First the general manager, now the coach.
In another move aimed at getting the Charlotte Hornets on track, majority owner Michael Jordan fired coach Steve Clifford on Friday after the team went 36-46 and failed to reach the playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons.
Clifford had a year left on his contract. The move to dismiss him came after his face-to-face meeting Friday with new general manager Mitch Kupchak.
“I want to thank Coach Clifford for his contributions to the Hornets,” Kupchak said in a statement. “I know he has worked incredibly hard on behalf of the organization and we wish him the best moving forward. The search for a new coach will begin immediately.”
Jordan hired Kupchak on Sunday to replace Rich Cho, who was fired earlier in the season after the Hornets failed to climb out of an early slump.
Clifford was born in Island Falls and grew up in Mattawamkeag until the third grade when he moved with his family to Vermont, where he went on to play basketball under his father, Gerald, at North Country Union High School in Derby Line, Vermont.
Clifford then returned to Maine to attend the University of Maine at Farmington, where he played basketball for four years under longtime coach Len MacPhee. A guard, Clifford was named the Beavers’ best defensive player each of his last two years and was a team captain during the 1982-83 season. He graduated in 1983 with a degree in special education.
Clifford began his coaching career almost immediately after graduation, moving Down East to take the boys’ varsity basketball job at Woodland High School.
In two years he guided the Dragons to a 31-9 record and back-to-back appearances in the Eastern Maine Class C final in 1984 and 1985.
Clifford then moved to the college ranks, initially as a volunteer assistant at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, under head coach Bob Brown — the father of current Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown.
He eventually became a paid assistant at the Division II school and remained at Saint Anselm for four years before moving to Division I Fairfield (Conn.) University in 1989. After a year with the Stags, Clifford rejoined Brown at Boston University.
Clifford spent four years at BU, then went to Siena College in upstate New York in 1994 for a year before accepting the head coaching job at Adelphi University on Long Island where he led the Panthers to four straight 20-win seasons and four appearances in the NCAA Division II tournament while becoming the first coach in school history to record consecutive 20-plus win campaigns.
That led to a return to the Division I ranks as an assistant at East Carolina, but for just one year before he moved on to the NBA in 2000, initially with the New York Knicks under coach Jeff Van Gundy, whom Clifford had met several years earlier at a basketball camp.
Clifford spent one year as an advance scout and two more years as an assistant coach with the Knicks before going with Van Gundy to Houston from 2003 to 2007. Clifford went on to coach under Van Gundy’s brother, Stan Van Gundy, for five years in Orlando and then spent the 2012-13 season as an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers before being hired as Charlotte’s head coach on May 29, 2013.
The Hornets were 196-214 in five seasons under Clifford. They reached the playoffs twice, but failed to make it out of the first round in 2014 and 2016.
Clifford on Wednesday called this a “disappointing” season because he felt this was his most talented Hornets team. It was a rough season for him in other ways — he missed 21 games because of headaches stemming from sleep deprivation.
He acknowledged that the Hornets “didn’t make good progress” this year, particularly on defense, his forte.
Clifford is the third NBA coach to be dismissed since the end of the regular season, following Jeff Hornacek of New York and Frank Vogel of Orlando.
Clifford was an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers for one season while Kupchak was the general manager there. Kupchak said this week he knew then that Clifford had head coaching potential. But it took Kupchak less than week on the job to fire Clifford.
“The NBA isn’t about winning, the NBA is about winning in the playoffs,” Clifford said Wednesday when asked about his job security. “So if you want to look back at our five years, and I told our staff this last night, I do feel very good about where we are and how we are perceived versus where it was five years ago.
“We made great gains. To be relevant and respected in this league is a long way from where we started. And I do know people respect how we play, our purpose of play and everything like that.”
But Clifford went on to say that isn’t enough.
“You’re fooling yourself to say that it’s better,” he said. “That’s not what it is. So you know I don’t have my head in the sand of what this head coaching is all about. Also you can’t walk around like that, I don’t care how many years you have left on your contract, and you can get fired in one week in this league.”