Humanity on the Hot Seat
Part I: Moving on from an idea is one thing; getting rid of a person is something else
“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.” - William Munny (Unforgiven)
The first day after the NFL regular season ends isn’t a good day to be the coach of a bad football team. “Black Monday” traditionally involves a handful of coaches joining the unemployment line. This year it was Lovie Smith (Houston) and Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona) receiving their walking papers. Three other coaches were already let go during the season.
As I watched the news roll in on Monday, I was struck by a memory of a recent NFL firing. It was Dec. 2, 2018 and the Valparaiso men’s basketball team had just knocked off UC-Riverside at the Athletics-Recreation Center. I had finished up the postgame press conference when my phone started blowing up with text messages.
The Green Bay Packers had fired Mike McCarthy. Finally.
I was thrilled. I had been calling for McCarthy’s head for weeks, if not years. I thought he was misusing his roster. I thought his message had gone stale. Honestly, I just wanted a change.
When you’re a reporter and you hear a bombshell news report, you tell someone. It’s what we do. I bounded off into the arena looking for anyone to share the news that McCarthy had finally gotten the ax. Who I ran into changed my entire perspective that day.
Valparaiso men’s basketball coach Matt Lottich and his wife, Kylan, were sitting in the arena getting ready to watch the Valpo women’s basketball game. Matt and I have always had a playful banter when it comes to the NFL. He’s a Chicago Bears fan and I’m a fan of the Chicago Bears owner, Aaron Rodgers. I gleefully shared the news that McCarthy had been fired.
I don’t remember Matt’s reaction, but I certainly remember Kylan’s. As I was spouting off how happy I was for McCarthy to get kicked to the curb, Kylan reminded me that her father had been a longtime coach in the NFL. She shared with me how gutting it is for a family when a coach gets fired. How lives are upended and worlds are rocked. The sadness and the pain. We ended up having a deep conversation that day and I came away from the interaction a changed person.
Was I still happy that McCarthy was no longer the coach of the Packers? Yes. Did I feel small for cheering on the demise of another person? Absolutely. Plenty of my fellow Green Bay fans still curse the ground that McCarthy walks on. As the playoffs approach, I find myself cheering him on in Dallas. Not because he won the Packers a Super Bowl, but because I was reminded on Dec. 2, 2018 that Mike McCarthy is a human with a family.
I can’t pinpoint the first time an actual human told me that Valparaiso should move on from Matt Lottich.
There’s been a handful of Twitter accounts using the hashtag #FireLottich dating back to early 2019. With the rare exception, most of these tweets have been posted anonymously. No real picture. No real name. Just real vitriol. Essentially the equivalent of shooting someone in the back.
For that reason, I’ve always tuned out the noise and I’ve been buried because of it. Accused of protecting Lottich. Accused of carrying his water. Accused of making excuses for every loss. Maybe there’s some truth to that last one, but I’d probably word it a little differently. I’m an optimist by nature - someone that truly believes you only lose if you don’t learn anything. So with each passing loss, and there have been 108 of them dating back to 2016, 111 if you count the exhibition losses, I’ve always tried to find the silver linings.
It’s been getting harder and harder.
I can’t pinpoint the first time an actual human told me that Valparaiso should move on from Matt Lottich, but it’s happening all the time now.
The chorus has grown louder and louder as this season has gone on. Down 26 in the first half at Toledo. Lose to Chicago State. Barely beat Incarnate Word. Blown out by 30 against Samford. Lose seven straight to start Valley play. Routinely getting obliterated on national television.
Every loss has brought on more texts and phone calls. At first it was only the diehard fans. Then it was the casual fans. Now I’m getting messages from people I haven’t heard from in years. They all want to know the same thing. When is Valpo going to make a move?
A lot of these messages have included pleas and requests for me to bury Lottich in the press. To put him on the hot seat, as CoachesDatabase.com has done. To demand his firing. That’s granting a lot of power to someone who never played a minute of competitive basketball beyond eighth grade.
The truth is, it’s not my job to fire Matt Lottich. I may have a Masters degree in Sports Administration, but I don’t wield that kind of power. That decision comes from maybe one or two people in Valparaiso’s administration and I’m not one of them. I’m a reporter and a storyteller; not an executioner.
What I can report is the story isn’t going well right now. Attendance has plummeted. The move to the Valley has appeared underfunded and possibly misguided. Apathy has set in across a once-proud Valparaiso fan base. Perhaps the most damning comment I heard last week came from a Region resident who told me “It’s not that I’m angry, it’s that I just don’t care anymore.” That’s not particularly reassuring to someone who is running a subscription-based site that generates money only if people care.
While I haven’t felt the apathy, I’ve certainly felt the anger. Again, and this may not be wholly professional, but I now have a vested interest in Valparaiso doing well. The better the Beacons perform on the court, the more subscribers will come through the door. That statement doesn’t just apply to The Victory Bell, but the school as a whole.
There have been moments this year when I’ve been breathing fire waiting to interview Lottich after a game. Chicago State sticks out in my mind. I was pacing outside the locker room in the Dickens Center waiting for my chance at a pound of flesh.
The blessing of the reporter is having the access to coaches and players after their highest highs and lowest lows. It’s also the curse.
Mike McCarthy was never a person to me. He was always an idea because I never had that access. Sure, I saw him on the sidelines and I watched his press conferences, but he was never a living, breathing person.
Lottich came out of the locker room at Chicago State and this is where my humanity kicked in. This is when Lottich became a living, breathing person. When I could see the sadness in his eyes and hear the pain in his voice. It was the moment when I knew exactly what Kylan was talking about on Dec. 2, 2018.
It’s Jan. 9, 2023 and I’m on my way to Matt Lottich’s office.
The Beacons are two days removed from another abysmal defeat in the Missouri Valley Conference. In the aftermath of the Bradley loss, a thread on a Valparaiso message board has popped up with the title “Fire Lottich Immediately.” There are 90 replies.
I’ve had this column sitting in my drafts for three weeks, trying to figure out how to wrap it up. I decide to go straight to the source. It might be the most uncomfortable conversation I’ll ever have with a coach. I’m not looking forward to having it, but I’ve got a job to do. He might not like some of the questions, but he’s got a job to do as well.
How is Lottich handling the outside criticism? Is he aware of the vitriol? What drives the seventh-year coach to keep at it when the walls are closing in? Does he even feel the walls are closing in? Is there hope left in the 2022-23 basketball season?
Part II of Humanity on the Hot Seat will run on Friday morning and will only be available to paid subscribers.
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The biggest unfairness is comparing Matt's stats to those of the Drews: people do not realize that competition in the Valley is w-a-y beyond that in the Mid-Con or Horizon. And it looks to me like the complainers are mainly guys too young to remember when Homer arrived and had three of his first four seasons with 4 and 5 wins. (I was there 🤪) Also, it seems that today's players are together with one another and with the coaching staff—it takes a special head coach to develop that kind of unity in adversity, right? So I hope he stays for a good while.
I went to the Oakland-Green Bay game on New Year's Eve and got a chance to say hi to Kampe. He asked me, "What's up with Valpo?" It was a question tinged with concern rather than scorn or critique.
For my part, I assume there will come a point soon where he will feel like it's time to move on because he's tired of trying to figure out what's going wrong. I refuse to sign up for the FireLottich brigade, but I can tell that there's a systemic problem somewhere. I tend to think Valpo is handicapped in some ways.. All schools in the conference are, but when the inequalities across Division 1 handicaps mid-majors, it means that all teams have a smaller margin for error. The extra stuff that even power conference schools experience don't even out across the board. Even the margin for error does not even out for all teams. I recognize that coaches need to be able to guide their student-athletes through these bumps in the road, I'm just not knowledgeable enough to render strong opinions on when a coach is not doing his job.