Roman Banks understands the perception that Southern University is a bad basketball program. As of right now, it’s difficult to argue otherwise.
The Jaguars lost their top two scorers off a last-place SWAC team that was in the nation’s bottom five in both wins (four) and average attendance (580).
And that's just on the court. Shortly after the firing of coach Rob Spivery, athletic director Greg LaFleur was dismissed in April after being arrested for allegedly soliciting prostitution from an undercover police officer.
Then in May, after Banks was hired, the NCAA banned Southern from the postseason for one year and took away scholarships due to the program’s substandard Academic Progress Rate.
“As excited as I’ve been, we’ve had frustrations trying to sell the program to where it wants to be,” Banks said. “It took several years for this to happen. Like people always tell me, it’s going to take a little time.
“What do you do? How do you sell the program? We’re going to do that, but I have to realize it’s not going to happen overnight. I’m in it for the long haul.”
Banks, who turned 42 last week, is a rookie Division I head coach with one of the most difficult jobs in the country. To explain why he took the position, Banks has a story to tell as living proof that out of an NCAA-sanctioned program can come a memorable college experience for a player.
In 1988, he was playing for Northwestern State when coach Don Beasley was fired during an NCAA investigation into rules violations. Numerous players transferred, but Banks’ parents told him not to run away from a bad situation.
“Tough times don’t last always. Tough people last past tough times,” Banks recalled them saying. “That’s been my motto of life.”
Banks remained at the school and that same season hit the decisive free throw to lift Northwestern State to an upset win against Kentucky. The NCAA would eventually place the program on probation and issue a postseason ban, but Banks finished off a fine career by setting the program’s all-time record for assists and earlier this month was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.
One of the assistant coaches at Northwestern State during those days, Billy Kennedy, ended up hiring the former point guard onto his staff at Southeastern Louisiana. Banks rose up the ranks to become an associate head coach and spent the past eight seasons with the Lions.
“Roman’s going to do things,” said first-year Murray State coach Steve Prohm, who was an assistant with Banks under Kennedy at Southeastern Louisiana. “He was instrumental in our two championships. He has great relationships and rapport with the players. His teams will always max out.”
Banks is back at Southern after previously serving six seasons there as an assistant and establishing himself as one of the top recruiters in Louisiana. The school had passed on promoting him from the interim job a decade ago, and since leaving the school, Banks had been unable to land a Division I head-coaching job despite being in the conversation at Centenary, Grambling State and his alma mater through the years.
That taught him a quality he’ll need at Southern -- patience. As a child, he watched his father, Cleophus, and brother, Carlos Sample, star for Southern and experience success. But the school is now hampered by an APR score of 852 and could face further sanctions if that number doesn’t continue to increase.
Banks said a plan under the school’s new chancellor is in place and starts with a new academic center so the program can get on the path toward improving graduation rates.
“Not because it’s APR,” Banks said. “It’s because it’s the right thing. We’re going to take care of the academics side first. They know what I inherited. I inherited a bad problem.
“Policies in place don’t work unless you have somebody making sure people do what they need to do. The buck stops and starts with me first. They can have all the plans and initiatives in place, but then the plan doesn’t work. That person who’s leading the program, it starts with them first.”
The Jaguars haven’t advanced to the NCAA tournament since Spivery's first season (2006) and won only nine games over the past two seasons. Banks said while he has been frustrated that some of the area’s top players have chosen other schools, Southern has come close on some of them.
The Jaguars might not eligible for the NCAA tournament this season, but Banks hopes to install an up-tempo system similar to the style Southern teams of the past played.
“I just remember the fans there and the pageantry,” Banks said of his childhood memories. “I remember a great fan support, people dancing in the stands, a fast-break style of basketball and scoring a lot of points back then.
“I know what this program can produce. I know it’s not ready-made, but I can prove my worth if I can build my program to where it needs to be. I’m not afraid. We want to set a legacy as part of a team that helps rebuild and brings back this tradition.”