Former Andrew College A.D. and women's basketball coach Mike Riffe was relieved of all his duties after six years on the job earlier this year, despite the fact his Lady Tigers had gotten off to the best start in school history before losing their star player to academics.
CUTHBERT — Look closely at the Andrew College athletic department, and you’ll see Mike Riffe’s footprints.
They are all over the women’s basketball program, which he and his wife resurrected six years ago, and they’re still visible in the office of the athletic director — a position Riffe took over in 2009 and held for two years.
Now those footprints have trailed off to Kentucky, where Riffe is currently living after being relieved of his duties as athletic director at the beginning of the year and then later fired as the women’s basketball coach March 2.
Riffe told The Herald in a telephone interview Thursday that he saw it all coming.
“It wasn’t a surprise. It’s one of those things where you sit in enough meetings to see it coming,” Riffe said. “I was a little frustrated (with the way I was fired). I think if it would have been a surprise it would have caused some bitterness. But I’m not going to give it a second thought. It’s all in the past.”
The decision to fire Riffe was made long before the end of the women’s basketball season, and the team’s 15-game losing streak to end the season didn’t factor into the decision, a source within the school said.
“It was a strategic administration decision to move in a different direction,” said Dr. Edith Smith, who replaced Riffe as athletic director.
Riffe was acting as a part-time athletic director when he was let go from that position Jan. 1 and replaced by Smith, but he stayed on as coach of the women’s basketball team, which was in the middle of its best start in school history.
That came crumbling down, too.
The Lady Tigers took a 10-5 record into Christmas vacation, but during that month-long break Riffe was fired as AD and star player Ashley Reece was ruled academically ineligible for the rest of the season. Andrew finished out the season with 15 straight losses, and Riffe was fired two weeks after the Lady Tigers lost their season finale to Georgia Perimeter, 95-57.
But it wasn’t just the team’s poor performance that cost Riffe his job. He said there were behind-the-scenes disagreements with the administration about funding, including Riffe wanting to add a men’s basketball program.
“Over in our building — the athletic department building — we felt like we wanted to add more things,” Riffe said. “We were basically told they weren’t going to add anything else. I had proposed to bring men’s basketball back the last four years. They said that will never happen, and that was petty much the push and shove of it right there.”
The men’s and women’s basketball programs were eliminated a decade ago. It took only four years for the school to bring back the women’s team — a move spearheaded by Riffe — but any desire to bring back a men’s program was met with resistance.
“They felt like the quality of students (on the men’s team) wasn’t what it should be,” Riffe said.
The school eliminated the women’s golf and the men’s and women’s cross country programs in February, and Smith told The Herald this week that the decision to not add a men’s basketball program is because of funding.
“We did drop three programs, and we are looking at financial solvency of what we have and not considering anything at this time,” said Smith, who added that the remaining programs are safe from being dropped.
Riffe said he kept all the off-the-court drama away from his players, who were caught off guard by the firing, which happened the same day many of them left for spring break.
“It was shocking,” said sophomore Kellie Bacon, who added that she hasn’t talked to her former coach since the firing, but she has been in contact with Riffe’s wife and the team’s former assistant coach, Linda. “I just kind of told her that I am going to miss him. I didn’t see (the firing) coming. I was sorry it happened the way it did. No one saw it coming.”
No one saw the team’s collapse coming either.
Twelve games into the season, the Lady Tigers were averaging more than 70 points per game and outscoring opponents by an average of 10 points per game.
“It was a lot of fun to go out and practice and go out and compete with those girls,” Riffe said.
But then the team lost its backbone in Reece — who led the team in steals and assists and was the third-leading scorer — and the wheels started to fall off. The Lady Tigers opened up the second half of their season with a 68-63 loss to East Georgia and then proceeded to lose the remainder of their games to finish the season 10-20 overall and 0-18 in the region.
“A lot of players gave up hope after (Reece) left,” Bacon said. “Ashley was like the one who kept everything together on the floor. When she left, most players started playing for themselves. After we started losing, nobody cared any more.”
Despite losing his job as AD, Riffe still cared about the program he had built from the ground up.
“There were a lot of sleepless nights where I was trying to figure out what to do to help us in different situations,” Riffe said. “Ashley was just a special talent. She was that important to us.”
Riffe was liked by most of the players, including Bacon, who called her former coach “a father figure who was more concerned about his players growing as ladies than he was about winning.”
But as the Lady Tigers’ losing streak wore on, Bacon said players began to get frustrated with Riffe. According to Bacon, several of the freshmen were planning on leaving the program because they were upset with a lack of playing time but then decided to stay after Riffe was fired.
“That all stayed within the team though,” said Bacon, who didn’t believe that was why Riffe was fired. “No one knew about that stuff except for the players.”
The losing streak, the lack of funding, the frustration from the players — it was all building up to a moment Riffe knew was coming.
“I was notified on March 1 that I had a meeting with the president, and I knew what it was all about,” Riffe said. “We were prepared for it, but we were devastated by it. The program was our baby, and we felt like we were bringing in better kids every year.”
Riffe, 62, was hired as the head women’s coach on Valentine’s Day 2006, a fitting day for a man who fell in love with Andrew basketball. But he struggled to put together a successful program in a tough region, winning just two games his first season and then going winless in his second season.
After four years, Riffe’s record at Andrew was 12-90, but he went 11-19 and 10-20 his final two years at the school to end with a career record of 33-129.
Riffe hasn’t ruled out a return to the sidelines, but for the moment he is settling back down in Kentucky, where he coached high school basketball for 31 years before moving to Georgia.
And Riffe said he doesn’t have any regrets about those six years in Cuthbert.
“I will remember the good things,” he said. “In this business, a lot of people get let go for various reasons, and that is just part of it. I loved the kids I worked with and brought in. There were a lot of good people there. I don’t regret one day I was there.”