Just seven of the 65 basketball coaching jobs in power-five football conferences have come open in 2016, a low number. Most of the replacements made sense.
At Oklahoma State, Travis Ford was replaced by Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood. His 89-14 record in three seasons, including two NCAA tournament victories, pretty much demanded an upgrade.
At Rutgers, Eddie Jordan was replaced by Stony Brook’s Steve Pikiell. Any change is good at the State University of New Jersey, which lunged at Jordan as a stop-the-bleeding hire after the Mike Rice Jr. fiasco. Pikiell, with five straight 20-win seasons and a ’16 NCAA tournament berth, should improve the miserable product immediately.
At TCU, they hit an alma-mater home run with the hiring of Jamie Dixon away from Pittsburgh. This is instant credibility for a program that had very little.
And then there is the temporary insanity that seems to have gripped the Atlantic Coast Conference – specifically Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. The hires there, made by a pair of respected athletic directors, boggle the mind.
Mike Bobinski at Georgia Tech fired Brian Gregory and replaced him with Josh P-P-P-Pastner. Let’s just say that Memphis fans were happier to see Pastner go than Tech fans were to see him arrive – the only thing keeping him employed was a bloated buyout, part of a silly 2013 raise that gave him a salary of $2.65 million a year. Bobinski hired a guy whose well-appointed program over the past two years had not performed as well as the guy he just fired.
Scott Barnes at Pitt replaced Dixon and his 11 NCAA tourney bids in 13 seasons with Kevin Stallings, to the giddy disbelief of many Vanderbilt backers who were hoping to get rid of a guy who made the Big Dance seven times in 17 years and was a widely perceived underachiever over the last four seasons.
So there you go, Tech and Pitt fans. Those are the guys who are going to slug it out in the toughest coaching conference in the country, competing nose-to-nose with Mike Kryzyzewski, Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, Mike Brey and Jim Larranaga.
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"I mean, look, it's not going to happen overnight," Pastner said upon his introduction at Tech. "We're going to have to take a step back to take two steps forward."
Pastner’s last step forward was three years ago, when his 31-win Memphis team earned a No. 6 NCAA tournament seed. The Tigers were routed in the second round by Michigan State and have disappointed ever since.
After dwarfing Conference USA, Memphis and Pastner failed to do the same in the American Athletic Conference – or to even come close. Pastner had every advantage at Memphis – a great arena, a practice facility, a passionate fan base, a ton of tradition and a brand that sold well in recruiting.
He did little with it. The Tigers finished in a three-way tie for third in the league their first year, and were the fifth-best AAC team according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. After that it was downhill: tied for fifth in 2015 and missed the NCAA tourney; an abysmal seventh in 2016 and never even merited serious tourney consideration.
Memphis’ final Pomeroy Rating in 2015: 92. Georgia Tech’s, under Gregory: 83. The Tigers’ 10-8 league mark included losses to Tulane and East Carolina.
Memphis’ final Pomeroy Rating in 2016: 72. Georgia Tech’s, under Gregory: 49.
During those two seasons, the Tigers lost to East Carolina twice, Tulane twice and South Florida once. Those are five losses to teams that likely would pull a Boston College and go winless in the ACC.
Pastner’s allure, such as it is, comes from his recruiting ability. Gregory had nine players from talent-rich Georgia on his final Tech roster – but not the right nine. The first challenge for Pastner will be to keep the best players at home. The second (and bigger) challenge will be to actually coach them up to a level where he can beat some of the biggest names in the sport.
Then there is Pitt’s hire of Stallings. With the Southeastern Conference at something of a modern nadir in recent years, failing at putting teams in the NCAA tourney and making a national impact beyond Kentucky and Florida, Vandy was a big part of the problem. The Commodores’ conference record over the past four years: 33-37. With at least two potential NBA draft picks on the roster this past season, they snuck into the NCAA tournament as one of the last four invitees and were promptly throttled in the play-in round by Wichita State.
All things considered, it would have been just as well if the NCAA had followed through on its erroneous invite to South Carolina instead of Vandy.
Pitt is gambling that the 55-year-old Stallings can make an impact on prospects in an area that has been only a tangential part of Vanderbilt’s national recruiting strategy. Dixon made a lot of hay recruiting blue-collar, in-state players, along the Atlantic seaboard and in the New York area. Stallings will have his work cut out for him replicating that.
What do the Pitt and Georgia Tech situations have in common, beyond spit-take hires? Search firms. Pitt used Collegiate Sports and Todd Turner, the former AD at Connecticut, North Carolina State, Vanderbilt and Washington. Tech used DHR International and Glenn Sugiyama.
Of course, virtually everybody uses a search firm these days. But oftentimes, the top candidates come from an AD’s wish list – the search firm is simply there to provide communication cover.
For both Pitt and Tech, basketball insiders say their lofty initial hopes were shot down. That’s when it became more of a firm-directed search. Pittsburgh’s search coincidentally led it to the guy Turner hired at Vanderbilt 17 years earlier. Tech’s search led it to Pastner.
Both coaches clearly were ready to jump before being pushed. It’s not an uncommon exit strategy in college basketball, sometimes leading to some strange arrangements. That’s how Trent Johnson wound up at TCU, with abysmal results, and how Frank Haith hopscotched from Miami to Missouri to Tulsa – leaving NCAA investigations behind at the first two programs.
It remains to be seen whether Pitt or Georgia Tech will be better for their new hires. But from surface level, there is nothing to get excited about.
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