Kim English's hiring signals new direction for George Mason but with some risk

Tyler Byrum
·5 min read
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Kim English's hiring signals new direction, risk for George Mason originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Ever since legendary head coach Jim Larranaga left the George Mason Patriots to take the head coaching job at Miami, the Mason program has been looking for the right person to guide the program. 

The administration took a shot with a high-profile signing by bringing in Paul Hewitt. He was a coach that had an NCAA Tournament pedigree and even made the National Championship Game, but it never worked out in Fairfax. George Mason followed that up with the 'safer' route by hiring Bucknell's Dave Paulsen to steady the program in the then gauntlet of the Atlantic 10 conference. 

Now, a full decade removed from their last NCAA Tournament appearance (none under the previous two coaches), the Patriots are moving in a different direction. Instead of choosing head coaching experience at the collegiate level, Mason went the up-and-comer route with new head coach Kim English

English, 32, is young and one of the names among coaching assistants across the country that many believed was ready to take the next step in the coaching ranks. He'll bring with him the experience of playing in the NBA (something that no previous Mason coach has brought) and a refreshing re-birth within the program.

It's a high-risk, potentially high-reward hire, but a move that the Patriots cornered themselves into after the lack of success over the past decade.

There's always been promise surrounding the former NBA Draft pick. Just a couple years removed from his draft selection, former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie was already reaching out to try and make English a coach for their organization at 25. Years later, after his playing days, he went on to coaching. His most recent stop was an assistant at Tennessee for the past two years. Moving up the coaching ladder has been quick for English, though, from Tulsa to Colorado and eventually the Volunteers in a six-year span.

"Kim English is a grand slam hire for George Mason," Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said in a George Mason statement. "He's the total package. From the day he joined our staff at Tennessee, he made an immediate impact on our program. He has a unique gift for connecting with people and forming genuine relationships. I'm particularly proud that he gets the opportunity to begin his head coaching career at the special place that also gave me my first big opportunity. I know he'll lead the Patriots to great success."

For many teams across the country, this is the preferred hiring practice of getting 'the next big thing.' Longtime rival VCU thrived in that mindset -- namely bringing in former assistants that got head coaching experience elsewhere.

Yet for the Patriots, this is a deviation from their traditional path. The school hasn't hired a men's basketball coach without any head coaching experience at the NCAA level since Ernie Nestor in 1988. George Mason has gone the safe(r) route, with proven coaches that have gotten it done before.

Doing it now is not without some risk. There are countless examples of going with the inexperienced coach and it burning out. While Paulsen never did deliver an NCAA Tournament berth, or even an NIT berth, there was a floor with the program. Experience provides that. Consistently, the Patriots were in the middle of the pack in their league. 

Going with English is a move that, while yes it could lead the team to new heights in the A-10, is far from a guarantee to have any sort of floor in a mid-major conference. No one knows what to expect. He hasn't done it on his own before.

But taking the risk paid off for the program nearly 40 years ago. The aforementioned Barnes ironically got his first coaching gig with the Patriots in 1987-88 before going to Providence, Clemson and later Texas. He coached them to a 20-win season in just a single year at the helm. First-hand experience of how hiring a young coach can work.

Nevertheless, getting some jovial, new energy with the school was much needed. Their 10-year tournament drought is the longest since the school joined the CAA in 1985. Athletic director Brad Edwards hopes his second basketball hire is the one that finally gets the program over the hump.

"[English] is a tremendous communicator, tireless worker and a natural leader. He develops a unique rapport with his players, which fuels their development and enriches their overall experience as student-athletes," Edwards said. "His success at the highest levels of the game, elite recruiting ability and knowledge of the DMV area will provide our program with an outstanding foundation to establish a standard of competitive excellence in the Atlantic 10 and at the national level."

Everything changed for the Patriots in 2006 when they made the Final Four under Larranaga. And while many alumni want the school to move on, the program has not done anything of relevance to warrant doing so.

A coach like English is one who helps push the program out of that Final Four era's shadow. There will be a new energy, a new staff and new promise - with some risk given his inexperience running his own program. This time around, the Patriots are just hoping that this coach can deliver in ways that two longtime collegiate coaches couldn't.