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So, why did UCO fire wrestling coach David James?

It was my privilege and honor to write about David James for Friday's Oklahoman.

You can read that column here, but in a nutshell, I had the chance to tell the story of a man who did his job so well that he became intertwined with what he had built. He was the wrestling coach at Central State, which became Central Oklahoma, for 34 years, and along the way, David James became UCO wrestling and UCO wrestling became David James.

Last month, UCO athletic director Joe Muller fired James.

It was a kick in the gut to many, and I heard from some of those folks after my column ran. Some wanted to say what a great coach DJ, as he was known, was to them. But others had a question.

Why?

Trying to answer why Muller fired James wasn't the goal of my column. I really wanted to celebrate the legacy of this coach, and frankly, he wouldn't have agreed to talk to me, the first time he talked to any media since his firing, if the story was going to be all about the firing.

And yet, the question of why is a legitimate one.

Near as I can tell, Muller's decision was based largely on the wrestling program's decline in recent years. Now, when I say decline, I feel like that needs to be clarified. This was a decline that still included individual national championships. This is a decline that still had wrestlers graduating and keeping their noses clean.

The drop off was really all about team titles.

UCO hasn't won a national team title since 2007, something Muller pointed out to the current wrestlers when he addressed the team after he fired James. That is an eternity for this program. 

It's a high standard that James himself created. He took over the program in 1982, and since it had been restarted in 1973, it had won several NAIA titles. But under James, the success skyrocketed. Five NAIA titles, then when Central State moved to NCAA Division II, seven more titles in rapid succession.

The success was impressive.

But it has slowed in recent years.

I had one former wrestler tell me that he wondered whether James' big heart had led him to recruit wrestlers and hire coaches who weren't necessarily the best options. James had trouble saying no to people; he wanted to help everyone. So, even if there was a better option to be had, he might say yes to someone who he liked or saw a chance to help.

I can see how that might erode the success, but I have a hard time finding fault with that kind of thinking.

Don't we need more men and women like that coaching our young people? Men and women who are inclusive? Men and women who help and care and nurture and want the best for everyone?

Don't we need more coaches like David James?

Maybe there's more to the story that people in and around UCO aren't saying, but near as I can tell, there's nothing illegal, immoral or untoward that happened. This was a firing based on performance.

And I don't really get it.

As far as I'm concerned, when you're talking about Division II athletics, coaches should only be fired if police detectives or NCAA investigators are headed to campus. If scandal or shame is about to come down on the athletic department's head, by all means, send a coach packing.

But firing a coach for not winning enough in Division II sports?

That is foolhardy.

Especially when that coach has won so much over the years. Especially when that coach has been as successful as any at your school. Especially when that coach is still doing well by many standards.

Why was David James fired?

I know the answer, but I don't understand it.

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›

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