August 19, 2011

First season a mixed bag for coaches

Every athletic director who made a coaching change during the offseason would love to believe he found the next Brad Brownell or Thad Matta.

Those coaches have proved time and again that they can deliver results in their debut seasons.

Brownell has reached the NCAA tournament in his first season at each of his three coaching stops: UNC Wilmington (2002-03), Wright State (2006-07) and Clemson (2010-11).

Matta led teams to the second round of the NCAA tournament in his lone season at Butler (2000-01) and his debut season at Xavier (2001-02). Although Matta's first team at Ohio State didn't reach the NCAA tournament, that 2004-05 Buckeyes squad finished 20-12 after going 14-16 a year earlier.

The immediate successes of Brownell and Matta at multiple spots made us wonder about the top overall first-year coaching performances in this young century. Which coaches have delivered the best initial results at their new stops?

We decided to rate the top first-year coaching performances since the start of the 2000-01 season. We've rated a top 10 from the six major conferences as well as a top 10 from outside the so-called "Big Six'' leagues.

Important to note is that for the purposes of this list, we gave special consideration to guys who turned programs around in short order rather than focusing on coaches who merely sustained winning traditions established by their predecessors. That's why this list doesn't include Matta, who inherited enviable situations at Butler and Xavier before needing two years to make Ohio State an NCAA tournament team. But you will find Brownell, who earned an NCAA bid with a Wright State team that had posted a losing record the season before his arrival.

Of course, the past decade also has taught us that a productive first season on the job doesn't guarantee long-term success. That's why we've also provided a list of five coaches who couldn't live up to the promise they showed in their debut seasons.

1. John Calipari, Kentucky, 2009-10
When Calipari arrived at Kentucky from Memphis, the nation's all-time winningest program was coming off season in which they had finished .500 in SEC competition and had settled for an NIT appearance. Calipari quickly transformed Kentucky into one of the nation's most feared programs again with his recruiting prowess. Before he ever coached a game for Kentucky, Calipari had made his presence felt by signing a recruiting class that featured future lottery picks John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe. That trio helped Kentucky go 35-3 overall and 14-2 in the SEC in Calipari's first season. All the Wildcats lacked was consistent perimeter shooting, which doomed them in an NCAA East Regional final loss to West Virginia.
Washington State was picked to finish last in the Pac-10 in Bennett's debut season. It seemed a pretty obvious prediction at the time, since the Cougars had posted 10 consecutive losing seasons. How tough a job was this? Bennett had taken over the job from his father, Dick Bennett, who won nearly 500 games and reached a Final Four in his remarkable career but was unable to resurrect Washington State. But after Dick Bennett retired, Tony finished the rebuilding project his father had started. The 2006-07 Washington State team went 26-8, tied a school record for wins, finished second in the Pac-10 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Bennett was named the national coach of the year by The Associated Press and the United States Basketball Writers Association.
Texas A&M was one of the worst programs in any of the six major conferences when Gillispie arrived in College Station. The Aggies went 7-21 and didn't win a single Big 12 game in the season before his arrival. Gillispie, who already had orchestrated a remarkable turnaround at UTEP, did an even more amazing job at A&M. The Aggies went 21-10, posted an 8-8 mark in Big 12 competition and reached the NIT quarterfinals in his first season. The Aggies would post a combined record of 49-16 and reach the NCAA tournament in each of the next two seasons before Gillispie left for Kentucky.
4. Bruce Pearl, Tennessee, 2005-06
Tennessee had wallowed in mediocrity for much of the decade before Pearl arrived and awoke the SEC's sleeping giant. Tennessee had gone a combined 61-59 and had reached two NITs in the four seasons before Pearl took over for Buzz Peterson. Pearl had to replace the two leading scorers from a team that finished 14-17 a season earlier, but he wasted no time turning things around. Picked to finish fifth in the SEC East, the Vols instead went 22-8 overall and 12-4 in the SEC to win the division. Tennessee earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, where it lost to Wichita State in the second round. Pearl was named the national coach of the year by The Sporting News.
5. Trent Johnson, LSU, 2008-09
LSU hasn't played particularly well the past two seasons under Johnson, but we can't overlook what the Tigers accomplished in his first season on the job. LSU had gone 13-18 the season before Johnson's arrival, and the Tigers were a combined 11-21 in SEC competition in the two seasons before he took over the job. But in Johnson's first season, LSU went 27-8, won the SEC regular-season title and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Tigers actually led eventual national champion North Carolina in the second half of that second-round game before fading down the stretch.
6. Bob Knight, Texas Tech, 2002-03
Knight already had established himself as one of the most successful coaches in history long before he arrived at Texas Tech, so it didn't come as much of a surprise when he quickly turned this long-time also-ran into a Big 12 contender. The Red Raiders had endured four consecutive losing seasons before Knight's arrival, including a 9-19 mark in 2000-01. Texas Tech improved to 23-9 overall and 10-6 in the Big 12 in Knight's first season. The Red Raiders also earned their first NCAA bid since 1996, though they lost to Southern Illinois in the opening round.
7. Steve Lavin, St. John's, 2010-11
Lavin had spent seven seasons away from coaching before St. John's hired him, but the former UCLA coach sure didn't show any signs of rust in his return. St. John's went 21-12 overall and 12-6 in Big East play last season to earn its first NCAA bid since 2002. Lavin had the benefit of inheriting a senior-dominated team that had reached the NIT a year earlier, but he took the program to another level and helped bring the buzz back to Madison Square Garden. He also recruited well enough to give St. John's fans hope that the Red Storm can continue building on this success now that all those seniors have departed.
8. Tubby Smith, Minnesota, 2007-08
After going 9-22 overall and 3-13 in Big Ten competition the season before Smith took over the program, the Gophers went 20-14 overall and 8-10 in Big Ten play in Smith's first season. That 11-win improvement represented the second-best turnaround of any Division I team that season. Minnesota reached the NIT and would go on to earn its first NCAA bid since 2005 the following season.
Oregon State's struggles the past couple of seasons make it easy to forget just how much Robinson accomplished in his first season on the job. Robinson inherited a program that had gone 6-25 overall and 0-18 in the Pac-10 the previous season. Robinson also was bringing a Princeton-style offense that forced the Beavers to adjust to a new system. Yet he managed to lead Oregon State to an 18-18 mark that culminated with a championship in the College Basketball Invitational. Oregon State's 7-11 Pac-10 record included a season sweep of California and Stanford. Oregon State hadn't swept both those schools in the same season since 1989-90; that also marked the last season Oregon State had won as many as 18 games.
10. Mike Montgomery, California, 2008-09
Picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10 in Montgomery's debut season, California instead placed third in the league standings while going 22-11 overall and 11-7 in conference play. That record was good enough to end California's two-year absence from the NCAA tournament. The Bears had posted a combined overall record of 33-33 during that two-season NCAA drought, and they had gone 6-12 in conference play each of those years.
1. Stan Heath, Kent State, 2001-02
Heath didn't stay long, but he made his lone season at Kent State one to remember. The Flashes went 30-6 overall, posted a 17-1 mark in the Mid-American Conference and advanced to an NCAA tournament regional final. Kent State, a No. 10 seed in the South Regional, upset second-seeded Alabama and third-seeded Pittsburgh before losing 81-69 to Indiana in the regional championship. Arkansas hired him away after that long tournament run. Heath, a former Michigan State assistant, had walked into a great situation. Kent State returned three starters from the team that had advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament the previous season, which helped former coach Gary Waters land a Big East job at Rutgers. The Flashes also had added junior college transfer Antonio Gates, who showed his extraordinary athleticism as a star forward for Kent State long before he developed into the NFL's top tight end. But even with all that talent, Heath deserves plenty of credit for leading Kent State to arguably its best season in school history.
2. Keno Davis, Drake, 2007-08
Davis, the son of longtime college coach Tom Davis, worked four seasons as an assistant on his father's staff at Drake before taking over the program when his dad retired. In his lone season as Drake's coach, Davis turned this longtime Missouri Valley Conference also-ran into a power. Drake had endured 13 consecutive losing seasons before going 17-15 in Tom Davis' final season. But the Bulldogs went 28-5 under Keno Davis. They won their first Valley regular-season title since 1971 and their first MVC tournament. They also earned their first NCAA tournament bid since 1971 as a No. 5 seed, though they lost to Western Kentucky in the first round. Davis was named the national coach of the year by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and The Associated Press. Davis parlayed that big season at Drake into an offer from Providence, but he didn't have nearly as much success there and was fired after three seasons.
3. Dave Rose, BYU, 2005-06
BYU won at least 21 games four times in a five-year stretch from 1999-2000 to 2003-04, but that run of success ended in 2004-05, when the Cougars went 9-21 overall and 3-11 in the Mountain West Conference. Steve Cleveland, who had built BYU into a winning program in the early part of the decade, left after the 2004-05 season for Fresno State. Rose, a former assistant on Cleveland's staff, made sure BYU's slide lasted just only one season. BYU went 20-9 overall and 12-4 in the MWC to reach the NIT in Rose's first season on the job. The Cougars have advanced to the NCAA tournament every season since.
4. Anthony Grant, VCU, 2006-07
Grant, a former Florida assistant, inherited a good situation at VCU. The Rams had averaged 20.3 wins in each of the past three seasons under former coach Jeff Capel, who had left for Oklahoma. VCU also had one of the nation's most dynamic point guards in Eric Maynor. But the Rams reached new heights in their first season under Grant. VCU went 28-7 and pulled off one of the most memorable upsets of the 2006 NCAA tournament by knocking off Duke 79-77 in the first round. The Rams had earned their automatic NCAA bid by winning the Colonial tournament final over George Mason, which had reached the Final Four the previous season.
5. Randy Rahe, Weber State, 2006-07
Rahe's first Weber State team included only three returning players from a squad that had gone 10-17 overall and 4-10 in the Big Sky the previous season, but the lack of experience apparently wasn't much of an obstacle. Weber State improved to 20-12 overall and 11-5 in Big Sky competition to tie for the league's regular-season title in its first season under Rahe, a former Utah and Utah State assistant. Weber State also won the Big Sky tournament to earn its first NCAA bid since 2003.
6. Buzz Peterson, Coastal Carolina, 2005-06
Coastal Carolina had gone through 11 consecutive losing seasons when it hired Peterson, who had just been fired from Tennessee. Peterson, who had won big at Appalachian State and Tulsa before his unsuccessful four-season stint at Tennessee, quickly proved at Coastal Carolina that he could still coach. Coastal went 20-10 overall and 12-4 in the Big South in his first season on the job after going 10-19 overall and 7-9 in league play the previous season. Although a loss to first-place Winthrop in the conference tourney final kept the Chanticleers out of the NCAA tournament, they recorded their first 20-win season since 1992-93.
7. Brad Brownell, Wright State, 2006-07
Brownell has succeeded everywhere he has coached, but he did perhaps his finest work in his first season at Wright State. The Raiders had finished .500 or worse in each of the four seasons before his arrival. Wright State went 23-10 overall and 13-3 in the Horizon League in Brownell's first season, and earned their first NCAA bid since 1993. Their 23 wins were the most the Raiders had recorded in a single season since entering the Division I ranks in 1987.
8. Tim Jankovich, Illinois State, 2007-08
Illinois State had gone 15-16 in the season before Jankovich took over the program. The Redbirds had lost at least 19 games in three of the four seasons preceding that 15-16 campaign. But the losing stopped after Jankovich arrived. The former Kansas assistant led the 2007-08 Illinois State team to a 25-10 record that included a 13-5 mark in the Missouri Valley Conference, the Redbirds' first winning conference record since 2001-02. Jankovich's first Illinois State team matched a school record for single-season wins and advanced to the second round of the NIT.
9. Larry Krystkowiak, Montana, 2004-05
After spending one season as the coach of the CBA's Idaho Stampede, this former Montana and Old Dominion assistant returned to college in 2004 as Montana's head coach. Although Montana had a nice run of success in the 1990s, the Grizzlies had posted losing records in three of the four seasons leading up to Krystowiak's arrival, including a 10-18 mark in 2003-04. Montana improved to 18-13 in Krystkowiak's first season and earned an NCAA bid after winning the Big Sky tournament. The Grizzlies would reach the second round of the NCAA tournament the following season before Krystkowiak left to become an assistant with the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks. He has since returned to the college ranks and is preparing for his first season as Utah's coach.
10. Chris Mack, Xavier, 2009-10
Unlike most of the guys on this list, Mack didn't have to worry about turning around a losing program. Sean Miller had led Xavier to a regional final in 2008 and the Sweet 16 in 2009 before leaving for Arizona. But Mack still had a tough task ahead of him as he took over a young team that didn't return a single player who had posted a scoring average in double figures the previous season. Helped along the way by the arrival of Indiana transfer Jordan Crawford, Mack met the challenge by leading Xavier to a 26-9 record and a third consecutive regional semifinal appearance. This was the first Xavier team to reach the 20-win mark without having at least two seniors on its roster.
1. Ray Giacoletti, Utah, 2004-05
After reaching the 2004 NCAA tournament with Eastern Washington, Giacoletti was hired at Utah and led the Utes to a 29-6 record and a Sweet 16 appearance in the first year of the post-Rick Majerus era. That 2004-05 Utah team also featured Naismith and Wooden Award winner Andrew Bogut in the middle. But without Bogut in the lineup, Giacoletti's Utah teams weren't nearly as successful. Giacoletti resigned after Utah went a combined 25-34 over the next two seasons. Utah hadn't posted a losing record since 1989 before posting back-to-back losing seasons under Giacoletti in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
2. Glen Miller, Penn, 2006-07
When Fran Dunphy left for Temple after building Penn into the Ivy League's dominant program, the Quakers responded by hiring Miller away from league rival Brown. Penn went 22-9 overall and 13-1 in the Ivy League to earn its third consecutive NCAA bid in Miller's first season, but things went downhill quickly. Penn went 13-18 in 2007-08 and 10-18 in 2008-09. The Quakers had won at least 20 games in five of the six seasons leading up to that slide. After Penn dropped its first seven games in the 2009-10 season, Miller was fired.
3. John Phillips, Tulsa, 2001-02
Tulsa's star-studded list of former coaches includes Nolan Richardson, Tubby Smith and Bill Self. Phillips worked two years at Tulsa as an assistant for Self and took over as coach when his boss left for Illinois. It seemed as though the Golden Hurricane had found another rising star when Tulsa advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament in each of Phillips' first two seasons on the job. But the Golden Hurricane slipped all the way to 9-20 in his third season. After Tulsa dropped five of its first seven games in 2004-05, Phillips resigned.
4. John Pelphrey, Arkansas, 2007-08
Pelphrey was considered one of the nation's brightest coaching prospects when he arrived at Arkansas from South Alabama, and he backed up that hype by leading the Razorbacks to a 23-12 record and the second round of the NCAA tournament in his debut season. But he followed that up with three consecutive losing seasons and was fired this March after posting a 69-59 record that included a 25-39 mark in SEC competition.
5. Michael Perry, Georgia State, 2003-04
Perry, a former assistant on Lefty Driesell's staff at Georgia State, led the Panthers to a 20-9 record in his first season as coach. Although that marked the third time in a four-season stretch that Georgia State had won at least 20 games, the Panthers had gone just 14-15 in the season before Perry took over the program. But that debut season marked Georgia State's only winning record in Perry's four-season tenure. Perry was fired after posting a combined 32-57 record over his final three seasons.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for He can be reached at is your source for: College Football | Football Recruiting | College Basketball | Basketball Recruiting | College Baseball | High School | College Merchandise
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