With Vanderbilt suddenly in the market for a new basketball coach after Bryce Drew was fired on Friday, who’s next in line to be the head coach?
Well, before we answer that question, the first question we have to answer is what qualities we’re looking for in a new head coach. There is a segment of the fan base that is adamant that Vanderbilt must hire a head coach who’s a proven winner in a power conference. (Or “Power 5,” which is a football term; we’ll count the Big East here.) Others are less turned off by the Drew tenure to the point that they’d completely rule out anyone who doesn’t meet that criterion.
The Case for an Experienced Hand
The biggest reason to hire a coach with some experience, and success, coaching at the highest level of college basketball is easy: certainty. Of the ten SEC schools that currently have a head coach — I’m not counting LSU in this, by the way, since they’ll probably have an opening very soon — eight of them had previous experience as a power-conference head coach, and that’s not even counting John Calipari, who had somehow never coached in a power conference prior to taking the Kentucky job. (It balances out, because I am counting Kermit Davis, who had an ill-fated stint at Texas A&M in the 1990s that ended with them on probation and Kermit coaching JUCO ball.)
It’s too early to tell with Tom Crean at Georgia, but the rest have worked out basically how you would expect. Calipari is one of the best coaches in the sport; Rick Barnes is a top-15 coach who’s now appreciated for what he is instead of being crapped on for not being a top-5 coach. Mike Anderson has never made a deep NCAA Tournament run like he did at Missouri, but he’s at least got Arkansas respectable. Bruce Pearl won an SEC title at Auburn; Ben Howland finally broke Mississippi State’s NCAA Tournament drought. And Frank Martin got to a Final Four at South Carolina. We don’t really know what Cuonzo Martin is going to do at Missouri, but early returns are good.
Of course, if you’re not aiming high enough the totem pole, that certainty can be something of a negative. And hiring a coach with power-conference experience is hard. Most coaches who fit that bill and who you’d actually want to hire have a job that they’re happy at. If they’re willing to move, often it’s just because they feel unappreciated at their current school... or they’re about to get fired. And if they’re available because they’ve actually been fired, well, then you have to ask yourself why they got fired and whether that’s relevant. If he was fired because he couldn’t meet insane expectations at Texas or UCLA, that’s probably not relevant to you if you’re Tennessee or Mississippi State. On the other hand, sometimes the reason the coach got fired has to do with NCAA trouble or legitimate failure. It’s long since been forgotten, but Billy Gillispie had an ill-fated one-year tenure at Texas Tech after getting fired from Kentucky; it might have seemed logical on some level, but the issues that derailed his Kentucky tenure resurfaced and he never got off the ground.
All of this is to get to the point: Are you okay with hiring someone like Ed Cooley of Providence or Tad Boyle of Colorado? Former Vanderbilt assistant coach Tom Richardson had this list:
Would these high major coaches have an interest in Vanderbilt basketball?— Tom Richardson (@CoachRichHoops) March 22, 2019
Buzz Williams VT
Mick Cronin Cinn
Bruce Weber KSU
Fred Hoiberg Iowa State.
Ed Cooley Providence
Mark Turgeon Maryland
Tad Boyle Colorado
Mike Hopkins Washington
and while some of those names are probably a bit unrealistic (Buzz Williams seems to be a lock for the Texas A&M job and Fred Hoiberg is probably headed to Nebraska), it’s a good illustration of the type of power-conference head coaches whom Vanderbilt might be able to target.
Cooley just finished his eighth year at Providence and has a record of 162 wins and 110 losses. He made five straight NCAA Tournaments from 2014-18; he also won just one tournament game. It all sounds about like what Vanderbilt got from Kevin Stallings. The same, really, could be said for Boyle, who’s made the tournament four times in nine years at Colorado and has won one game; he’s also missed three straight tournaments.
Maryland’s Mark Turgeon would be a bit of a better version of that, both in terms of length of experience (8 years at Maryland, 4 years at Texas A&M before that) and record (277-131 between those two schools.) But that’s been done at two schools with a lot more resources than Vanderbilt, and he hasn’t had much success in the tournament.
If you want to take a look at a coach who’s been fired, Thad Matta is the first place to start, for rather obvious reasons: Matta coached Ohio State for 13 years and won 73 percent of his games there, and he also went to two Final Fours. He also got fired after the 2016-17 season after missing the tournament in his last two years; back problems reportedly were affecting his ability to coach the team and get out on the recruiting trail. If you’re convinced he’s fine now, go for it; if the back problems are going to be an ongoing issue, though, it might not be worth it. You’d probably take Matta’s last four years at Ohio State (87-50, two NCAA Tournaments, one win), but then Ohio State has a lot more resources than Vanderbilt does.
And since it’s obligatory that we mention Rick Pitino, I just have to say: No.
Aside from Matta, though, if you’re looking at hiring a guy with power conference coaching experience, you have to ask yourself: were you really okay with Kevin Stallings’ tenure?
The Mid-Major Guys
One name that’s come up rather quickly: Northern Kentucky’s John Brannen, who’s made the NCAA Tournament in two of the last three years and has gone 81-50 there. On the other hand — attractive young head coach who won in the Horizon League? That was Bryce Drew, and I’m sure the fan base is eager for that again.
You’ll probably hear Lipscomb’s Casey Alexander come up in the search, who has a rather mediocre overall record at 134-119 but has had a couple of good years at Lipscomb, and he’s a Chattanooga native and a Belmont alum.
Wofford’s Mike Young is at least worth a look, though from all appearances he’s a Wofford lifer — having been there for thirty years as both an assistant and the head coach. (He’s also an Emory and Henry grad, though, so the requisite ODAC connection is there.) In the same conference, UNC-Greensboro’s Wes Miller is still just 36, but has been the head man at UNCG for seven seasons — though his overall record (140-116) is rather average, he’s had a couple of good years. And like the last time we did this, I’ll point out that UC-Irvine’s Russ Turner is very underrated, though that may not last long after his team beat Kansas State on Friday. (Some in the comments yesterday mentioned Steve Forbes at East Tennessee State; on paper, that’s worth a look, but in practice, there is no way that Nick Zeppos is signing off on the guy who landed a show cause order for recruiting violations while on Bruce Pearl’s staff at Tennessee.)
Once you dive down this rabbit hole, there are a whole bunch of guys you could come up with. The issue is that there’s a lot less certainty than there is with an established coach (and we saw that with Bryce Drew), but there tends to be more certainty. If a power conference head coach is a free agent who’s been in MLB for a few years, a mid-major coach is a top prospect in Double-A. You might be getting a superstar, but you might also be getting a dud. (And if mid-major head coaches are top prospects in Double-A, assistant coaches are top prospects in A-ball.)
So which is it? Discuss in the comments. We’ll probably hear some names in the next few days, and some will probably be dumb ones floated by agents. Let’s just hope we get a new coach quickly.