For decades, Brandon University Bobcats basketball shared spring headlines with the exploits of the Brandon Wheat Kings.
The Wheat Kings have certainly done their part to stay in the spotlight -- currently in the WHL playoffs for the 18th time in the past 19 years -- but BU's basketball programs have hit a new low.
While BU's young volleyball teams have enjoyed superb success -- coach Russ Paddock's men's team finished second in the country, while Lee Carter's women's squad made the playoffs for the fourth time in six years -- basketball at BU is in crisis mode.
Brandon's men's team posted its worst record in more than 30 years, while the women's program was nothing short of a disaster, going 0-24. It's a situation that BU athletic director Kirk De Fazio is determined to address.
"We want to elevate the program back to the status that basketball had before," he says.
"We know what volleyball has done ... Obviously the challenge here at Brandon is to bring basketball up to another level."
It could be a long road back.
Just three years removed from going 20-2 in the always competitive Canada West conference, Bobcats men's basketball bottomed out to a dismal 4-20 record in the first season under new head coach Gil Cheung. After a decent4-6 start to the season, the Bobcats lost their last 14 games and posted their worst record in more than 30 years.
Cheung certainly has some major recruiting work to do in the off-season, going into the second year of his two-year contract as BU head coach.
But Cheung does get the benefit of the doubt considering he inherited the bulk of the Bobcats' roster from previous coach Keith Vassell and was also blindsided by the departure of his starting point guard just a month before school started.
However, with a full season now under his belt and a recruiting class to call his own, expectations will be significantly higher for Cheung in Year 2.
As for the BU women's program, Jaime Taggart's five-year stint as head coach has been a huge disappointment. Since being hired in the summer of 2006, Taggart has posted an overall record of only 6-84, including going winless in her first four games this season before taking a medical leave of absence. While she wasn't running the bench, she is responsible for recruiting every player on this year's team, which went 0-24 and set dubious records for its worst ever loss in Canada West (106-37 to Regina) and for its lowest scoring output (23 points in an 83-23 shellacking by UBC).
Taggart, who is on maternity leave, is apparently applying for tenure at BU, with her five-year contract expiring and her future as the Bobcats' coach unclear. While she might be an excellent educator -- Taggart holds a master's degree -- her record as a coach and recruiter has earned a failing grade.
When Crocus Plains high school star Tia Coulter announced last week she was committing to the University of Winnipeg, the Bobcats missed the boat on yet another local impact player. A starter at forward since she was in Grade 9 and the daughter of former Bobcat stars Grant and Barb Coulter, BU had four years to recruit her and should have been regularly in touch with the family. Instead, she felt more wanted at Winnipeg, or Victoria, for that matter.
And she isn't the first Plainsmen graduate to get away.
Crocus has made four Final Fours in the past four years -- winning one provincial title -- and yet there isn't a single Plainsmen player on the Bobcats' roster. There were two Neelin products and one Vincent Massey grad on this year's team, but at least five former Crocus kids -- the likes of Coulter, Danielle DeGagne, Samantha Lewis, Lizzy Simons and Josie DeGagne -- are expected to play at either the university or college level this year, but none of them for BU.
Recruiting is half the battle and importing out-of-town impact players is always key in the ultra-competitive Canada West conference. But a local talent base can provide a solid foundation to build on and more than one local coach has wondered why Taggart hasn't tried harder to attract the top local kids.
"You have to want to recruit and you have to go after the kids in your own back yard," said one Brandon coach.
It's a feeling De Fazio shares.
"There's good people in this town coaching good basketball ... so logic dictates that (Crocus Plains) is a direct pipeline of kids to our school," he said.
Hopefully BU's next coach will take that advice to heart.
REMEMBERING: Hamiota's Dallas Strachan, 50, passed away this week after a lengthy illness. Strachan was a former member of Brandon's ACC hockey team and a longtime local senior hockey player and high school coach. Our thoughts are with his family.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition April 1, 2011 B1