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May 4, 2010
Exit Strategy
When Coaches Flee Major Conferences

by Asher Fusco


Greg McDermott's decision to abandon Iowa State for the Creighton vacancy may not have been the most interesting coaching move to happen in the state of Iowa within the past week. Iowa State's hiring of the inexperienced and as yet under-qualified Fred Hoiberg takes that title. But McDermott's relocation was certainly intriguing. After all, why would a onetime Northern Iowa coach who had risen to the Big 12 from the ranks of the Missouri Valley turn around and head back to mid-majordom after four seasons?

Why? How about prior examples of coaches finding success in similar situations, a comfortable 10-year contract, and the respective near-term outlooks of Creighton and Iowa State? Seen in this light McDermott's decision becomes somewhat more understandable.

Historical precedent
As odd as McDermott's move back to the Missouri Valley might seem, a goodly number of coaches have taken the major-to-mid-major route in recent years. The most obvious (and optimistic) parallel here is Steve Alford. After coaching Iowa to three NCAA tournament bids and a 61-67 conference record over eight uneven seasons, Alford packed up and headed to New Mexico. Iowa was in better shape at the time of Alford's resignation than Iowa State is now, but Hawkeye fans were not satisfied by a postseason-free 2007 season, much less Northwestern State's memorable 14-over-3 upset of Iowa in the 2006 NCAA tournament. Another point of parallel: Alford's roots were in the Missouri Valley, as a head coach at Southwest Missouri State, now known as Missouri State.

Alford has found greener pastures (or more scenic vistas, at least) in Albuquerque. Led by do-it-all Kansas transfer J.R. Giddens in 2007-08, the Lobos went 24-9 (11-5 Mountain West), earned an NIT berth and finished 35th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. The next season, Alford proved he didn't need the NBA-bound Giddens by going 22-12 (12-4 MWC) and making the NIT again. Then last year season the Lobos built separate winning streaks of 12 and 15 games, made the second round of the NCAA tournament, and finished 30-5 (14-2 MWC).

But while Alford's excelled since relocating outside the "big six" conferences, the other active coaches who've made the downward move have had mixed results.

Ben Braun coached California for 12 seasons, including six campaigns of 20 wins or more. When things started to stagnate Cal fired Braun, who took over a Rice program fresh off a 3-27 (0-16 Conference USA) season. Braun hasn't straightened things out as of yet in Houston, posting a 5-27 CUSA record and a -0.13 in-conference efficiency margin in two seasons.

After five up-and-down seasons at Seton Hall ending in 2007, Louis Orr took the head gig at Bowling Green. In his first three seasons he's given a bit of a boost to the once-moribund program but still carries a 24-24 record in Mid-American Conference play.

Ricardo Patton bailed on Colorado after posting a 3-13 Big 12 mark in 2007, his 12th season at the helm. He inherited a Northern Illinois team that went 4-12 in the MAC and has proceeded to average 4.67 conference wins per season over the last three years.

Mike Davis has been able to fill Mike Anderson's shoes much more capably than he could Bobby Knight's. Davis left Indiana for Alabama-Birmingham in 2006, and it took just one 7-9 season to get the Blazers back in the neighborhood of their Anderson-era success. UAB hasn't earned an NCAA berth in Davis' four seasons, but the program has posted 20-plus victories and a KenPom rating of 67 or better in each of the past three seasons.

Larry Eustachy (Iowa State) and Todd Bozeman (California) each ended their power-conference coaching careers mired in scandal and ended up starting over further down the coaching ladder. Eustachy hasn't done anything particularly remarkable in six seasons at Southern Mississippi, reaching a high water mark of nine conference victories twice. Bozeman on the other hand has transformed Morgan State into the class of the MEAC, going 17-1 in conference last year.

If you're keeping score at home, other recent major-to-mid-major examples include:

Straight from major to mid-major
Jeff Lebo, East Carolina (Auburn, 2005-10)
Matt Doherty, Florida Atlantic & SMU (North Carolina, 2001-03)
Tim Floyd, UTEP (USC, 2006-09)
Rod Barnes, Georgia State (Ole Miss, 1999-2006)
Pat Kennedy, Montana & Towson (Florida State, 1987-97 & DePaul, 1998-2002)
Buzz Peterson, Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State & UNC-Wilmington (Tennessee, 2002-05)

Major (pause), mid-major
James Dickey, Houston (Texas Tech, 1992-2001)
Bobby Cremins, College of Charleston (Georgia Tech, 1982-2000)

The case for Creighton
There's no doubt the Missouri Valley is a step below the Big 12. The conferences overlap geographically, but the Big 12 receives the lion's share of interest. With Missouri, Kansas State and Kansas all within an hour or two of Kansas City, sports talk radio and TV rarely mention Wichita State or Missouri State, even in the programs' good stretches. ESPN has the rights to 95 Big 12 games compared to the Valley's 21. Nine Missouri Valley teams have qualified for the NCAA tournament in the past five seasons while the Big 12 has sent 27.

Creighton and Iowa State, however, are programs faced with completely different situations within their respective leagues. Take the past decade (11 seasons from 1999-2000 to 2009-2010):

Creighton: Six NCAA appearances, four NIT appearances, 136-62 (.687) Missouri Valley, 10 positive in-conf. EM seasons.

Iowa State: Three NCAA appearances, two NIT appearances, 76-100 (.431) Big 12, two positive in-conf. EM seasons.

McDermott's first Creighton team will take the floor without two major contributors from last season, 6-foot-4 rebounder extraordinaire Justin Carter and 6-0 off-guard Cavel Witter. The team will also lose transferring reserve guard Andrew Bock. The retention of senior-to-be Kenny Lawson is the most important issue for McDermott. At 6-9 250, Lawson was the Missouri Valley's most efficient player who used more than 24 percent of his team's possessions in 2010. He also placed in the conference's top four in defensive rebound percentage and block rate. The combination of Lawson and transfer Greg Echenique should give Creighton a Northern Iowa-style front line next season (though Echenique will sit out the first semester because of transfer guidelines).

In short, Creighton had enough very real advantages in place to lure McDermott away from Ames. How the coach fares in Omaha is an open question, of course, but other things being equal he would appear to have as good a shot at success as does new hire Hoiberg at Iowa State.

New York City update
I've written previously on the NYC-area coaching carousel, and since that time it has continued to spin:

--After nearly three weeks of coachlessness, St. Francis (NY) named former St. John's assistant Glenn Braica as head coach. Before taking a position at St. John's, the Brooklyn native spent 15 seasons as an assistant at St. Francis.

--Tim Welsh didn't last long as the head coach at Hofstra. He resigned yesterday after being arrested on misdemeanor DWI charges last week, just one month after landing his new (now former) gig.

--Rutgers has reportedly closed the book on the eventful Fred Hill postseason by hiring Mike Rice away from Robert Morris.

Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City.

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