When Jim Boeheim takes to the court for his 35th year at the helm of Syracuse University basketball he will begin his quest for Big East Conference record victory #326. The coaches of Rutgers, DePaul, Seton Hall, and St. John’s will be in search of Big East victory #1. These men will each face unique sets of challenges in rebuilding their once proud programs. If they get the job done right, they could be hailed as saviors. If not, they will join their Universities’ growing list of coaches who – under their watch – saw their programs sway a bit closer toward the world of college basketball irrelevancy.
Here is how I grade out the conference’s new hires…..
Out: Norm Roberts
In: Steve Lavin
Norm Roberts was a highly respected coach and a guy who seemed to do everything the right way. The problem was that he just couldn’t find a way to win enough games, or convince the better metropolitan area talent at stay home and play for the Johnnies. While I do not anticipate that Steve Lavin will be a better coach than Roberts in terms of game planning or X’s and O’s, I do think that he is a major upgrade simply because he is STEVE LAVIN. Lavin pumps some serious life into the program. He is a nationally recognized college basketball personality, a natural big market communicator, and a brilliant recruiter. The need for tactical excellence takes a back seat to the Johnnies need for a “face” of the program, and a big time CEO to strategically roadmap the program’s way back to the top of the Big East Conference. That’s not to say that Lavin hasn’t had some serious on-court accomplishments. Lavin’s UCLA teams made five appearances in the Sweet 16 and advanced to the Elite Eight in 1997. They also defeated the No. 1 ranked team in the country on four different occasions.
Lavin got out of the gate fast and has already started to do what he does best – use the gifts that helped him attract the nation’s top recruiting classes to UCLA in both 1998 and 2001. He has already convinced well respected tactician Mike Dunlap (former asst. head coach at Oregon), and highly sought after high school coach Maurice Hicks to join his staff.
The players have started gravitating toward Queens as well – and, they aren’t coming from the Johnnie’s normal feeding grounds. Just last week, 6-7 forward Dwayne Polee, Jr. announced that he will attend St. John’s in the fall. Polee hails from Los Angeles, CA, and spurned Arizona, Oregon, Washington, and USC for the opportunity to play for Steve Lavin. Rumor has it that the Johnnies are also close to landing a second player from California in 6-7 forward Remi Barry.
Lavin will have no problem selling the big lights of New York City, the illustrious history of the St. John’s program, and the feel of an ESPN Big Monday event at The Garden. This hire is as good as it gets. GRADE: A
Out: Fred Hill
In: Mike Rice
Quite simply, Mike Rice is the best choice that Rutgers could have made. Immediately following his Robert Morris team’s near upset of #2 seeded Villanova in this year’s NCAA tournament, Rice’s name began being thrown around as a candidate for all of the local coaching vacancies. His resume reads like a typical up-and-comer. He’s young (41), he’s won at every stop of his coaching career, and has an outstanding reputation for knowing his X’s and O’s. He doesn’t lack experience either. He has 10 NCAA or NIT appearances as either a head or assistant coach during his 16-year tenure in the collegiate coaching ranks.
Rice is a native of Pittsburgh, PA, and a graduate of Fordham University. Before his successful 73-31 run at Robert Morris, Rice served as an assistant coach and primary recruiter at Pittsburgh under Jamie Dixon. He also spent several successful years under the tutelage of Phil Martelli at St. Joe’s. Needless to say, his roots in the Northeast are strong, and he is quite familiar with the landscape.
Following the bizarre end to the Fred Hill era at Rutgers, fans of the Scarlet Knights will find Rice’s personality and coaching style to be refreshing, with plenty of upside. He demands respect and discipline from his players, and every coach that he has worked for – or with – describes him as an intelligent workaholic with an insanely high energy level. As one insider put it, “This guy has passion and he’ll work his [butt] off. You just have to pray you caught the right guy on the way up.” Believe me when I say, they did. GRADE: A-
THE JURY IS OUT
Out: Bobby Gonzalez
In: Kevin Willard
Kevin Willard spent his formative years in coaching as an assistant under Rick Pitino with the Boston Celtics and at Louisville, so one thing is for sure…he has learned from one of the best. He also has great pedigree. The 34-year old is the son of longtime Division 1 head coach Ralph Willard, who is currently the lead assistant for Rick Pitino at Louisville.
Willard has spent the last three years as the head coach of the Iona Gaels of the MAAC Conference. Although his career record at Iona was only 45-49, he is credited for turning around a program that was in complete shambles. The school had won just two games the season before Willard arrived. This past year Willard led the Gaels to 21 victories and received MAAC coach of the year honors.
Willard is yet another young up-and-comer who possesses a strong reputation as a recruiter, has a passion for defense, and has good relationships with many local area high school and AAU coaches. He will bring with him a familiar name to Seton Hall fans – former Pirate point guard Shaheen Holloway, who starred for Seton Hall from 1996-2000. He was Willard’s top assistant and top recruiter while at Iona.
It’s hard to say whether Willard is destined for success at The Hall, but you can’t argue the fact that he is probably as good a candidate as they could have attracted right now. GRADE: C+
Out: Jerry Wainwright
In: Oliver Purnell
The hiring of Oliver Purnell came as a bit of a surprise to just about everyone. He wasn’t on any of the reported prospective hire lists throughout the process, and it appeared that DePaul was looking to make a huge splash with their new hire. Names like Isiah Thomas, Reggie Theus, and Rod Strickland were being thrown around the blogosphere, and DePaul athletics director Jean Lenti Ponsetto spoke openly of the $2 million annual salary that the school’s board of trustees was willing to pay. It’s hard to believe that the best that they could come up with was Oliver Purnell!
The 56 year old Purnell did experience some success at Clemson in terms of his overall record (138-90 in seven seasons), but his career record in ACC conference games was only 50-62. Last year, Purnell guided the Tigers to their third straight NCAA tournament appearance…And their third straight first round loss. That is par for the course for Purnell as his teams have never won an NCAA tournament game in six tries (3 at Clemson, one at Dayton, and one at Old Dominion).
I also question why DePaul would hand the keys to a program that requires a MAJOR rebuilding effort (they’ve won only 6 of their last 39 conference games) to a coach who has no natural ties to the Chicago area. Given the numerous challenges of job – including re-establishing local recruiting pipelines and reviving a beaten down fan base – you would think that the search would start and end with a homegrown candidate. Purnell does not maintain much of a national presence (unlike Lavin at St. John’s), and by his own admission is relatively unfamiliar with the Chicago area. A DePaul alum, or at least a recognizable local figure would have gone a long way toward helping a new staff hit the ground running.
Oh…One other thing….It was reported that after he accepted the head coaching position at DePaul, Purnell left South Carolina without ever addressing his players. Most of them learned of the news via text message. Now, that’s class. GRADE: D+