For the first time in five years, West Virginia University is looking for a new head basketball coach.
The good news this time is that the program is in much better shape. When John Beilein
took over in April of 2002, the Mountaineers were coming off of an eight win season. Five years later, the program has been to the postseason four straight years, including this year's 27-win NIT Championship campaign. So, needless to say, the job should be very attractive. With that being said, let's look at a list of possible candidates for the vacancy.
Bob Huggins, head coach, Kansas State -- When the job was last left open following the departure of longtime head coach Gale Catlett, Huggins was the first name to pop up. He ultimately turned down the job to stay at Cincinnati, only to be let go by UC President Nancy Zimpher prior to the 2005-06 season. Huggins -- a former WVU player -- is believed to at least have interest in the vacancy, though he has only been at Kansas State for one season. It's also unknown whether the WVU Athletic Department would be willing to go down that road for the second time, as they went after Huggins hard in 2002 only to be rebuffed. Still, there aren't many coaches in the college game better than the Huggy Bear, and one would have to believe that if Huggins returned to his alma mater it would be his final stop.
Sure, there are questions about the character of some of his past players as well as Huggins himself. But if he truly is interested in the job, then the search must start with him.
Jeff Neubauer, head coach, Eastern Kentucky -- It's no secret that the head Colonel is one of the nation's bright young coaches. In just his second season at EKU, Neubauer led his team to the Ohio Valley Conference crown and an NCAA Tournament bid. Of course, Jeff is no stranger to Morgantown. Neubauer served as John Beilein's top assistant for three seasons at West Virginia before moving on to Eastern. During the 2003-04 season, Neubauer was elevated to head coach for a game against St. John's after Beilein's back went out.
If he were to get the job, there would likely be less of a transition for the players than if a coach with a different style of play from the Beilein way was hired. Neubauer recruited many of the current Mountaineer players, so there would be familiarity there as well. If you're looking for a knock on the young coach, it's that he has only had two years of head coaching experience. Despite the lack of experience, Neubauer's name will likely be at the top of West Virginia's list.
Travis Ford, head coach, UMass -- Ford, like Neubauer, is one of the best young coaches in college basketball. Ironically, Ford arrived at UMass two summers ago from Eastern Kentucky, where he was in turn replaced by Neubauer. In just two seasons at UMass, Ford has turned that program back into a power in the Atlantic 10. The Minutemen made it to the second round of the NIT this year, before falling to Beilein's Mountaineers. Following that game, Ford raved about the atmosphere in the Coliseum.
Like any other potential coach, there are some questions surrounding Ford. Like Neubauer, he is relatively new to the head coaching ranks. Unlike Neubauer, he's never served as an assistant coach at the highest level of Division I. And, since Ford has absolutely no ties to the state or program, one might worry about him jumping ship at the first available opportunity to get a "bigger" job. Word through the grapevine is that Ford is interested in the vacancy.
Jerry Dunn, assistant coach, West Virginia -- Dunn would be a relatively "safe" hire. He's been an assistant in Morgantown for the past four seasons, and is very familiar with the current team and structure of the program. Dunn has also been on the recruiting trail for West Virginia, and would have a leg up in that area not only for the Class of 2008, but keeping Class of 2007 signee John Flowers on board. Another positive for Dunn is that he has Division I head coaching experience in a major conference, having previously served in that capacity at Penn State from 1995-2002.
Then again, Dunn's overall record at Penn State (117-121) isn't all that impressive. There's more to that record than meets the eye, though. Dunn took the Nittany Lions to the NCAA Tournament twice in his eight seasons, advancing to the Sweet 16 in 2001. He also took the Nittany Lions to the NIT Finals in 2000. While he likely won't be the top candidate for the job, Dunn's familiarity with the program and players should at least warrant him serious consideration.
Mike Maker, assistant coach, West Virginia -- Maker has only been in Morgantown for two seasons, but has quickly picked up the Mountaineer way. In the eyes of many, Maker was Beilein's lead assistant this past year as the Mountaineers won 27 games and the NIT crown. His relationships with the players are a plus, as is the fact that he has worked a lot with the younger players on the scout team in practice.
The biggest knock against Maker, obviously, is that he has no head coaching experience at the Division I level. In fact, prior to filling the void left on Beilein's staff when Neubauer took the EKU job, Maker's D-I experience was limited to assistant coaching stints at Samford and Dartmouth. It's hard to imagine him getting a look at this point in time, but stranger things have happened.
Mike Carey, head coach, West Virginia women's basketball -- Perhaps the next head coach could come from right down the hall at the Coliseum? What Carey has done with the women's program is nothing short of a miracle. In the two years prior to his arrival, the Mountaineer women were 11-44. Since taking over, he's won more than 100 games and taken the team to a pair of NCAA Tournaments. He's also put together some pretty good recruiting classes.
Carey was previously the men's coach at Salem International University, and turned that program into a national power on the Division II level. Though that is impressive, cynics would point out that Carey has not coached at the highest level of men's college basketball (even as an assistant). Whether or not the Clarksburg native even expresses interest in the position remains to be seen.
So, there's a tentative list of possible candidates. Air Force Academy coach Jeff Bzdelik would be an intriguing candidate, but he is likely headed to Colorado. As the search begins, names will be added and deleted from this list.