Ranking the 10 Most Disastrous Coaching Tenures in College Basketball History

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistJuly 22, 2013

Ranking the 10 Most Disastrous Coaching Tenures in College Basketball History

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    The hiring of a new college basketball coach is usually intended to reignite hope in that university's fanbase. The idea of a fresh voice in the locker room revitalizing sagging player and supporter morale is the best-case scenario.

    But what's the worst case? A bad win-loss record, for sure, but a truly bad hire can alienate the fans and boosters, bring down NCAA scrutiny, land the program on probation and even lead to legal issues for players and coaches alike.

    If your favorite school hired one of these 10 coaches, it's a safe bet that you don't speak of them fondly—that is, if you're not actively leading a campaign to forget them altogether.

    If your program of choice is not represented here, breathe a sigh of relief. After all, the worst case may look a lot like some of these guys.

10. Ricky Byrdsong, Northwestern

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    Record: 34-78 (10-62 Big Ten)

    Northwestern has had enough losing seasons and last-place finishes (not to mention seasons without an NCAA tournament bid) that it's difficult to single out one coach for a rough tenure. After all, former NCAA finalist Bill Foster, who preceded Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, won only 13 Big Ten games in seven years at Northwestern.

    However, Foster—who as Northwestern's interim athletic director hired Ricky Byrdsong to succeed him—at least managed to stay on the bench for all of his games.

    In February 1994, as Byrdsong's first season neared its end, he took a walk into the stands at Minnesota's Williams Arena. By the time he left the seats to chants of "Byrdsong's nuts!" he had schmoozed with fans, given Goldy Gopher a high five and parked himself in the aisle.

    After the game, Byrdsong began a four-game leave of absence to consult doctors about his mental health. The Wildcats reversed a nine-game conference skid that night and managed to end the season with only their second winning campaign since 1969 and an a berth in the NIT, just the second postseason appearance in school history.

    From there, things fell apart.

    The 'Cats won only 19 total games the next three seasons, five in the Big Ten. As if the team needed help losing games, team members Kenneth Dion Lee and Dewey Williams were indicted in 1998 for fixing games during the 1994-95 season.

    Northwestern bottomed out again under Byrdsong's successor Kevin O'Neill, then made NIT bids a habit under Bill Carmody. However, the NCAA tournament drought continues today.

    Byrdsong was tragically murdered while on a walk with his children in 1999.

9. Brian Ellerbe, Michigan

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    Record: 62-60 (26-38 Big Ten)

    Michigan fans circa 1997 would have been easily forgiven for asking "Who the hell is Brian Ellerbe?" after UM hired the former Loyola (Md.) coach to replace the fired Steve Fisher.

    Even in the MAAC, Ellerbe wasn't a power player, leading the Greyhounds to a 34-47 record over his three seasons in charge.

    With the remnants of Fisher's final recruiting classes, Ellerbe won 25 games and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. After that, however, Michigan stumbled to a total of 37 wins over the next three seasons. That's the sickliest three-year stretch in Ann Arbor since the Dave Strack-to-Johnny Orr transition in the late '60s.

    UM fans were most bitter about the Wolverines rolling over seven straight times for their in-state rivals from East Lansing. Michigan State crushed UM by an average of 22 points during Ellerbe's losing streak, with the nadir coming in a 94-61 curb-stomping at Crisler Arena in 2001.

    Ellerbe was also hit hard by the NCAA, which vacated all the wins from his first two seasons thanks to the gift that kept on giving in Ann Arbor—the Ed Martin scandal. Martin had provided illegal money for Robert Traylor and Louis Bullock, who were the leaders of Ellerbe's first team.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ellerbe has not landed a head coaching job since, spending time as an assistant at George Washington and at his current stop, DePaul.

8. Billy Gillispie, Kentucky

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    Record: 40-27 (20-12 SEC)

    The above record would be fine for a new coach in his first two years at any school.

    Except Kentucky.

    Billy Gillispie was already in the perfect situation at Texas A&M. Coaching in his home state at a school where football was an extremely wealthy king, sharing its largesse with the basketball program? Every coach in America would love that life.

    When Kentucky calls, though, a basketball coach answers. In hindsight, Big Blue Nation would probably rather he hadn't.

    Unwilling or unable to manage the political expectations that come with a job like UK's, Gillispie maintained a frosty relationship with fans, media and boosters alike, as ESPN's Dana O'Neil memorably recounted. Even his assistant coaches and players were barely tolerated co-workers.

    Fans were stunned at reports of Gillispie's mistreatment of players at his next job, Texas Tech. Some at UK, however, simply saw it as the next step for a coach trying to outwork his own inadequacies.

    Gillispie would regularly hold draining two-hour game-day practices and was rumored to have pushed guard Derrick Jasper back into the lineup before he was fully recovered from microfracture knee surgery in 2007.

    Kentucky basketball doesn't stay down for long. It didn't when Rick Pitino took over from another rough hire, Eddie Sutton. It certainly didn't when John Calipari arrived to clean up after Gillispie.

    When UK is down, though, it's the end of the world as BBN knows it. And no one feels fine.

7. Tim Floyd, USC

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    Record: 85-50 (39-33 Pac-10)

    Tim Floyd steered the USC Trojans to three straight NCAA tournaments, marking an unprecedented run of basketball success at Southern Cal.

    However, it all abruptly ended for the bargain price of $1,000.

    Floyd resigned as the Trojans coach in 2009 after reports surfaced that he had paid an agent's runner the aforementioned amount to help influence the recruitment of guard O.J. Mayo.

    The Mayo fiasco resulted in an NCAA investigation that piggybacked off the Trojan football program's own scandal regarding improper benefits to star running back Reggie Bush.

    While the NCAA hit USC football with a two-year bowl ban and significant scholarship reductions, the basketball program largely skated with self-imposed sanctions: vacating the wins Mayo played in, forfeiting one scholarship and returning revenue from the 2008 NCAA tournament trip.

    Another self-imposed punishment, a 2010 tournament ban, did Floyd's successor Kevin O'Neill no favors. Players bolted the program en masse after Floyd's departure. O'Neill could not draw enough talented replacements to Los Angeles and won only 48 games in three-plus years.

    Floyd veered off for an assistant job with the NBA's New Orleans Hornets before capturing another college head coaching job, returning to Texas-El Paso, where he had been an assistant early in his career.

6. Rollie Massimino, UNLV

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    Record: 36-21 (23-13 Big West)

    UNLV fans and boosters were sort of okay with the us-against-the-world mentality that former coach Jerry Tarkanian brought to the program. And they were delirious with the Final Four trips and national championship that he produced.

    University president Robert Maxson, though, was not. He reached out to Villanova coach Rollie Massimino, a national title winner himself, and presented the new hire to the world as an antidote, a new sheriff designed to bring lawfulness and stability to an outlaw program.

    Results on and off the court were decidedly mixed. Sports Illustrated's Alexander Wolff detailed improper financial benefits to Kebu Stewart, one of Massimino's first Vegas recruits, academic fraud surrounding star guard J.R. Rider and widespread free use of a Vegas health club rubber-stamped by a Massimino assistant.

    In May of 1994, Maxson resigned as president, putting into doubt a secret side contract between him and Massimino. The coach was supposed to make an additional $375,000 per year that would go unreported to the Nevada Board of Regents. When Maxson's replacement refused to honor the side deal, both sides called the lawyers.

    Players who won the national title at UNLV under Tarkanian disassociated themselves from the program after their former coach's ouster. Boosters, as detailed in the SI piece, stopped contributing to the point that the athletic department faced a seven-figure shortfall.

    It's very odd to think that hiring a coach who engineered one of college basketball's most iconic upsets could send a program so far off the rails so quickly. UNLV took another 10 years to become a consistent winner again but will likely never return to the dominance of Tark's era.

5. Bob Wade, Maryland

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    Record: 36-50 (7-35 ACC)

    Maryland's basketball program had won consistently under Lefty Driesell, but the cocaine-induced death of Len Bias and rampant academic questions about the Terrapin program had the school looking elsewhere in 1986.

    Where it looked was to the Baltimore high school ranks, tapping Dunbar High School coach Bob Wade, whose program produced four eventual NBA players in a two-year span: David Wingate, Reggie Williams, Muggsy Bogues and the late Reggie Lewis. The latter three were all first-round draft picks in 1987.

    The first black coach in ACC history, Wade was ill-prepared to navigate the minefields of recruiting and the NCAA rulebook, but he still managed to draw some serious talent to College Park. Wade recruits Brian Williams (later Bison Dele), Walt Williams and Jerrod Mustaf would all become first-round selections themselves, although Brian Williams would later bolt for Arizona due to differences with Wade.

    Maryland's brass believed that the disciplinarian Wade would help clean up the program, but those efforts never materialized. Wade was forced to resign in 1988 in the midst of a comprehensive NCAA investigation. He left with twice as many losses in three years at Maryland as he'd amassed in 10 years at Dunbar.

    By 1990, the NCAA was dropping three years of probation on Maryland for offenses ranging from cash handouts to players to free or discounted clothing for recruits, including Brian Williams and Alonzo Mourning, who would go on to attend Georgetown.

    Scholarship reductions and a one-year TV ban hindered the program going forward, but Maryland graduate Gary Williams picked up the pieces nicely, winning more than 450 games and a national title in 2002.

4. Mike Jarvis, St. John's

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    Record: 110-61 (50-32 Big East)

    Mike Jarvis made six NCAA tournaments at Boston University and George Washington and added three more at St. John's. In four of his five seasons, the Red Storm won at least 20 games.

    It still wasn't enough.

    Jarvis was more interested in recruiting nationally, taking on the likes of Duke and Kansas, than in working New York City and restoring St. John's to pride of place locally.

    The players that he did get frequently found themselves in off-court difficulties, which came to a head in the 2003-04 season. Forward Grady Reynolds, who Jarvis kept on the team after allegations that he had assaulted a female student, was later expelled for his part in an incident at a Pittsburgh strip club. Reynolds and five other players were falsely accused of rape by a woman who demanded $1,000 for sex.

    Center Abraham Keita, another player expelled in the strip club incident, later admitted that he had been getting paid $300 per month during his tenure. Starting guard Willie Shaw was dismissed after an arrest for marijuana possession.

    All of those legal woes, except for the initial assault charge against Reynolds and Shaw's pot arrest, took place after Jarvis was let go, but SJU's prime place in the New York basketball hierarchy suffered damage that still has not been sufficiently repaired.

    The home of Walter Berry, Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson and Malik Sealy became an afterthought in the Big East and in New York City. Few St. John's supporters put blame on the doorstep of anyone but Mike Jarvis.

3. Kelvin Sampson, Indiana

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    Record: 43-15 (21-8 Big Ten)

    Another case of a superb basketball tradition being besmirched in the chasing of quick wins, Indiana's basketball program plumbed unprecedented depths following the stormy tenure of Kelvin Sampson.

    Before Sampson even arrived in Bloomington, he was already on the NCAA's radar for making nearly 600 impermissible calls to recruits. He was banned from making off-campus visits or recruiting calls for his first year in charge.

    Despite those bans, Sampson and his staff still managed to convince Indianapolis shooting guard Eric Gordon to renege on a verbal commitment to Illinois and become a Hoosier.

    During that first season, Indiana's staff openly flouted the restrictions that had been placed on Sampson, provoking the NCAA to issue a notice of allegations charging the entire staff with violations echoing the ones committed at Oklahoma.

    In the midst of the 2007-08 season, Indiana was 22-4 and still in the thick of the Big Ten championship race, but the momentum was derailed when Sampson accepted a buyout of his contract and resigned his position. IU stumbled to a 3-4 finish under interim coach Dan Dakich, Eric Gordon left for the NBA and Indiana embarked on a coaching search that eventually settled on Marquette coach Tom Crean.

    But wait, there's more. After he was safely ensconced in the NBA, Gordon told The Indianapolis Star that drug use was a factor on Sampson's teams (h/t ESPN.com). That drug use, coupled with rampant academic apathy, led to Crean scuttling nearly every player that Sampson had placed on scholarship who hadn't transferred out first.

    Crean was left with two players, both former walk-ons.

    The only way Crean and Indiana could have scrubbed Sampson's tenure from existence any more thoroughly would have been to shut down the program. And speaking of that...

2. Ned Fowler, Tulane

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    Record: 70-45 (28-24 Metro)

    Perhaps the only basketball program to experience something close to SMU football's "death penalty" voluntarily euthanized itself after the tenure of a man who looked like an eighth-grade science teacher.

    Ned Fowler was far from the nattily dressed, smooth-talking salesmen that roam some sidelines today. His teams were solid contenders in the Metro Conference, but were never invited to the NCAA tournament.

    What the Tulane Green Wave had in the early 1980s was a superstar center from right there in Louisiana named John "Hot Rod" Williams. Williams had won the Metro's Player of the Year award in 1984 and was bound for a lengthy, solid NBA career.

    Williams was also part of a scheme to shave points in Green Wave's games, a plot hatched by a trio of fraternity brothers, one of whom was a cocaine hookup for the team.

    A win over Southern Miss was closer than it should have been; a loss to Memphis was worse than it should have been, and John Williams jeopardized a six-figure pro contract for the princely sum of $5,400.

    Fowler was oblivious to these activities, but he went down with the ship when the scheme came to light. It didn't help his cause when he admitted to university president Dr. Eamon Kelly that he had given Williams money out of his own pocket to help the player when his mobile home burned down.

    Kelly had heard enough and recommended that the basketball program be shut down altogether. The decision forced the rest of the school's sports to withdraw from the Metro, although they were welcomed back when the program restarted in 1989.

    Fowler spent time as an assistant at Auburn and later resurfaced as head coach at Stephen F. Austin.

1. Dave Bliss, Baylor

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    Record: 61-57 (19-45 Big 12)

    How does the shame of a coach's tenure outrank that of one which ended with the death of a program?

    By ending with the death of a player and a clumsy coverup of the same.

    Dave Bliss had been hugely successful at New Mexico, making seven NCAA tournaments. Baylor gave him a handsome raise to take over in 1999, but postseason invitations were thin on the ground. The Bears made one NIT appearance in 2001, losing to Bliss' former employer New Mexico.

    The entire program was rocked when junior forward Patrick Dennehy went missing in June 2003. Teammate Carlton Dotson was arrested for murdering Dennehy, whose badly decomposed body was found days later.

    Reports surfaced later that summer that Bliss, running up against the NCAA scholarship limit, had secretly paid the tuitions of two players, Dennehy and Corey Herring. Bliss turned on Dennehy, painting him as a drug dealer in an effort to explain how the tuition had been paid. He ordered players and assistants to go along with the story, only to have one such conversation recorded by assistant Abar Rouse.

    The coach also attempted to convince Herring's mother to lie about the source of the funds and impersonated Herring's father to fish for evidence.

    As scandals went, this one had everything. Aside from murder and illegal payments, Baylor came under NCAA scrutiny for drug use, illegal observation of recruits and a laundry list of other violations.

    Perhaps no one should have been surprised. Bliss's tenure at SMU, his job before landing at New Mexico, ended in running from the NCAA posse for illegal payments to players, including All-America center Jon Koncak.

    Still, the cold-blooded slander of a deceased player remains beyond the pale for most observers. Bliss was hit with a 10-year show cause penalty and is unlikely to ever return to college coaching.

    Baylor was put on probation until 2010, lost recruiting visits for three years and was banned from playing any nonconference games in 2005-06.

     

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