BASKETBALL Despite 3-1 start, Wildcats fire coach/GM
Poor ticket sales are spurring cost-cutting measures for the new team.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
BOARDMAN -- The beginning of the end for Mahoning Valley Wildcats coach Rob Spon came late Monday when Spon got a call on his cell phone from co-owner Craig Mangie. It wasn't good news.
Mangie wanted Spon to get rid of the team's two out-of-town players, Fess Irvin and Sergio McClain, and he wanted him to do it that night. Spon, also the team's general manager, wasn't happy about the decision, but he saw it coming. Attendance for the team's four home games was less than impressive, profits were nonexistent and changes were coming.
Irvin (Gonzales, La.) and McClain (Peoria, Ill.) were costing the owners a lot of extra money. Daily hotel bills. Food allowances. Extra salary. It was adding up.
Mangie, along with co-owner Frank Petrakos, wanted expenses cut. More specifically, they wanted those two expenses cut.
"Mangie had a plan from the get-go and obviously he wasn't too happy with me," Spon said in a telephone interview. "He and I had our differences. My thing was, they could have told me from the beginning that they couldn't afford to pay them. I told them what the salary was going to be."
Mangie, however, didn't know the team would be struggling so much financially and, to be honest, he wasn't all that thrilled with the idea of out-of-town players to begin with.
"Sergio and Fess were nice young men, but we've said all along that we were committed to having local players," Mangie said at a press conference Thursday at Creekside Fitness Center.
"Spon told me, 'Hey, these guys will be the best players in the league.' "
They weren't. Both players struggled with injuries. They were productive, but they weren't stars. Mangie and Petrakos thought the team had enough local talent to survive without them.
"From a financial perspective, it just didn't make sense," Mangie said.
But that was just the beginning. Tuesday morning, Mangie talked to a representative at Transit Tours. Travel plans for that weekend's three-game road trip weren't finalized -- something Spon was supposed to take care of -- and Mangie wasn't happy. He was ready to make a change.
Later that morning, Spon was fired.
"They told me they were going to go in a different direction," Spon said.
"We had basically philosophical differences," Mangie said. "There were certain things we expected him to do for us that were not done."
The road trip was one of them. Spon said he talked with Transit Tours on Monday and was going to finalize the package on Tuesday or Wednesday.
"It was all set up," Spon said.
Mangie disagreed, saying it was nowhere near finalized.
"That's a lie," Spon said. "He never communicated with me at all about anything."
Both phone numbers listed for Transit Tours were out of service on Thursday.
Mangie and Petrakos also were unhappy with the team's marketing, which Spon was supposed to handle. Spon said he went around to several Struthers businesses, but they were reluctant to get involved, despite having former Struthers High standout Rick McFadden on the team. He also said businesses in Boardman and Poland were reluctant to spend money on advertising for a team in Struthers.
"I can't force people to buy things," said Spon, who was also coach of the Youngstown Hawks of the International Basketball League, who folded in midseason four years ago. "People here have been burned twice. Two basketball teams have failed.
"When I first met with [Petrakos and Mangie], I told them we would need $200,000 for a budget. I told them I couldn't guarantee they'd make money. They were probably going to lose money the first year."
Spon also said he was only given a cell phone to do business, with no copier, no fax machine and no computer. He had an office at Creekside Fitness, which arranged to get rent free in exchange for giving Creekside free advertising in press releases and at the games. Spon also was commuting every day from Hermitage, Pa., despite being promised an apartment closer to Struthers, he said.
Spon, however, had no outside job. Petrakos, a dentist, and Mangie, an oral surgeon, have full-time jobs and could not devote full energies to the team. Another major problem was attendance. After drawing more than 750 people for the opener, the next three games drew fewer than 350 per game.
"The reality is, he wasn't doing the work," Mangie said. "He was saying all this stuff was going to get done, but it wasn't."
The Transit Tour issue was "the straw that broke the camel's back," Mangie said.
Former YSU player and assistant coach Andre Smith -- who was the Spon's principal assistant for the first four games -- will replace Spon. Petrakos and Mangie both said the team will finish the season.
"There have been rumors the team is disbanding and that it's in financial trouble and that's not true," Mangie said. "We're looking to finish the season on a positive note."
They also plan to return next season, Mangie said.
Spon, who went 3-1, said he enjoyed his time as coach and hopes the team is successful.
"I wish the team luck," Spon said. "I hope they get some fans out. We started 3-0 and I thought we had a chance to win this thing. I'm just bitter and unhappy about the way things were handled.
"The problem is not with Petrakos. He's a great guy. But I didn't agree with the way Mangie handled things."
Spon and Mangie admitted they thought more investors would get involved with the team -- "It's never too late," Petrakos said -- but they're happy with the team's success and the style of play.
"We're looking forward to the rest of the season," Mangie said.