleyball, there were valid reasons to gripe.
Oregon added the sport in 2014, citing a commitment to Title IX and the desire to expand opportunities for female athletes. Four years in, there’s little evidence that Oregon cares about the program.
According to information submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, Oregon spent $76,341 on beach volleyball in 2016, by far the smallest expenditure for any varsity sport. The combined recruiting and marketing expenditures were zero. The team awards no scholarships, has no full-time coaches and practices on the sand courts at South Eugene High. If Oregon wants the program to succeed, how about giving the Ducks their own practice space?
“I think we need indoor courts,” Ulmer said. “My first year we could go outside most (days) after winter, but this season, we’ve only had 10 practices and we’re almost done with our season.”
Beach volleyball is clearly an afterthought compared with the indoor version, which is itself somewhere down the hierarchy of Oregon sports. Moore never achieved his goal of creating a self-sustaining, nationally prominent program on par with Nebraska’s, but he did succeed in carving out a niche, drawing 3,000-plus for big matches at Matthew Knight Arena and taking the Ducks to the postseason almost every year.
We’ll see if that’s something Oregon can sustain now that Moore is gone. So far, the news isn’t great; the beach volleyball team finished its regular season 2-7, beating only Sacramento State.
You know, just in case you missed it.
Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG .