Chris Lowery goes from coveted coaching candidate to out of work

At the apex of Southern Illinois' emergence as a perennial mid-major power in Feb. 2007, the most popular man at the school then known as Floorburn U explained why he had no intention of leaving the Salukis for a higher-profile gig.

"We have a legit chance to be in the top 25 every year here," Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery told at the time. "I just want to push it even further, and get this program in the best situation that I can."

Lowery lived up to his word by passing on interest from high-major programs to remain at Southern Illinois, but the decision did not turn out as he hoped. The Salukis fired Lowery on Friday on the heels of an 8-22 finish, ending an eight-year coaching tenure that began with three straight NCAA tournament appearances but concluded with Southern Illinois finishing .500 or below in league play four straight seasons.

Watching Lowery go from one of the most coveted young coaches in the nation to being out of work should serve as a cautionary tale for Shaka Smart, Brad Stevens and other coaches who have turned down high-profile gigs to remain at the mid-major level.

History suggests that staying at an elite mid-major program and waiting for the ideal spot to advance your career can be a better career move than taking the first power conference gig that comes open. Nonetheless, Lowery's nosedive is a reminder that those who wait too long can get burned because longterm success at the mid-major level is fragile and difficult to sustain.

Explaining exactly how everything fell apart so quickly for Lowery at Southern Illinois is no easy task.

The batch of top recruits he landed in the wake of the Salukis' 2007 Sweet 16 appearance either transferred or didn't pan out. Southern Illinois' identity as a tough, hard-working, defensive-minded program gradually eroded. And finally, losing seasons inspired anger and apathy, leading to declining ticket sales.

It's too soon to know for sure where Southern Illinois will look for a replacement, but one obvious candidate would be a familiar one to Salukis fans.

Bruce Weber, likely soon-to-be-fired at Illinois, led Southern Illinois to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 2002 and 2003. Perhaps the Salukis will see if he has interest in revitalizing the program he once helped build.

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