Memphis replaced a potential Hall of Fame coach with a 31-year-old, Virginia traveled 2,614 miles to make a hire and, somehow, Arizona found a rising star with the guts to take on a difficult situation.
For the past month, it seemed as if a new college basketball coaching hire was announced every other day. While schools such as Kentucky went for the wow factor, others made moves that seem downright wacky.
And the new coach at Florida International … Isiah Thomas.
Here's a take on the coaching hires of 2009:
John Calipari, Kentucky – The Wildcats would've looked stupid for firing 2008 SEC Coach of the Year Billy Gillispie if they didn't find a top-notch replacement. Kentucky did more than that by plucking Calipari from Memphis. Kentucky couldn't have found a better hobnobber and schmoozer to appease its rabid fanbase. Throw in the fact that future NBA draft picks love playing in his dribble-drive offense, and it's no stretch to say that Kentucky could be back in the national title hunt as soon as next season.
Sean Miller, Arizona – Miller was a hot commodity after going 120-47 in five seasons at Xavier, where he appeared in two Sweet 16s. At Arizona he'll take over a program that been gutted in the same way that Indiana was prior to last season. Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill have entered the draft and won't withdraw, while the future of guard Nic Wise is uncertain. Miller is a Pitt alum who was also an assistant at North Carolina State. If he can establish recruiting ties on the West Coast, Arizona should soon return to prominence.
Tony Bennett, Virginia – Tubby Smith, Jeff Capel, Rick Barnes, Trent Johnson. Plenty of names were thrown around in the Cavaliers' coaching search – but none of them were Tony Bennett. Still, assuming the aforementioned candidates weren't interested, Virginia deserves credit for hiring one of the game's top young coaches. Bennett, 39, is considered one of college basketball's top tacticians, having gone 69-33 with a Sweet 16 appearance in three seasons at Washington State. He was the National Coach of the Year in 2006-07.
Matt Driscoll, North Florida – The Ospreys hired one of the country's top recruiters in Driscoll, who was Scott Drew's top assistant at Baylor. Driscoll's recruiting efforts with players such as Curtis Jerrells, LaceDarrius Dunn, Kevin Rogers and Tweety Carter helped turn Baylor's struggling program into a Big 12 contender. Even better is that Driscoll has recruiting ties all across the country after serving on staffs at Clemson and Wyoming.
Ken Bone, Washington State – Before he was hired to replace Tony Bennett, Bone led Portland State to a 65-33 record from 2006-09. His last two teams earned NCAA tournament berths. Bone has spent his entire career the Northwest – he went 251-97 in 13 seasons at Seattle Pacific – where he's well known by high school and junior college coaches.
Isiah Thomas, Florida International – The publicity stunt was fun for a few days, but once the luster wears off, the guess here is that Thomas will fail at Florida International because he won't have the patience to see things through. The much-maligned former NBA All-Star has more to lose than to gain by taking this position – and, by making the hire, the university hurt its image more than it helped it.
Mark Fox, Georgia – Fox has proven to be an excellent coach, but something about this move doesn't seem right. Fox won at least 21 games in each of his five seasons at Nevada, but the former Kansas State assistant has never held a job east of the Mississippi River. The Deep South isn't for everyone. Will Fox be able to fit in? Time will tell.
Appalachian State and Hampton and Texas Pan-Am – It's almost May and these three schools have yet to hire a coach. As important as it is to be thorough, it's time – for the sake of the current players – to get someone on board.
Dickey Nutt, Southeast Missouri State – The school could've done worse, but it seems as if they'd go for an up-and-coming assistant instead of a 50-year-old who barely went .500 in 12-plus seasons at Arkansas State, where Nutt resigned in February after leading his team to just one NCAA tournament appearance.
Shaka Smart, Virginia Commonwealth – Smart spent two seasons on the staff of an underachieving Clemson squad before serving as Billy Donovan's assistant during a 2008-09 campaign that saw Florida miss the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. It could end up being a good hire by a VCU administration that seems to know what it's doing. After all, the previous two coaches (Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant) were both studs. Still, there were candidates out there with much better resumes.
Josh Pastner, Memphis – Once they got over the disappointment of not making a high-profile hire, Tigers fans slowly began jumping on board with the selection of the 31-year-old Pastner, who has developed a reputation as one of the nation's top recruiters. Memphis will be much, much better off for hiring Pastner than it would've been had it chosen Baylor's Scott Drew or Florida State's Leonard Hamilton, who were also in the mix.
Chris Mack, Xavier – If the Musketeers were going to hire an assistant, Mack seems like the perfect fit. He's a Xavier alum who worked under Skip Prosser both at his alma mater (1999-2001) and at Wake Forest (2001-04). He spent the last five years on Miller's staff and would've gone with him to Arizona had he not been promoted at Xavier. Former Musketeers players such as David West phoned in during the coaching search to voice their support of Mack, which is always a good sign.
Anthony Grant, Alabama – Grant should provide a jolt to a Crimson Tide program that had grown stale after 11 seasons with Mark Gottfried. Before going 76-25 in three seasons at Virginia Commonwealth, Grant spent 10 seasons as an assistant at Florida and was one of the key recruiters for a squad that won back-to-back national titles in 2007 and 2008.
David Carter, Nevada – Carter spent the last five seasons at the No. 1 assistant to Mark Fox before his promotion earlier this month. He also worked under former Nevada coach Trent Johnson. The former Eastern Washington and St. Mary's assistant has been at Nevada since 1999. "This program is not going backward, I can promise you that," said Carter, 42.
Dale Layer, Liberty – Former Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay pulled a stunner when he resigned to become Tony Bennett's assistant at Virginia. The move created an opportunity for Layer, a former McKay assistant who had left one year earlier to work for Buzz Williams at Marquette. Layer was the head coach at Colorado State from 2000-07. He led the Rams to their first-even NCAA berth in 2003, but he was fired four years later after compiling a 103-106 record in seven years.
- Isiah Thomas
- Tony Bennett
- Florida International
- John Calipari