Evaluating the new coaching hires: Did either North Carolina or Indiana get it right?

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Mark Story
·5 min read
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When the pandemic-impacted 2020-21 college sports season was beginning, the conventional wisdom was that the financial disruption arising from the COVID-19 outbreak would give coaches on the hot seat a free pass.

Well, that view has gone down in flames.

This spring has featured an active and intriguing NCAA men’s basketball coaching shuffle. As the carousel continues to twirl, these are the winners and losers:

UP: Indiana. My initial reaction to the hiring of Mike Woodson was negative.

At age 63, the former Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks head man enters college coaching for the first time with no experience within the complex morass that is modern recruiting.

Former NBA head coaches who have dropped down to college — see Mike Dunleavy at Tulane; Avery Johnson at Alabama; Isiah Thomas at FIU — have tended to fail.

Still, allowing for all that, the IU hire has grown on me.

A former star player (1976-80) for Bobby Knight, Woodson may finally be able to reunify an IU fan base that has seemed divided since “The General” was overthrown in 2000.

On the recruiting trail, Woodson’s NBA past may sell.

In what has been an almost three-decade run of mediocrity, Indiana has made prior hires — Kelvin Sampson, Tom Crean, Archie Miller — that looked good on paper.

Maybe an unconventional choice can finally shake a once-iconic program from its slumber.

Mike Woodson comes to the Indiana Hoosiers head coaching job without college experience but has served as the head man of both the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks.
Mike Woodson comes to the Indiana Hoosiers head coaching job without college experience but has served as the head man of both the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks.

DOWN: North Carolina. Part of me admires UNC’s practice of staying “within its coaching family” in selecting its head men.

However, my rule for alumni coaching hires is this: If the candidate was a graduate of Weber State, would you still hire them?

Not sure you can answer yes in the case of Hubert Davis, the former UNC and NBA guard who is inheriting the head coaching seat once occupied by Frank McGuire, Dean Smith and Roy Williams.

A UNC assistant since 2012, Davis, 50, has never been a head man before — other than coaching the North Carolina JV team.

Yet even with a light head-coaching resume, Davis does have two things in his favor.

Williams strongly backed him for the job — and “Daggum Roy” knows what it takes to succeed in Chapel Hill.

Secondly, if you recall Davis from his days as an ESPN college hoops analyst, you know he projects a likable public persona.

For a coach, that is no small skill.

UP: Juwan Howard. The success of the Michigan Fab Five stalwart in his two seasons as head coach at his alma mater (42-17, one Big Ten regular-season crown) had a profound impact on the current hiring cycle.

So far, a robust 18 African-American coaches have been hired as first-time Division I head men.

While not the only factor creating that dynamic, “The Juwan Howard Effect” is opening doors.

DOWN: Coaches with Kentucky ties. It’s been a brutal cycle for coaches connected to the commonwealth.

After a 1-7 start, Fordham fired ex-Eastern Kentucky coach Jeff Neubauer (61-104 in six years).

Following a horrid 2-22 campaign, Iowa State axed former Murray State head man Steve Prohm (97-95 in six seasons).

At the end of a tumultuous second season, Cincinnati canned ex-Northern Kentucky coach John Brannen (32-21).

After a so-so eight-season run at Minnesota (141-123, two NCAA Tournament trips), former U of L assistant Richard Pitino was cut loose by the Golden Gophers.

At least Pitino, 38, landed on his feet, moving into what can be a good job as New Mexico head man.

UP: Texas. In luring Chris Beard away from Big 12 rival Texas Tech, the Longhorns did something that more prestigious basketball programs such as Indiana and North Carolina failed to do:

The Horns got a coveted, current power-conference head coach to move.

Of course, it helped that Beard, 48, is a Texas alumnus.

DOWN: Texas Tech. Mark Adams, the ex-Beard assistant elevated into the top job in Lubbock, is considered a defensive guru. He was, formerly, a longtime, successful junior college coach.

So Adams could work out.

For now, however, the “sizzle gap” between the coach Texas Tech lost and the one it hired is gaping.

UP: Shaka Smart. What seemed like a grand slam pairing at the start — the up-and-coming Smart leading the resources-laden Texas program — was always missing something.

Most crucially, it lacked NCAA Tournament wins.

The hard-luck Smart’s three NCAA tourney appearances in his six seasons at Texas ended with the Longhorns losing: 1.) on a half-court shot to Northern Iowa in 2016; 2.) in overtime to Nevada in 2018; and 3.) on two made free throws with two seconds left after a controversial foul call vs. Abilene Christian this year.

After this latest NCAA tourney heartbreak, Smart made an intelligent, get-out-while-the-getting-is-good move to become the new head coach at Marquette.

For Wisconsin-native Smart, 44, Milwaukee should be a better fit.

DOWN: The Miller brothers. What started in 2009-10 as a boffo run at Arizona for older brother Sean Miller, 52, ended this spring in a parting of ways after a final three years of near-continuous controversy.

Meanwhile, what seemed like a promising opportunity at Indiana for younger brother Archie Miller, 42, ended last month after four seasons of abject mediocrity.

If nothing else, the Millers will have each other for commiseration.