May 30, 2008

Which coaching hire earns top marks?

It's report card time in college basketball. We're not referring to the players, most of whom have finished finals, or the coaches. This is directed more at athletic directors.

Forty-two Division I coaching jobs have come open this offseason (or during the season) and 40 of those have been filled; Brown and Mississippi Valley State remain vacant.

Nine high-major programs have hired new coaches. We break down those hires here, giving pros and cons of each hire and handing out a grade.


NEW COACH: Mike Montgomery (out of basketball)
OLD COACH: Ben Braun (fired)
PROS: The list is almost endless. For starters, Montgomery has a resume few others can match. In his 26 seasons as a head coach, he has had 25 winning seasons. Montgomery took over a Stanford program in 1986 that had been to the NCAA Tournament once and turned it into a national power. The Cardinal went to the NCAA Tournament in each of his last 10 seasons there. That Montgomery is well-connected on the West Coast and remains a well-known name in Pac-10 recruiting hotbeds makes him an ideal fit.
CONS: You have to nitpick here. Montgomery has not coached in two years, and he has been away from the college game for four years. He also is 61 and you have to wonder how long he wants to keep coaching.
BOTTOM LINE: When it comes to possible candidates, nobody was near the caliber of Montgomery. California looked a bit foolish initially for firing Ben Braun (whom Rice quickly hired). Now, the Golden Bears look brilliant.
GRADE: A-plus


NEW COACH: Tom Crean (hired away from Marquette)
OLD COACH: Kelvin Sampson (forced to resign)
PROS: Crean had been to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments at Marquette and none of those teams had an elite recruit, so you have to think he can work wonders at a program that attracts the kind of talent Indiana does. Crean's gregarious personality should make him a big hit among alumni, media and players. He never has had any NCAA problems, either, which is particularly important considering the recurring recruiting violations that occurred under the previous staff. Crean is 42, which means Indiana may not have to worry about searching for its next coach for a long time. The Hoosiers have made three coaching changes in the past eight years.
CONS: Crean's lack of postseason success is a bit of a concern. He did reach the 2003 Final Four with Dwyane Wade in 2003. But in four other NCAA Tournament appearances, his teams have failed to get past the first weekend. On three of those occasions, they have been knocked out in the first round.
BOTTOM LINE: Crean long has been a rising star in the coaching ranks. He is a proven recruiter dating to his days as a Michigan State assistant and he usually exceeded expectations as a head coach. His biggest issue will be overcoming the initial mess he inherits at Indiana. The Hoosiers, who have had multiple defections, return just one player with any significant experience.
GRADE: A-minus


NEW COACH: Trent Johnson (hired away from Stanford)
OLD COACH: John Brady (fired midway through the season)
PROS: LSU isn't taking a chance on some relatively unknown coach with few credentials. Johnson, 51, has 22 years of experience in Division I and has an impressive resume. Johnson turned Nevada into a mid-major power, guiding the Wolf Pack on a shocking run to the Sweet 16 in 2004. That earned him the Stanford job, where he previously had been an assistant for Mike Montgomery. Last season, he was voted the Pac-10 Coach of the Year after leading the Cardinal to 28 wins, a second-place finish in an extraordinarily deep Pac-10 and his second trip to the Sweet 16.
CONS: Outside of four years spent as an assistant at Rice in the mid-1990s, Johnson has spent most of his life and coaching career on the West Coast. That became an even bigger concern when former LSU assistant Butch Pierre left to join Travis Ford's staff at Oklahoma State. Pierre, a Louisiana native, had been Brady's ace recruiter and was responsible for reeling in many of the players from the talent-rich Baton Rouge area. In addition, if you take away Johnson's last seasons at Nevada and Stanford, his overall record is just slightly above .500 (106-105).
BOTTOM LINE: This is somewhat of a strange hire largely because of Johnson's lack of connections in the South. Nevertheless, Johnson is an accomplished coach who is inheriting a talented team. Guard Marcus Thornton (19.6 ppg) is the SEC's leading returning scorer and the Tigers also welcome back versatile wing Tasmin Mitchell, a former five-star recruit who took a medical redshirt last season.
GRADE: B-minus


NEW COACH: Buzz Williams (Marquette assistant)
OLD COACH: Tom Crean (took Indiana job)
PROS: By promoting an assistant, the Golden Eagles ensure there will be as little change as possible. That's exactly what the players want to hear. The Golden Eagles return a veteran squad loaded with NCAA Tournament experience. Williams, 35, is familiar with the personnel. That predecessor Tom Crean was a rookie head coach when he took over at Marquette in 1999 should help fans look past Williams' inexperience. Williams also spent two seasons working under Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie at Texas A&M, and helped engineer one of the biggest turnarounds in college basketball in recent years.
CONS: Lack of experience is the biggest. Williams has spent only one season as a head coach, going 14-17 at New Orleans in 2006-07. Other than that, he has spent only three other seasons at the high-major level (one at Marquette and two at A&M). That's not exactly the kind of resume you expect from a head coach in the Big East. Williams' background also makes this a puzzling choice: He is a Texas native and most of his connections are in Big 12 country.
BOTTOM LINE: Most of the college basketball world is shaking its head at this decision. Marquette plays in arguably the top conference in the nation, has good fan support, plenty of tradition and returns a team that will be well inside the preseason top 25 next season. That would have attracted a long list of impressive candidates. But instead of shopping around, Marquette took an unnecessary risk by handing the program over to an unproven assistant.


NEW COACH: Travis Ford (hired away from Massachusetts)
OLD COACH: Sean Sutton (resigned)
PROS: Ford was one of the most sought-after coaches this offseason, and with good reason. Ford, who turned down a job offer at Providence and talked to officials at LSU about their opening, has the kind of experience rarely seen for someone who is 38. This will be his fourth head-coaching job and third in the D-I ranks. Ford also plays an exciting style, encouraging players to push the pace and shoot plenty of 3-pointers. His UMass team averaged 81.8 points per game this past season, which tied for eighth in the nation, on its way to reaching the NIT championship game. The Minutemen broke the 100-point barrier three times, including a 107-100 upset at Syracuse. Those kinds of numbers helped him attract a number of high-profile transfers to UMass.
CONS: Ford's overall D-1 record is eight games above .500 (123-115). Despite all the attention Ford has received, he never took UMass to the NCAA Tournament. He did lead Eastern Kentucky to the 2005 NCAA Tournament, but his first four teams at the Ohio Valley Conference school finished with losing records. Furthermore, Ford never has coached in a high-major conference or had to deal with the kind of pressure that comes with it.
BOTTOM LINE: Ford was not the big-name hire that Oklahoma State fans were hoping for, certainly not after the Cowboys initially tried to pull alum Bill Self away from Kansas. But Ford is one of the top young coaches in the game and plays the kind of style that will help on the recruiting trail. Hiring former LSU assistant Butch Pierre, one of the nation's top recruiters, also looks like a good move.


NEW COACH: Craig Robinson (hired away from Brown)
OLD COACH: Jay John (fired midway through the season)
PROS: Robinson, 45, orchestrated a quick turnaround at Brown. The Ivy League program was coming off back-to-back losing seasons when he took over in 2006. Two seasons later, the Bears won a school-record 19 games and made a postseason appearance, in the first College Basketball Invitational. But Robinson's coaching ability may not be the biggest asset he brings to Corvallis. Robinson has great recruiting connections in the fertile Chicago area, where he played in high school and coached collegiately. That he is Barack Obama's brother-in-law should help grab the attention of recruits.
CONS: Robinson has few connections on the West Coast, having played at Princeton and coached at Northwestern and Brown. How will his name register in Pac-10 country? There also are questions surrounding the Princeton-style offense he plans to install at Oregon State. Can that work in a league known for high-scoring offense?
BOTTOM LINE: This is the job seemingly nobody wanted, so it's tough to blame Oregon State for not bringing in a West Coast guy. Several candidates passed before Robinson took the bait. He is a risky choice, but the lowly Beavers have little to risk.
GRADE: C-plus.


NEW COACH: Keno Davis (hired away from Drake)
OLD COACH: Tim Welsh (fired)
PROS: Davis, 36, engineered one of the greatest one-year turnarounds in college basketball history this past season, guiding Drake to a school-record 28 wins, the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and tournament titles and the school's first NCAA appearance since 1971. The team was loaded with players passed over by high-major schools. That makes you think he can succeed at Providence, where he'll have far more talent and much better resources.
CONS: Last season was Davis' first as a head coach. He had spent the previous four years on his father's staff at Drake, which makes you wonder if he is really ready to make a leap to the big leagues of college basketball. And this is another hire that doesn't seem to make sense geographically. All of Davis' 16 years of coaching have been spent in the Midwest.
BOTTOM LINE: What Davis did at Drake was magical. But calling it an aberration might be a more accurate description. It's doubtful he can duplicate a similar turnaround at Providence.
GRADE: C-plus.


NEW COACH: Darrin Horn (hired away from Western Kentucky)
OLD COACH: Dave Odom (resigned)
PROS: Unlike some of the other young coaches on this list, Horn, 35, isn't the product of instant success. He spent eight years as a Division I assistant, including four under Crean at Marquette, before landing his first head-coaching job. He then spent five years at Western Kentucky before putting together a breakthrough season that included a surprising run to the Sweet 16 in 2007-08. He had an impressive 111-48 (.698) overall record at the Sun Belt school.
CONS: Until this past season, Horn's teams were widely considered underachievers. Western Kentucky failed to win the Sun Belt Tournament in his first four seasons despite the Hilltoppers being a perennial favorite. That stretch may have been extended to five years and Western Kentucky's deep postseason run may never have materialized if host South Alabama hadn't been upset in the semifinals this past season. The Jaguars beat the Hilltoppers in both regular-season meetings.
BOTTOM LINE: The SEC East is the toughest division in college basketball, which suggests South Carolina needed to hire a big-name coach. But Tennessee nabbed Bruce Pearl from the mid-major ranks (UW Milwaukee). Same goes for Florida with Billy Donovan (Marshall). Still, asking Horn to make a similar leap may be too much.
GRADE: C-plus.


NEW COACH: Johnny Dawkins (Duke assistant)
OLD COACH: Trent Johnson (took LSU job)
PROS: Dawkins, 44, spent the last 10 seasons working at his alma mater under Mike Krzyzewski, one of the top college coaches ever. During that time, he was part of a staff that went to 10 NCAA Tournaments, three Final Fours and won a national title in 2001. That he played and worked at a school with such a strong academic reputation should help with the move to Stanford. He also played for nine years in the NBA, which can only help in recruiting.
CONS: Dawkins has no head-coaching experience and is the only coach on this list who falls in that category. How will he do without Coach K by his side? Nobody really knows for sure. The former Duke star also grew up in Washington, D.C., so you have to wonder if he will be able to recruit in southern California.
BOTTOM LINE: Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby made a big error by letting Trent Johnson get away. Replacing Johnson with the unproven Dawkins may be another mistake. Plenty of programs give rookie head coaches a chance, but one coming off a trip to the Sweet 16 shouldn't have to.

Andrew Skwara 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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