We are at or near the end of College Basketball’s Silly Season for coaches anyway. Transfers and those testing the NBA waters still have some time to find a soft landing spot or return to school, but honestly most Division I coaches have no clue what their roster is going to look like next year with all the moving parts.
As I’ve said before you cannot really blame some of these kids for wanting to see if the grass is truly greener. After all, the coaches certainly do. By the time it is done, 50 of the 300 plus Division One schools will have new coaches. Some are re-tread hires like Herb Sendek out of the business for a year after getting fired at Arizona State and now back in at Santa Clara. Travis Ford was canned at Oklahoma State and resurfaced at St. Louis, which for him is probably a better job. St. Louis doesn’t have a football program and they have a beautiful relatively new arena in a nice city that turns out some basketball talent. Western Kentucky hired Rick Stansberry to take over their program. Stansberry was the long-time coach at Mississippi State in the SEC and did a nice job there. A few years ago he reportedly “retired” which in his case was code for “we don’t need you anymore.” Stansberry took his contract buy-out and took a couple of years off before resurfacing as an assistant at Texas A&M. Mississippi State? Well they are still trying to recover from replacing Stansberry with some loser named Rick Ray, who was shown the door after the 2014 – 2015 season.
Change is sometimes good. Jamie Dixon had worn out his welcome at Pittsburgh. Kevin Stallings had done the same at Vanderbilt. So when TCU needed a coach, Dixon jumped back to his alma mater even though it’s a tough job in a really tough league and in an area where the Dallas Cowboys lead the local sports segment every night of the damn year. Stallings took his place at Pitt. A change of scenery sometimes does everyone good and in this case, these two guys could have probably used the change. Stanford felt it needed a change so it canned Johnny Dawkins. Dawkins was then hired at Central Florida. And, Memphis really wanted to fire coach Josh Pastner. They just couldn’t afford to do it with a reported $10 million dollar buyout. The school announced Pastner would stay but obviously knowing his days were numbered, he jumped at the chance to coach at Georgia Tech. Yes, Georgia Tech is in the ACC and it’s a big city in Atlanta and yes they’ve made two Final Fours, one in 1990 and one in 2004, but it’s currently an ACC bottom feeder. Pastner seems to a bit of an “odd duck” and I realize I’m judging him from the outside which isn’t really fair. He has said he only wants assistant coaches who don’t play golf and, weirdly at his introductory news conference tipped his hand at his sex life, but saying that his wife has asked him to stay away from her because she doesn’t want any more kids and he does. TMI dude, TMI.
Some schools took a shot on some first time coaches. Damon Stodamire played in the NBA. He’s now the coach at Pacific. Rodney Billips brother won an NBA title with the Detroit Pistons. Rodney is now the coach at Denver.
Then there were just some odd moves that maybe will work out. Mike Dunleavy was a long time NBA head coach. To my knowledge he’s never been a head coach in college until now. He was hired to coach the team at Tulane. Ever since USC Football caught lightning in a bottle with former NFL Head Coach Pete Carroll, colleges have been more than willing to give a former pro coach a shot in college. You have to figure if a coach has spent time trying to manage a bunch of overpaid babies on an NBA roster, 18 – 22 year olds must be a breeze.
The most bizarre situation came at UNLV where the school is on its fourth head coach in three months and its second in two weeks. Dave Rice started the year as the Rebels’ coach. He was fired in January. His assistant Todd Simon was named the interim coach and he truly was interim because they apparently didn’t even consider him for the job prompting him to take the head coaching job at Southern Utah. UNLV’s Athletic Director rolled out the red carpet to try and entice Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin to leave the Queen City for the desert and the bright lights of Vegas. It wouldn’t take much for me, but it did for Cronin who said no. So, she responded by hiring Arkansas Little-Rock’s Chris Beard who became the flavor of the month with an upset in the NCAA Tournament. I’m always inherently suspicious of these March Madness wonders (see Andy Enfield at USC). It’s a lot easier to get a team in the Sun Belt Conference to play with a chip on its shoulder in a one-and-done tournament. At a place like UNLV which has been amongst basketball royalty, one win in the tournament is not enough. So Beard supposedly settled in and then this happened. One Orlando “Tubby” Smith leaves Texas Tech for Memphis and no sooner than you can say “MGM Grand”, Beard is done at UNLV and back to his purported “dream job” as the head coach at Texas Tech.
Which brings us back to the most unexpected hire of the off-season in Memphis hiring Tubby Smith. Smith did a nice job at Texas Tech, but Texas Tech is a football school and Texas is a football state. Living in Tennessee, I can tell you that Memphis is about one thing…basketball. Sure, Justin Fuente made Memphis football cool, but even he had to know that basketball is king in Tennessee’s largest city. He wasn’t going to be coaching at Memphis this year with his choice of any number of jobs, and just happened to walk right into the good fortune of Frank Beamer retiring at Virginia Tech. Memphis hired a coach who has taken Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Texas Tech to the NCAA Tournament. He also won a National Title at Kentucky in 1998 and you can make a fair argument that he did so with Rick Pitino’s players. But, you still have to coach them and Smith did. I can give an inexperienced driver the keys to a LEXUS and watch him drive it right into the ditch. The experienced driver can get something out of the LEXUS just as easily as he can get something out of an old pickup truck.
Memphis has the advantage of being in a more “friendly” league in the American Athletic Conference, but with his arrival look at the coaches now in the American. Smith at Memphis, Cronin at Cincinnati, Kevin Ollie (whose won a national title) at U-Conn, Larry Brown (with both an NBA and NCAA Title) at SMU, Dunleavy at Tulane, Kevin Sampson (who took Oklahoma to the final 4 and coached at Indiana) at Houston, and Dawkins (who won 2 NIT Championships at Stanford) at Central Florida. But, it’s big advantage for Smith who has constantly worn the mantle of not being a great recruiter (and understand a head coach doesn’t have to be as long as he has assistants who are) is that the City of Memphis turns out basketball talent from its high schools. Larry Finch was one of the first homegrown talents to stay at home. All he did was spend 25 years at the school as a player, assistant coach and head coach being involved in a total of over 500 games. He is fourth on the school’s all-time scoring list and led Memphis to its first Final 4 in 1973. He was a part of Memphis’ second final 4 in 1985 as an assistant to coach Dana Kirk. That 1985 team’s best player was from West Memphis, Arkansas. Keith Lee led Memphis to a 104-24 record in his four years from 1981 – 1985 while winning 3 Metro Conference Tournament Championships. In 1982 he led Memphis to its first ever Number 1 ranking in the A.P. poll. They promptly lost it that night on the road at Virginia Tech. The 1908s battles between Memphis and Louisville in the old Metro Conference were some of the best in college basketball.
In the 90s another home grown product named Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway stayed home. Hardway, from Memphis’s Treadwell High School, is one of Memphis’ 13 players to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. The school’s only #1 pick Derrick Rose was drafted first overall by his hometown Chicago Bulls where he’s battled injuries during his career but is still playing in the league.
Rose was part of one of the best runs of Memphis basketball under John Calipari. Calipari coached at Memphis for 9 seasons before jumping to Kentucky. He won 252 games on the court but his 2007-2008 season was wiped out by NCAA violations so his official record has him with just 214 wins. He also won an NIT championship. During his last 4 years, Memphis went 137-14 and didn’t lose a game in Conference USA for his last three years. His 2008 team lost in the National Championship game to Kansas.
Pastner was one of his assistants and ascended to the head coaching job when Calipari moved to Kentucky. Pastner averaged almost 24 wins over his career at the school, but the last two years was just 37-29, attendance was dwindling at FedEx Forum, the home the Tigers share with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, his teams were missing the post-season and players were transferring. In fact, one of Virginia’s best players next year will be a Memphis transfer. This year’s team finished 7th in the 10 team American Conference. Pastner also steadfastly refused to play Tennessee in basketball. The two schools have played just 24 times in their history with Tennessee leading 13-11, but they haven’t played since the 2012-2013 season. In an ironic twist guess who is on Pastner’s Georgia Tech schedule for the next three years? You got it…Tennessee. We call that Karma.
So enter Orlando Smith whose duty is to keep the best players at home, grab a few top 100 recruits from outside the City and fill the seats at the arena all while turning 65 years old in June. Does he have it in him? I’ve never seen a better coach coming out of timeouts that him and he gets a lot out of his players. History has shown Memphis loves its basketball and loves a winner and if Smith makes Memphis relevant on the national stage again rather than a mid-level American Conference team he’ll be able to ride off into retirement as the first coach to ever take six teams to the NCAA Tournament. For Tubby, that might just be worth a walk in Memphis.