Coaching Search: Who should be at the top?

Who should University of South Carolina Athletic Director Eric Hyman be looking at to be the next Gamecocks Head Basketball Coach? The "list" is speculation, because the "why" is as important as the "who." The "list" may surprise you.

AT THE TOP of the list of a potential head coach should be coaches who are desirable yet not out of reach. Two of the people Athletic Director Eric Hyman should have looked at immediately, but have not yet been mentioned much, are Pittsburgh University's JAMIE DIXON and Villanova University's JAY WRIGHT. An analysis of the pros and cons of these men illustrates how complicated the search, selection, and even the decision can be in finding the next coach to come to Columbia.

The Pros: Both Dixon and Wright are proven winners with multiple NCAA tournament berths and compete in one the nation's top basketball conferences, the Big East. Wright has built Hofstra and re-built Villanova, while Dixon has continued Pitt's success, the last few season with his own players. Each is young enough – mid forties – and experienced enough to be exactly what USC needs: vigorous energy combined with a winner's experience. Each has a rebuilding job left in their career and each could be attracted by a nice raise, the chance to be a landmark coach in a program's history, and to be a top coach in what is arguably the best college sports conference in the country.

Dixon has five consecutive NCAA tournament teams, one Big East championship (03-04) and this year's Big East Tournament Title in five seasons as a Head Coach at Pittsburgh, his first Head Coaching job. He succeeded the successful Ben Howland after several years as an assistant at Pitt, and is now competing with all his own players. He coached his Panther teams to the Sweet 16 in 2004 and 2007, and has won three of four first round NCAA games. Dixon has the fourth best winning percentage among all active coaches of at least four years, and had the second best start after four seasons in NCAA history with 105 wins, trailing just Everett Case at N.C. State. Dixon just turned 42 and is a California guy who has coached mostly on the West Coast and twice at Hawaii, so South Carolina may fit his personality or climate desires more than Pittsburgh. Additionally, Dixon is a 1987 TCU graduate after a stellar basketball career and is a member of its Hall of Fame, which means somewhere along the way he has crossed paths with Hyman, who was A.D. at TCU from 1998-2005.

Wright has a Sweet 16 berth at Villanova in 2005, and followed that up with an Elite Eight team in 2006. His Wildcats have made the NCAA's four straight years, winning the Big East in 2006 and just barely getting in this season. He took Villanova to the NIT in his first three seasons. In his first head coaching job he spent four years rebuilding Hofstra, then earned an NIT berth and two straight NCAA tournament bids before Villanova called back its former Assistant to be their Head Coach. Hofstra improved its record every season under Wright.

The Cons: Wright has deep ties to Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. The 47 year old graduated from nearby Bucknell and has always coached within 200 miles or so of Villanova. The farthest he has coached from ‘Nova, where he was an assistant from 1987-92, was Rochester, New York. Wright's three children are 14, 12 and 8, so moving might be a strain after six years.

Dixon won his Big East crown in his first season with mostly Ben Howland's players. Both Dixon and Wright coach in a strong enough basketball league to get national attention, and a move to USC means moving to a "football conference." If an NCAA national championship is a career goal, it may take some persuasion to show either one that the chances are better as the Gamecocks Head Coach than at Pitt or ‘Nova. Becoming the first coach to really establish a program, or the one who brings back the glory, is enticing. So is working at the Flagship University of a state. Neither seems to have had ties to South Carolina.

The Intangibles: Columbia is a friendly city and South Carolina is a great place to raise a family. Dixon has a 5 and a half year old and a 4 year old, while Wright has two children getting ready for high school. Mild winters and tremendous springs and falls may be more to Dixon's liking than even a friendly northern city like Pittsburgh.

What about the front runners? The same analysis applies.

TWO MORE who have been mentioned often are ANTHONY GRANT of Virginia Commonwealth University, and GREG MARSHALL of Wichita State.

The Pros: Grant has "winning" experience at Marshall and Florida under Billy Donavan and seemingly had enough talent to be Florida's top pick to replace Donavan if he had actually gone to the NBA after last season. (See profile by Chris Cox posted 3/6/08 on GamecockAnthem.com.) But Donavon would have departed in the summer, when fewer coaches are ready to move. Grant's VCU club last season, his first as a Head Coach, had a school record 28 wins and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, beating Duke as an 11th seed 79-77, then losing to Pitt in overtime. His Rams won both the regular season and Colonial Athletic Association Tournament titles. This season VCU won the Colonial Conference regular season crown, but lost in the conference tournament to George Mason, who won the tourney title and the only conference NCAA bid. VCU earned an NIT bid. Grant won three state titles as a high school coach in Florida.

In nine years at Winthrop, Marshall had 7 NCAA tournament teams in a mid-major conference, so he obviously develops players others did not want. Marshall led Winthrop to a ten point win over Notre Dame in the 2007 NCAA tournament, and his teams almost sprung other upsets in the NCAA tournament, most notably a 2 point loss to Tennessee in 2006. In the regular season, Marshall led the Eagles to wins at Clemson and Missouri. He has been an assistant coach at Belmont Abbey, Randolph Macon, Marshall, and the College of Charleston.

The Cons: Marshall had a slow start at Wichita State leading to an 11-20 season, just 4-14 in the Missouri Valley Conference, plus a first round tournament loss in his first year. Based on other media reports, Grant does not appear to have shown much, if any, interest in the USC job, but it's early and the real thought process does not begin until after the season ends for an up and coming coach. Grant may have his sites set on another higher paying job, and also may not want to return to the SEC, except at Florida. Perhaps LSU is far enough away to count as "outside" the SEC.

The Intangibles: Soon to be 42, Grant has three sons and a daughter that range in age from 2-11, so the time may be right for a move. Marshall is repeatedly said to have always wanted to coach basketball at USC, but his perceived coaching style, being aggressive toward his players - "breaking them down to build them up" - may be an impediment. He has the obvious South Carolina ties. Marshall has an 11 year old son and an 8 year old daughter, so now would be the time to move back family-wise.

OTHERS ON PAR with Grant and Marshall, and arguably with Wright and Dixon, are JOHN THOMPSON III (See Chris Cox's 3/7/08 profile on Thompson on GameockAnthem.com for more details), SEAN MILLER OF XAVIER OF OHIO, and of course, OKLAHOMA's JEFF CAPEL, this week's "front runner."

The CONS: Why leave? Thompson may want to leave to establish his own legacy away from his Dad's Georgetown dynasty, but wouldn't a guy who grew up watching his Father triumph in the Washington area wait until Gary Williams retires at Maryland, or Virginia needs a new coach? Maybe USC becomes a bargaining tool for a higher salary, though Thompson's wife has ties to the Midlands and after recently beating serious health issues, may want to "come home" with their children aged 9, 6 and 4.

Capel is an intriguing possibility, and published reports say he is the "leading candidate" that USC "wants." He has a North Carolina base with a Duke pedigree. so he and North Carolina grad Hyman have a common background with ACC ties. At 32 he is the sixth youngest coach in the NCAA and already has almost six seasons experience as a head coach. Capel succeeded at VCU with an NCAA bid (03-04) and an NIT bid (04-05) in four seasons, and went 16-15 last season with the Sooners. This year he led his Sooners to an NCAA Tournament bid and a #6 seed. With a one year old daughter and an almost 5 year marriage, Capel seems primed to lead a "big-time program" – which is why some people in Oklahoma wonder why he is even mentioned for the South Carolina job. A lateral move? A downward move? Another rebuilding job? Maybe the lure of being closer to family living in North Carolina and the chance for a lengthy stop – perhaps the long term stay few coaches seem to have – may be a stronger pull on Capel than other intangibles.

Xavier's Miller has an outstanding record in just three years at Xavier, winning NCAA Tournament games in 2007, and taking the Atlantic 10 regular season title in 2005-2006. (See profile by Chris Cox posted 2/27/08 on GamecockAnthem.com). His Musketeers were awarded a # 3 seed after a 27-6 season with a consistent Top 20 ranking. Miller has won so far using Thad Motta's players, and some Xavier observers sense Miller lacks the fire to keep the proud Xavier basketball program in its lofty mid-major position – though at least one college basketball analyst predicted the Musketeers to be among the Sweet Sixteen more than 3 weeks ago. The 38 year old Miller is in his third season as Head Coach, has won 20 games, and made the NCAA's three straight years, winning the A-10 Tournament in 2006 and being crowned regular season co-champion in 2007. Miller is a Pittsburgh native and 1992 graduate of Pitt, with sons 12, 9 and 6. He has coached at N.C. State, Pitt, Wisconsin, and Miami (Ohio), so ties to South Carolina are questionable – but not his ties to Athletic Director Hyman, who worked at Miami (Ohio) at the same time .

TRAVIS FORD of Massachusetts has had success in the A-10 and has the Kentucky pedigree, but even a 21-9 record, a third seed in the A-10 tournament and an NIT bid this season following a 10-6 conference season has one wondering, "Why him?" The Minutemen shared the A-10 regular season crown in Ford's first season in 06-07 and won a game in the NIT, finishing 24-9. The 37 year old Ford has already been a Head Coach for almost 11 seasons, three at NAIA Campbellsville, then 5 at Eastern Kentucky, which included the Colonel's first winning season in 11 years and the first NCAA tournament appearance in 25 years in 04-05, before being lured to U-Mass. So if USC needs a rebuilder the question might be, "Why not Travis Ford?"

AN INTERESTING POSSIBILITY is Auburn's JEFF LEBO. He has South Carolina ties as an assistant under Eddie Fogler from 93-94 to 98-99, and has developed three point shooters at Auburn. He most likely would bring John Cooper, who was successful as a recruiter under Fogler, as an assistant. Lebo's record at Auburn? Start with 14-17 (4-12 SEC) in 04-05, then 12-16 (4-12 SEC) in 05-06, and 17-15 (7-9 SEC) last season. This season Auburn finished 14-16 (4-12 SEC). Would he leave Auburn with a new building plan to coach in the Colonial Center? Would a rebuilder without any real progress at Auburn be asked to move his three children (12, 9 and 5) and wife Melissa back to Columbia? It might be a stretch. Its probably a bigger stretch for Carolina to hire a man who has not yet led is current team to any postseason tournament in four years, much less won an NCAA game for his school.

AN EVEN MORE INTERESTING possibility is MISSISSIPPI's ANDY KENNEDY, entering his second season at Ole' Miss. Kennedy completed Cincinnati's season as Head Coach after Bob Huggins was terminated, so he coached Devon Downey while there. USC's facilities are better than those at Ole'Miss, but the young talent returning might be about the same. Plus, the Reb's have more momentum with a great start and an NIT bid this season. Kennedy is an interesting choice because you really have to look to find reasons why it would make sense for him and USC to meet up after just two years in Oxford.

BILLY DONOVAN of FLORIDA? BOBBY KNIGHT now of ESPN? TUBBY SMITH of MINNESOTA? Each is as likely as the other to get the job, so they don't enter the conversation, except to be conversation. An unknown assistant coach? That's a more likely possibility than any of these three quality coaches who, for different reasons, will not be the next USC Head basketball coach.

Highly successful black coaches such as OREGON UNIVERSITY'S ERNIE KENT or WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY'S LORENZO ROMAR are probably not interested in Carolina. Kent is an Oregon graduate entrenched in Eugene after ten seasons that included two Elite 8's. Romar has three NCAA Tournament appearances in six seasons, from 04 through 06. He is a California native and has never coached farther East than St. Louis.

Only Eric Hyman and Sam Daniels of the USC athletic Department know the pecking order, the process, and the pitfalls of each particular potential USC Head Coach. The announcement may not be made until close to the Final Four or even after the April 7 NCAA Championship Game.


Gamecock Anthem Top Stories