Perhaps it sounds trivial in the process of deciding to fire a men’s basketball coach, but Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh kept thinking about the players telling him they didn’t have their own version of “Oh Che Lele.”
That’s the celebratory chant Air Force football does in the locker room after wins. The Falcons hockey team has its own chant after wins. Air Force basketball had nothing like it.
That’s not the reason Air Force fired coach Jeff Reynolds on Wednesday, replacing him with assistant Dave Pilipovich on an interim basis. But Mueh saw they weren’t enjoying basketball under Reynolds anymore.
A six-game losing streak, punctuated by the worst home loss in program history against New Mexico on Jan. 31 and a listless performance Saturday at Colorado State, was a red flag.
Mueh asked the players to meet with him. The players made it clear Reynolds’ intense style wasn’t sitting well with them.
“Absolutely,” senior Taylor Stewart said. “We lost the fun and the joy, and I don’t think any of us have ever experienced that.”
“We spoke freely about where the program was at,” forward Mike Fitzgerald said about the meeting with Mueh. “It was ultimately his decision. I think we thought there needed to be a change, but it was up to him.”
The timing of the move, with seven regular-season games left, was unusual. Mueh said he didn’t want the players to joylessly play out the rest of the season. When Mueh met with the team and announced the move, Mueh described the players’ mood as “elation.”
“Smiles,” Mueh said. “For the first time in months I saw them smile. Obviously they agreed with my decision. Obviously they were frustrated. I know Jeff Reynolds was frustrated. He tried his darnedest to make this work. But it wasn’t working.”
Reynolds’ record ultimately played the biggest role in the move, although Mueh didn’t make that the focus – not in his press conference and not when he met with Reynolds on Wednesday morning. Reynolds was 63-82 in four-plus seasons. He was 11-10 this year but had Air Force won some close games, especially a disappointing overtime loss Jan. 28 against UNLV, which was ranked 12th in the country at the time, it’s hard to believe Reynolds would have been fired.
“I think what really wore on us was losing,” guard Michael Lyons said.
Reynolds was told he would be let go by senior associate athletic directory Jim Trego, his immediate supervisor, and vice director of athletics Col. William Walker in a meeting at about 8:45 a.m. Mueh met with him shortly after.
“He felt like I had lost the team and felt the kids weren’t having fun,” Reynolds said in a brief phone interview, referring to Mueh. “I don’t agree with that.”
Reynolds didn’t want to comment further, aside from a statement he released through the academy. Reynolds had two years left on his contract, and his buyout will be about $800,000, although a timetable for that payment hasn’t been determined.
Pilipovich will be given the chance to win the job permanently over the rest of the season. If he isn’t the answer, Denver assistant A.J. Kuhle, a former Air Force player, would likely be a top candidate. SMU assistant Larry Mangino and Columbia head coach Kyle Smith – both former Falcons assistants – could be in the mix.
Mueh will make that decision after the season, but he felt a change was needed now.
“This wasn’t about the last two games,” Mueh said. “This was about the last couple years.”
This is the statement released by the academy, from former Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds:
“Janet and I would like to thank all the staff and their families, the players and their families and fans for the past four and one-half seasons. We appreciated the opportunity and everyone’s support to coach at such a great institution, the Air Force Academy. While I am very saddened and disappointed with the decision, I do think our staff did many good things. I want to thank Dr. Mueh and the leadership at the Academy for the opportunity. I wish the program much success.”