Belinson: Steve Prohm’s future rests on the idea of ‘what’s fair’

Iowa State Head Coach Steve Prohm yells to his team during Iowa State’s game against Kansas on Feb. 13 at Hilton Coliseum.

Matt Belinson

In life, is there such a thing as “You get out what you put in”? If you spend the time, put your heart into your job, build a culture, find success and hit adversity, should you be guaranteed to find a bright spot on the other side?

The harsh — but true — answer is no. Steve Prohm and I agree.

“In life, you don’t always get what you want or what you expect or what you work for. But can you come back the next day and show up?” Prohm said. “And when stuff is really, really difficult and stuff is really, really tough, can you show up and do your job to the best of your ability? And I told [the team] I thought they did that, but that doesn’t mean you get rewarded. That doesn’t mean you win, that doesn’t mean you get the promotion, that doesn’t mean you get the job.”

Prohm and the Iowa State men’s basketball team realized that cruel reality Saturday in the team’s 61-56 loss to Kansas State, dropping the Cyclones to 0-18 in Big 12 play and giving the program its first winless conference record since the 1936-37 season.

And let me get this out of the way: I am not in the business of calling for Prohm to lose his job. In fact, that’s what this column is all about.

Is there evidence for keeping Prohm for a seventh season? Yes.

He’s recruited Tyrese Haliburton, Xavier Foster, Talen Horton-Tucker, George Conditt IV and others during his time in Ames. He’s won the Big 12 Tournament twice. He’s made the NCAA Tournament three times. 

But is there a legitimate argument for not bringing him back? No doubt.

Prohm has a 40-68 Big 12 record in his six seasons in Ames, including going 18-54 over his last four seasons. Iowa State has not won a road game since Feb. 16, 2019. The 2020-21 Cyclones just finished with the worst Big 12 record in school history and is now the fourth team in Big 12 history to finish a season without a conference victory.

No matter what stance you take on Prohm and those facts, it all comes back to the concept of “what’s fair” for Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard, in my book.

I don’t pretend to have any inside knowledge of what Pollard is thinking and what he’ll decide in regards to Prohm’s future at Iowa State, but what I would bet on is the central idea of giving Prohm a “fair shot.”

A better way to phrase it would be: Does Pollard believe Prohm has gotten a fair shake this season given how objectively crazy things outside of the wins and losses have been? But on the other side, Pollard might not even believe in the fair or unfair talk in the business of Big 12 college basketball at all.

I won’t say which way of thinking is right or wrong, but one would guess Pollard will land on one side of this fence by the time he makes a public announcement.

This basketball season has been unprecedented. We all know that. Iowa State had to fight through COVID-19 postponements but played competitively in a season that could have easily warranted a checked-out team night-in and night-out.  This isn’t me throwing a pity party for Prohm and his team. The bottom line is wins and losses. And Iowa State didn’t meet that mark.

“I mean, the losing is unacceptable. I understand that more than anybody,” Prohm said Tuesday after an 81-67 loss to Texas in Hilton Coliseum.

I agree with Prohm there and how terrible a 2-21 record looks to the eye. It’s ugly, and at a place like Iowa State, it should turn heads and spark some kind of discussion.

But, thankfully, this decision isn’t up to me. It’s in the hands of Pollard, who will have to weigh that balance of what it truly means of giving someone — in this case, Prohm — a fair shot.

Shouldn’t a coach with six regular seasons under their belt have shown enough evidence one way or another of improvement? Or does a season impacted by COVID-19, with very little real practice and offseason along with a jumbled schedule warrant Pollard to throw out a mulligan and offer one last “fair” opportunity for Prohm to try and fix this outside of a COVID year?

Again, I think it’s all about perspective. 

Obviously, if you’re siding with the “Fire Prohm” argument, you could say his last three seasons before this year’s disaster were already cause for concern, and he’s been given more than enough time to bring guys in and build. Before the 2020-21 season began, the Cyclones had gone 48-50 overall and 18-36 in the Big 12 in the three years before.

And while some may believe that is enough time to give a complete evaluation of the direction of the program, I could also buy into the counter argument by saying this year had so much working against Prohm and this team outside of their control.

Foster, the state’s number-one recruit who just so happened to be landed by Prohm, played just seven games before undergoing foot surgery in January. Blake Hinson, a transfer from Ole Miss who averaged 10.1 points per game, sat out this season due to a medical condition. The Cyclones also played three nonconference opponents before jumping into league play.

If we’re weighing those two conditions, I’m not sure what matters more. I do know this: Losing in consecutive seasons the way Iowa State has is unacceptable, like Prohm has said. But I know it would be hard to be asked to perform at my peak during a season like this.

However, as we saw at the start of this column, getting rewarded for going through hard times doesn’t have to happen. I’m not saying give Iowa State a cookie for playing this season, but if we’re talking fairness, you have to bring up the conditions this season was played under. Plain and simple.

So, does Prohm deserve another shot? 

It’s a tough call to make and one with multiple answers that would lead me to agree. But in the end, it all comes back to Pollard.

The clock is ticking, but once we get the answer one way or another, we’ll find out his definition of “what’s fair” for Prohm and his future.