Commentary

A final ride on the coaching carousel

Originally Published: May 15, 2012
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

Let's be honest: This was not the coaching carousel's finest year.

In the 2011 edition of this column, I wrote that "this year's version came and went with minimal fuss" because "no truly elite programs had openings." Poor 2011. If only we knew what we had then. (Speaking of not knowing what you have: I gave Missouri's hiring of Frank Haith an "F." Sigh. Hindsight's 20-20, I guess.)

I mean, consider the contrast: Last year, we had openings at Arkansas, Georgia Tech, Miami, Missouri, NC State, Oklahoma, Princeton, Providence, Tennessee, UNLV and Utah -- a host of programs with recent success or high expectations or long-standing tradition or some combination therein. By comparison, 2012's highest-profile coaching vacancies were Illinois, Kansas State and … Virginia Tech? Mississippi State? LSU? Now that's "minimal fuss."

Even the quote-unquote "big searches" ended in anticlimax. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas was rebuffed by four or five different candidates before settling on Ohio's John Groce. When Kansas State coach Frank Martin swiftly bolted the Octagon of Doom in favor of a fixer-upper project at South Carolina, former Illinois coach Bruce Weber landed in Manhattan. A tight circle quickly closed.

The rest of the nation's hirings and firings -- with the possible exception of Seth Greenberg's departure at Virginia Tech, which was fascinating for its last-second logistics if not necessarily its impact -- came and went without much excitement. Honestly, the whole thing was kind of boring.

Of course, these are merely the complaints of someone tasked with writing about college basketball throughout this interminable offseason. Such complaints don't mean the hirings matter any less, particularly to each program's respective fans. These are big contracts and big steps toward turnarounds, conference titles, the glories of the NCAA tournament. That's the hope, anyway. That is always the hope.

The fun is mostly finished now, with just a few small schools still searching for their men of the future. Below is an alphabetical breakdown of the most notable hires, the state of the programs involved and what it all means. (In honor of Frank Haith, there will be no grades this season. I've learned my lesson.)

And 2011 coaching carousel, if you're still listening: I'm sorry, baby. I didn't know what I had. I promise to never take you for granted again. Call me?

Central Michigan
Hired: Keno Davis
Replaced: Ernie Zeigler
Ernie Zeigler's best shot at lifting Central Michigan out of its doldrums came from his own household. His son Trey Zeigler, a top recruit in the Class of 2010, agreed to play for his dad as a Chippewa and hopes of national relevance ran high. It never happened. Now that both Zeiglers are gone (Trey is transferring to Pitt), former Providence coach Keno Davis has a chance to reclaim a once-rising career that went quickly south during his tenure with PC, where his high-scoring brand of basketball fell flat. It will be a long way back for both program and coach. In this case, the reclamation project is mutual.

Colorado State
Hired: Larry Eustachy
Replaced: Tim Miles
For as bummed as CSU had to be about losing Miles, it should be thrilled with the coach it landed in the wake of his departure. Were it not for those infamous Natural Light-wielding photos, Eustachy could still be the coach at Iowa State, where he was once national coach of the year and led the Cyclones to the brink of the Final Four. Since his igominious departure, Eustachy has quietly rebuilt his career, proving he still has the chops all along the way. (When you get Southern Miss to the NCAA tournament, I don't care how many ill-advised photos you have on the Internet. You can coach.) Now, with a roster that could feature as many as five senior starters in 2012, Eustachy and the Rams have a chance to get back to the NCAA tournament right away.

Illinois
Hired: John Groce
Replaced: Bruce Weber
Make no mistake: This coaching search was not pretty. Illinois AD Mike Thomas was dead set on VCUs Shaka Smart until Smart made clear the interest was far from mutual. Thomas, urged on by two board of trustees members concerned about the school's historic lack of an African-American head coach in either football or men's basketball, reached out to a handful of African-American candidates (Washington's Lorenzo Romar and Alabama's Anthony Grant, among others) who proved just as uninterested as Smart. When Thomas eventually abandoned that plan -- as well as a moon-shot hope of luring Butler coach Brad Stevens -- he snared Ohio coach John Groce, fresh off leading his 13th-seeded Ohio Bobcats to the Sweet 16.

Some Illinois fans looked at the search and Groce's three-year record at Ohio (which included a 34-30 mark in the MAC) as proof their program wasn't nearly as sought after as they once believed. But despite the follies of the journey, the Illini arrived at an entirely acceptable destination. Groce hails from the well-respected Xavier and Ohio State coaching tree -- former OSU national player of the year Evan Turner tweeted his approval almost immediately -- and the Bobcats' key player in last season's Ohio run was D.J. Cooper, a Chicago native. If Groce can extend that familiarity with the tricky Chicago recruiting scene into something resembling a pipeline, Illinois will have no shortage of talent with which to establish itself as a yearly force in the Big Ten.

Kansas State
Hired: Bruce Weber
Replaced: Frank Martin
During one of the roughly 86 times Frank Martin has attempted to persuade the media that his departure from Kansas State had nothing to do with his relationship with AD John Currie, he made a rather pertinent point. Essentially, he told the Associated Press that if he was really angry, he wouldn't have left K-State with such a full cupboard of talent on a team that just came off a win in the NCAA tournament.

Whether that's true or not, it bodes well for Illinois castoff Bruce Weber. Weber is a defensive coach at heart, whose teams are always at their best when playing physical, scrappy man-to-man defense. The team he will inherit in 2012-13 is perfectly designed. In other words, it won't be a surprise to see Weber back in the NCAA tournament immediately. The long-term picture is murkier; if you struggle to recruit in Champaign, it's likely you're going to struggle to recruit in Manhattan. But Kansas State can cross that bridge when it's time. For now, you won't find a more perfect new coach/team pairing in the country.

LSU
Hired: Johnny Jones
Replaced: Trent Johnson
Twenty-one years after he went to the Final Four as an LSU freshman, Johnny Jones has returned to Baton Rouge as the man in charge. Jones began his career as a Tigers assistant, working from 1984 to 1997 under the legendary Dale Brown. After brief stops at Alabama and Memphis (where he was the interim head coach for one season), Jones took the head position at North Texas, where he has toiled in relative obscurity for the past 11 seasons.

The good news: Jones could not possibly be more familiar with the LSU program, its tradition and the type of players it must recruit to remain relevant in the SEC, which was not the case for most of departed coach Trent Johnson's tenure (all but that magical first season). The bad news: Jones is far from a hot name, and his 91-88 record in 11 years of Sun Belt play -- with just two NCAA tournament appearances in that span -- is not exactly the most inspiring mark for a program in LSU's current rut. Even so, it's not clear the Tigers could have done much better.

Mississippi State
Hired: Rick Ray
Replaced: Rick Stansbury
Say what you will about Rick Stansbury and his recent knucklehead-packed rosters, but his act will be a tough one to follow. Stansbury, who retired after 14 seasons as head coach, is the winningest coach in Mississippi State history. Before taking over in 1998, he was an MSU assistant for eight seasons. The Bulldogs have participated in 10 NCAA tournaments in their history and all but one of those appearances (1963) came before Stansbury arrived at the school in 1990.

It is unclear then what the future holds for the Mississippi State men's basketball program. That may be why the Bulldogs hired Rick Ray, a little-known Clemson assistant, after a relatively quiet interview period. But Ray may be more than meets the eye: A former basketball player and All-American Scholar Athlete at Grand View College, Ray became an actuary scientist in Chicago before deciding his true calling was as a coach. Since then he has climbed from a high school in Des Moines, Iowa, to a graduate assistant at Nebraska-Omaha to an assistant at Indiana State, Northern Illinois, Purdue and then Clemson.

In April, Ray told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal he preferred the "absolute" of mathematics, and that his zeal for organization and preparation bordered on the obsessive-compulsive. ("I'm probably OCD," Ray said.) The chaos of Stansbury's final years (fights in the stands, late-season collapses, Renardo Sidney being Renardo Sidney, etc.) should soon give way to order. Wins? Stay tuned.

Nebraska
Hired: Tim Miles
Replaced: Doc Sadler
You have to feel for Doc Sadler, right? By all accounts, Sadler did things the right way at a school that traditionally values its basketball program only slightly more than women's rifling. He spoke his mind. He had that hangdog look -- all ill-fitting suits and loose ties -- and he genuinely cared about Nebraska basketball. This spring, Sadler openly wept when he discussed his firing with reporters, telling them "you're not looking at one of the smarter guys in the business, you're looking at a guy that tried … I wanted to be the guy that won the first NCAA tournament game [at Nebraska]. It didn't happen." Even as he was being told to leave, Sadler managed to be endearingly self-deprecating.

One can argue that he deserved more time to see his goal through. Nebraska AD Tom Osborne disagreed. Less debatable is NU's sudden interest in the roundball. A brand new campus practice facility opened last fall, and in 2013 a glimmering 16,000-seat arena will open in Lincoln's revitalized Haymarket District. That fits the theme of Osborne's hire: former Colorado State coach Tim Miles, one of the more relentlessly enthusiastic and effusive young coaches in the business. Miles turned North Dakota State and CSU into unlikely tournament entities, and with the winds of change propelling his energetic approach, the Cornhuskers could soon be setting their sights on far more than their first NCAA tournament win. (Though, you know, baby steps.) Sad as Sadler's departure was in the moment, weeks later it's impossible not to like this hire.

Ohio
Hired: Jim Christian
Replaced: John Groce
At first glance, the decision to hire a coach who went 18-44 in four years in the Mountain West (and 56-73 overall, ouch) at a school like Ohio -- which just graduated its former coach, John Groce, to the big leagues -- seems questionable. Why not look for the (next) next big thing? But Christian's hire makes more sense if you know his history. Before he left for TCU, Christian led Kent State, Ohio's MAC competitor, to a 137-59 overall record and five postseason appearances, two of which came in the NCAA tournament. In other words, the MAC is Christian's lane. After the TCU debacle, he is almost certain to stay in it. Why hunt for the next big thing if a proven MAC winner is there instead?

Rhode Island
Hired: Dan Hurley
Replaced: Jim Baron
The Jim Baron era, which lasted 10 seasons and produced zero NCAA tournament trips, is over. A new era, in both name and feel, has begun. Dan Hurley's credentials are almost always conflated with his family's: He is the son of legendary St. Anthony's Prep coach Bob Hurley, and the younger brother of former Duke star Bobby Hurley. But Hurley has in many ways made his own name in coaching, primarily by turning Jersey prep school St. Benedict's into one of the nation's best high school basketball programs. From there, Hurley turned Wagner around almost immediately, improving the Seahawks from 13-17 in his first season to 25-5 in his second. Now he takes over at Rhode Island. The sense of renewal, of fresh blood, is palpable. The Rams took a risk, but if Hurley's previous pace is any indication, it could pay off sooner rather than later.

South Carolina
Hired: Frank Martin
Replaced: Darrin Horn
Whatever it was that caused Martin to suddenly jump from a program he established into a yearly NCAA tournament fixture to a place that hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1973 -- the way the Jamar Samuels ineligibility situation was handled, some other rift, whatever -- Gamecocks hoops fans will hardly mind.

Of course, that presumes there is such a thing as a Gamecocks hoops fan. (My high school buddy Ben went to South Carolina; I remember him getting really excited when the 2004 team started the season 18-2. He hasn't mentioned the program since.) Yes, South Carolina is the definition of a "When does spring football start?" school. That's just the way it is. But Martin's hire is a big deal. Let's put it in football terms for our friends in Columbia: This spring, South Carolina hoops outkicked its coverage. By a lot. It may take time, but odds are Martin will have that program ascendant sooner rather than later. NCAA tournament appearances should closely follow.

SMU
Hired: Larry Brown
Replaced: Matt Doherty
Southern Methodist's big moves this offseason present the single most fascinating scenario of not just the coaching carousel, but arguably the entire national college hoops landscape. Consider the forces at work: A long-bereft program soon making a move to the Big East hires a legendary coach with a history of A) leaving NBA teams and college programs quickly and B) leaving said college teams in NCAA hot water.

To hedge against the likely possibility Brown soon becomes bored, SMU hired Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich as a coach-in-waiting and paid him more than twice as much (roughly $800,000 a year) as the country's highest-paid assistants. The Mustangs added noted recruiters Jerrance Howard (Illinois) and Ulric Maligi (Houston), and they're pumping money into new facilities in the hopes of boosting the program's recruiting bona fides. And all this came after SMU tried (and got closer to succeeding than most people think) to poach one of the hottest names in college coaching in Marquette coach Buzz Williams.

It's like SMU woke up one day, realized it was about to join the Big East, and said, "We've got to get this basketball thing figured out, like, now." You can't fault the effort. If your goal is to become "relevant" overnight -- to say nothing of "competitive" -- hiring Larry Brown and a batch of respected assistants and recruiters is an awfully good way to get there. Is this a recipe for long-term success? I doubt it. But right now, SMU is more worried about … well, right now.

Southern Miss
Hired: Donnie Tyndall
Replaced: Larry Eustachy
At his introductory news conference, newly hired Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall talked about how hard it was for him to leave Morehead State, which he played for and graduated from in 1993. Fortunately, taking over at Southern Miss should be much easier than his last go-round. At Morehead, Tyndall inherited a team coming off a four-win season. Within two years, thanks in large part to NCAA all-time leading rebounder Kenneth Faried, Tyndall had Morehead in the NCAA tournament; two years later, Faried & Co. were upsetting Louisville in the Big Dance. Eustachy left Southern Miss in good shape, with a handful of quality players (including efficient guard LaShay Page) in tow; Tyndall should find success in his new gig much more accessible.

TCU
Hired: Trent Johnson
Replaced: Jim Christian
For the past few years, TCU has been known for one thing: football. (Unless you count the Horned Frogs' typically awesome Nike uniforms. That's two things.) This worked out just fine, for the most part, because TCU had very little interest in being known for its basketball acumen, anyway. Now that the Frogs are moving to the Big 12 -- which is, make no mistake, an almost entirely football-related move -- they have at least the surface motivation to remain somewhat competitive on the hardwood. Less clear is whether Trent Johnson, who left LSU after a 12-36 SEC record in his final three seasons, is the man for such a job.

Tulsa
Hired: Danny Manning
Replaced: Doug Wojcik
Since 1980, from Nolan Richardson to Tubby Smith to Bill Self, Tulsa men's basketball has produced some of the nation's best coaches. Doug Wojcik was once considered the next in line, but after a seven-season stall-out -- the Golden Hurricane always had decent teams, but were never good enough to get over the hump -- Tulsa cut ties and replaced Wojcik with Kansas assistant Danny Manning. Manning spent the past nine years learning from Self; there are few better coaches in the country under which an assistant could study. His reputation lies in his ability to develop players, particularly big men, and you may have noticed more than a few good ones making their way through Allen Fieldhouse in recent seasons. But there are doubts about Manning's skills outside of development. Will he be able to recruit at Tulsa? Does he have the X's and O's acumen to lead teams from the sidelines? These are open questions, and they are big ones.

Virginia Tech
Hired: James Johnson
Replaced: Seth Greenberg
We did not see this one coming. That's for good reason: Greenberg was fired late in the coaching carousel calendar, and unceremoniously so. He had to learn about the news conference through media reports, and until a few hours before athletic director Jim Weaver made the announcement, Greenberg assumed Weaver (who suffers from Parkinson's disease) would be addressing his own future at the school. Not so much. Weaver cited a six-assistants-in-four-years exodus and Greenberg's potential status as a lame duck. Two weeks later, Weaver hired one of the assistants whose departure so concerned him: Former Tech and (briefly) Clemson assistant James Johnson.

The risk was apparent from the start. Johnson has never been a head coach in his career, and will be the only ACC coach hired without first being a head man somewhere else. Meanwhile, the whole "continuity" thing isn't going so well. The Hokies have already received a transfer request from Dorian Finney-Smith, their highest-ranked recruit (and an ACC All-Freshman team member in 2012), and a request for letter of intent release from Montrezl Harrell, the class of 2012's top-ranked signee. Those departures will leave Johnson with just eight scholarship players in his first season. A tough job -- and an even tougher sell, for both Johnson and the AD who hired him -- lies ahead.

Here are some quick hitters on the rest of this offseason's hires:

Air Force: Dave Pilipovich -- Air Force took the rare step of firing coach Jeff Reynolds during the season. It didn't take long for director of athletics Dr. Hans Mueh (who may or may not be a "Die Hard" villain) to pick up on the players' energy under Pilipovich, telling the media "I buy and I don't shop."

Canisius: Jim Baron -- Thanks to a brutal 2011-12 season, Baron's tenure at Rhode Island has finally come to an end. His desire to coach clearly hasn't. He inherits a program that finished ranked No. 311 in KenPom's adjusted efficiency last season, and that likewise needs a fresh start.

Charleston: Doug Wojcik -- Wojcik never got over the hump at Tulsa, but he landed on his feet. Wojcik will take over for longtime former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, who built Charleston into a yearly SoCon contender before retiring this spring.

Duquesne: Jim Ferry -- LIU Brooklyn was 5-22 when Ferry took over in 2002. He left to coach the Dukes having come off back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. For a Duquesne program that hasn't danced since 1977, that's a solid hire.

Eastern Illinois: Jay Spoonhour -- The son of the late and legendary Charlie Spoonhour was 64-27 in three seasons at Moberly Area Community College in Missouri. But lest you think EIU hired a "wait … who?" candidate, Spoonhour has experience as an assistant at Saint Louis, Valpo, UNLV, Missouri and Texas-San Antonio.

Florida International: Richard Pitino -- FIU's big gamble on Isiah Thomas never paid dividends. (Far from it.) This time, the Panthers have hired more sensibly, landing the up-and-coming son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who has coached for both his father and Florida coach Billy Donovan.

Grambling: Joseph Price -- Say this for Price: He didn't take the job because he knew it would be easy. On Tuesday, Grambling was hit with even more APR-related NCAA sanctions, which now includes the loss of the 2013 postseason as well as limited practice time and a 27-game regular-season cap. HBCUs like Grambling face different challenges than most of Division I; it will be up to the former Notre Dame standout to overcome them.

Idaho State: Bill Evans -- Idaho State was among the nation's 25 worst defensive teams last season. Good, then, that Evans, a former defensive specialist at Montana, signed up to lead the rebuild.

Illinois State: Bill Muller -- ISU lost Jankovich to SMU's coach-in-waiting offer, but the Redbirds shouldn't feel too bad about it. Jankovich had only marginal success at the school, and Muller, a former Vanderbilt assistant, could well expand on it soon. Illinois State should be a contender in the Valley this season.

LIU Brooklyn: Jack Perri -- LIU Brooklyn didn't shake it up after former coach Jim Ferry left for Duquesne. Perri has been on the LIU staff for the past seven seasons, including the past five as associate head coach.

Miami (Ohio): John Cooper -- With Charlie Coles retired, can Cooper -- fresh off leading Tennessee State to its first 20-win season in 32 years (!) -- breathe some energy into Miami's flagging program?

Morehead State: Sean Woods -- A member of the Unforgettables, Kentucky's beloved 1992 team, Woods returns to the Bluegrass State to take over what has become a competitive Ohio Valley program -- one that Woods said he wants to become the "Gonzaga of the South."

Mount St. Mary's: Jamion Christian -- Did Mount St. Mary's make the most underrated hire of the offseason? I'm not sure, but I do know that getting Jamion Christian, a former Mount alum coming off an assistantship at VCU in 2012, is an ideal fit for the job.

North Carolina A&T: Cy Alexander -- A former longtime South Carolina State coach, Alexander hasn't been on the sideline since 2009, when he was fired after six years leading Tennessee State.

Northern Arizona: Jack Murphy -- Murphy, an assistant under Josh Pastner at Memphis, has a massive rebuild on his hands. Former coach Mike Adras abruptly left NAU in early December, and former women's coach Dave Brown did all he could just to get the Lumberjacks to a 5-24 overall record.

North Texas: Tony Benford -- Marquette assistant Benford was among the finalists for SMU's position before the big fish that is Larry Brown swam ashore, but Benford found another Texas home at UNT, where his in-state connections should help him continue the improvement that landed former coach Johnny Jones his shot at LSU.

St. Francis (Pa.): Rob Krimmel -- Krimmel's father, Bob Krimmel, is the athletic director at St. Francis, but don't cry out for nepotism just yet: Krimmer is a decorated St. Francis star and a longtime assistant coach at the school.

Samford: Bennie Seltzer -- Why would a longtime Tom Crean assistant leave Indiana just in time for the program to compete for a national title? To go home. Seltzer is a native of Birmingham, and returns home in charge of his own program for the first time in his 18-year career.

Southern Utah: Nick Robinson -- Southern Utah is moving from the Summit League to the Big Sky next season, and athletic director Ken Beazer wanted new blood in Robinson, a former Stanford player and LSU assistant, as part of the bargain.

Tennessee State: Travis Williams -- After its first 20-win season in 32 years, Tennessee State didn't mess with success. It hired Williams, an assistant to departed coach John Cooper for each of the past three seasons.

Wagner: Bashir Mason -- Move over, Brad Stevens and Josh Pastner. When Wagner promoted assistant coach Bashir Mason this spring, it made the 28-year-old the youngest Division I head coach in the country. Mason's next task: Retaining the energy and momentum of young up-and-comer Danny Hurley.

UAB: Jerod Haase -- Mike Davis' firing this spring may have been somewhat harsh, but UAB got used to big expectations under former coach Mike Anderson, and Davis had yet to really deliver. Haase is a true change of pace, a rising assistant under coach Roy Williams at Kansas and then North Carolina, where he coached UNC's junior varsity team in preparation for his big shot.

UNC-Greensboro: Wes Miller -- Not that Wes Miller isn't a spring chicken himself. Miller, a 29-year-old former 2005 national champion with North Carolina, turned his interim job into a full-time tag last season. He'll return to a fittingly young Greensboro team in 2012-13.

Western Kentucky: Ray Harper -- Harper took over as the interim coach during a disastrous season, but before long had the Hilltoppers streaking to a Sun Belt tournament victory and unlikely NCAA tournament appearance. He earned the full-time gig.

Winthrop: Pat Kelsey -- Kelsey stepped away from the game in 2011 to help him cope with the loss of his former mentor Skip Prosser to a heart attack in 2007. Now Kelsey, 36, is back and in charge of a program that went 25-47 in Randy Peele's final two seasons.