College Basketball Assistants Guaranteed to Land a Head Coaching Job Soon
When a head coaching job opens up in college basketball, the backs of every assistant coach suddenly become a little bit straighter.
Toiling in relative anonymity as just one of many smart-suited individuals on the bench—and not the one who gets to stand up and yell at referees—the assistants don't get much attention. But that all changes when head coaching vacancies start to pop up, as the second- and third-in-command guys become highly coveted for schools in need of a fresh face to run their team.
Most openings end up getting filled by other head coaches, though, leaving many of the top assistants waiting for the next coaching change for their chance.
We've identified eight assistants who, by this time next year, should be in charge of their own programs. Some have been head coaches before, but most would be going out on their own for the first time.
The Unemployed Guys
The offseason coaching carousel snatched up a couple of the best assistants in the game. Orlando Antigua left John Calipari's side to take over South Florida, Chris Jans left Gregg Marshall's staff at Wichita State for Bowling Green, and Kevin Keatts left Louisville for UNC-Wilmington. In addition, Steve Wojciechowski became the latest Duke assistant to go out on his own by taking the Marquette job.
But the offseason movement also led to some well-regarded assistants hitting the unemployment line. That includes Travis DeCuire, who spent the last six seasons at California and was Mike Montgomery's associate head coach the past two years. When Montgomery retired, DeCuire interviewed for the Cal opening but was passed over for Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin and then wasn't retained by Martin as he assembled his staff.
Another notable assistant who is searching for a new gig is Eric Musselman, a longtime assistant in the NBA with a few head coaching stints who spent the past two years with Arizona State before leaving in April to pursue other opportunities. According to the Arizona Republic's Doug Haller, Musselman was a finalist for the South Florida job.
Jeff Capel, Duke
Jeff Capel has been a head coach twice already, spending four years at VCU from 2002 to 2006 and springboarding that into a gig at Oklahoma. He coached the Sooners from 2006 to 2011, getting them into the Elite Eight in 2009 before being fired following back-to-back losing seasons.
Since then he has been in familiar territory, serving as an assistant at his alma mater and for his former coach, Mike Krzyzewski. Capel was recently promoted to associated head coach, a spot left open when Steve Wojciechowski left to coach Marquette.
While his flameout at Oklahoma could be looked at as a black mark on the resume, many fired coaches end up getting new jobs. But what will get the 39-year-old his own program again soon is his connection to Duke, which has sent an assistant off on his own each of the past two seasons. Wojciechowski, Northwestern's Chris Collins and Stanford's Johnny Dawkins all coached under Krzyzewski.
Mike Hopkins, Syracuse
Mike Hopkins played his college ball at Syracuse in the late 1980s and early 1990s and then after a short professional career returned to his alma mater to be an assistant. He's been there ever since.
Several years ago he was named Jim Boeheim's eventual successor, getting the "coach-in-waiting" tag added to his title. But Boeheim doesn't look like he's retiring anytime soon, which is why Hopkins keeps getting mentioned for other head coaching jobs.
This past offseason he was linked to the vacancy at Boston College (which instead went with Ohio's Jim Christian), per Michael Vega of The Boston Globe, and Oregon State (which picked Montana's Wayne Tinkle instead), per Gary Parrish of CBS Sports. He was also on many other short lists that circulated following openings.
It seems like it's only a matter of time before the 44-year-old becomes the top choice, most likely at another power-conference school that wants a proven winner but doesn't require a candidate from the head coaching ranks.
Kenny Payne, Kentucky
After seeing Orlando Antigua leave Kentucky's bench to run his own program at South Florida, the school decided improved compensation would help retain John Calipari's new top assistant.
As a result, Kenny Payne was given a two-year contract for $1 million, which is a higher annual salary than at least 16 head coaches who sent teams to the 2014 NCAA tournament, according to USA Today. The big money shouldn't be a surprise for an assistant who has been on a staff with three Final Four appearances in his four seasons with the Wildcats since coming from Oregon.
But it also shows how important Payne is to Calipari, and as a result how highly coveted Payne will be in the future. Per ESPN.com, the 47-year-old reportedly met with Mississippi State about its opening in 2012, and he'll no doubt get courted by power-conference athletic directors next March.
Steve McClain, Indiana
If a mid-major school is looking for a coach who knows how to win in a tough situation, Steve McClain should be on its short list of interviewees. Though it's been seven years since he was in charge at Wyoming, McClain's stint there still stands as one of the best in school history.
He has been an assistant since Wyoming fired him in 2007, despite a 157-115 mark in nine seasons. He spent three years at Colorado and since then has been on Tom Crean's staff at Indiana, serving as a mentor for both the players and the head coach.
While most former head coaches don't spend a long time out of that role before landing a new gig in charge, Ernie Kent was off the court for four years before taking the Washington State job in April. McClain wants to be a head coach again, and Crean has gone so far as to advocate for his assistant to job-filling athletic directors.
Rick Stansbury, Texas A&M
Rick Stansbury spent 14 very successful seasons at Mississippi State from 1998 to 2012, leading the Bulldogs into the NCAA tournament six times and finishing with a .641 winning percentage. But tough times at the end of his tenure, lowlighted by a late-season flameout in the 2011-12 season, led to his retirement.
But the 54-year-old recently emerged from his self-imposed coaching sabbatical, accepting an assistant position on Billy Kennedy's staff at Texas A&M. The Aggies are coming off an 18-16 mark, and having Stansbury on staff instantly adds an extra layer of experience and knowledge that can be passed down to a roster that saw leading scorer Jamal Jones announce his transfer in early May.
Whatever help Stansbury can provide to Kennedy and A&M will likely be temporary, because all signs point to him wanting to get back to running his own program. Kevin Scarbinsky of AL.com reported in March that Stansbury was interested in the Auburn job that went to Bruce Pearl, so expect his name to be in contention for other openings next spring.
Damon Stoudamire, Arizona
One of the most decorated players in Arizona history is among the fastest risers in the assistant coach pool, despite only spending three seasons on college benches. Damon Stoudamire doesn't look like he'll have to wait long for his own job, especially after coming close to landing the Oregon State job earlier this month.
That gig would have been a perfect fit for Stoudamire, an Oregon native who spent nearly half of his 15-year NBA career playing for the Portland Trail Blazers. But just because that one didn't work out doesn't mean the 40-year-old won't end up somewhere else soon.
If so, he'd be the latest coach to spend time under Arizona's Sean Miller to land his own job. James Whitford just finished his first season at Ball State, while Miller's brother Archie just led Dayton to the Elite Eight in his third season with the Flyers. Additionally, Miller's successor at Xavier, former assistant Chris Mack, has won 111 games and collected four NCAA tournament appearances in his five years at the helm.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.