Rob Oller: Ohio State women's basketball coach Kevin McGuff flies under radar of criticism

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Coach Kevin McGuff, here giving instructions during a game against Purdue on Feb. 18, is 171-85 with two Big Ten titles at Ohio State.

Watching incredible endings in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament Final Four over the weekend — I hear there also was a pretty good finish between Gonzaga and UCLA’s men? — my mind naturally drifted to "Dr. Strangelove."

Not Dr. Strange, kids. Dr. StrangeLOVE. Marvel doesn’t own the entire cinematic universe just yet.

Anyway, for my money Stanley Kubrick’s classic dark comedy features Hollywood’s most memorable fictional military characters, including George C. Scott’s General “Buck” Turgidson and Slim Pickens’ Major “King” Kong.

As Stanford survived not one but two last-second misses — first by South Carolina then by Arizona — to win its first national championship since 1992, I wondered why Ohio State is not among the nation’s elite programs and what it would take for the Buckeyes to reach that level.

That’s when Turgidson and Kong entered my thinking, followed immediately by Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff. The climax of the 1964 Cold War parody has Kong flying a nuclear-armed B-52 bomber into Soviet airspace while Turgidson explains to U.S. President Merkin Muffley, played by the brilliant Peter Sellers, that if Kong is “really sharp he can barrel that baby in so low” where the “Commies” will never be able to detect it on radar.

I won’t spoil the famous “bomb-riding” scene; let’s just say Pickens’ character has nothing on McGuff, who has been flying under the radar of criticism for more than a few years now.

Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff talks to guard Rikki Harris and forward Gabby Hutcherson during a game against Purdue on Feb. 18.

McGuff keeps bumping along mostly unnoticed, far from the bull’s-eye of critique that Buckeye Nation showered upon former OSU coach Jim Foster in 2013 at the end of his 11-year tenure.

The lack of intense scrutiny is a head-scratcher, given the relatively middling results of McGuff’s program over eight seasons. Granted, playing the comparison game is inexact science, but considering what came before him, only the most delusional or apathetic fans can seriously defend McGuff’s record.

Consider: McGuff is 171-85 overall (.668), with two Big Ten titles. Under him, the Buckeyes have played in four NCAA tournaments — it almost certainly would have been five except COVID-19 wiped out last year’s tournament — never advancing past the Sweet 16. In 2019, the Buckeyes lost at home to Morehead State in the first game of the NIT. Ouch. 

Foster was 279-82 (.773) overall, with six consecutive Big Ten titles and 10 trips to the NCAA Tournament. The biggest knock against him was too often the Buckeyes lost to lower seeds while never advancing past the Sweet 16.

Rob Oller

The main point in pitting McGuff’s career against Foster’s is not to make the case that Foster was fired unjustly — new blood was needed as staleness had settled in — or to berate Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith for choosing McGuff as the replacement. The hire seemed solid at the time. And maybe things will click next year, when most of the players from this season’s 13-7 team return.

But plain and simple, the program has not improved under McGuff, definitely not when considering NCAA Tournament results. To the contrary, a scent of dysfunctional “uh-oh” fills the air. The Buckeyes’ reputation took a hit in December when the school self-reported NCAA violations involving a former assistant coach committing recruiting violations and violating Ohio State’s sexual harassment policy. The school followed its internal investigation by self-imposing a ban on participation in this season's Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. 

Smith has told me he likes his head hitting the pillow every night knowing coaches in OSU’s 36 sports are not causing compliance headaches. McGuff was not implicated in the NCAA rules violations, but they happened on his watch, which has to upset his athletic director’s sleep cycle.

What am I saying, that McGuff needs to go? Not necessarily. The program is not a mess. True, some bad optics have been in play — guard Kierstan Bell, honorable mention all-Big Ten as a freshman, transferred last April after one season; and Dorka Juhasz, the Buckeyes’ leading rebounder and second-leading scorer this season, has entered the transfer portal with two seasons of college eligibility remaining — but enough talent returns to make 2021-22 ripe with possibility.

Aye, but there’s the rub. At some point, results need to match potential. Or do they? McGuff has flown under the radar pretty well so far. Maybe he can survive the ride, even if next season the Buckeyes bomb out before they should.