College Basketball Coaches Who Are Changing the Face of Their Programs

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistMay 5, 2016

College Basketball Coaches Who Are Changing the Face of Their Programs

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    College basketball is one of the few sports in which a coach can dramatically change the image of a program in two or three seasons. Sometimes the mere hiring of a coach can alter the way a program is perceived if the new coach's reputation provides instant credibility.

    Virginia Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett and Wichita State Shockers head coach Gregg Marshall have already changed the face of their programs to the point where failure to finish with a national ranking and an NCAA tournament berth would now be considered a major letdown.

    Head coaches Brad Underwood, Chris Beard and Steve Pikiell provided similar image boosts to the programs at Stephen F. Austin, Arkansas-Little Rock and Stony Brook, respectively, before moving on to higher profile programs this offseason.

    We chose 14 college coaches who appear to be in the early stages of similar transformations at their current schools.  These 14 are either in the process of changing the face of their programs or providing the name recognition needed for the program to be viewed in a more positive light.

    In many cases, the jury is still out on what these coaches can accomplish, but the trends are producing optimism.

    The source for most of the information on a team's or coach's history is provided by Sports Reference.

Herb Sendek, Santa Clara Broncos

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    Herb Sendek has not coached a single game at Santa Clara, but the school's mere hiring of Sendek changed the expectations surrounding the Broncos.

    Not since 1925-26 had Santa Clara hired a head coach who had previous experience as a college head coach. Kerry Keating, who was Santa Clara's head coach the past nine seasons after being an assistant at UCLA and Tennessee, was typical of the hiring process at WCC schools. Even the head coaches at the conference's three kingpins, Gonzaga, BYU and St. Mary's, had no college head coaching experience before landing their current jobs.

    The problem for the Broncos is that they never finished higher than fourth under Keating and were no better than sixth in any of the past four seasons. The Broncos have not been to the NCAA tournament since 1996 when Steve Nash was their star, and those days are a fading memory.

    Then, Santa Clara hired Sendek, and no current WCC coach carried the reputation coming into his current job that Sendek does now. Sendek was a head coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference for 10 years, taking the North Carolina State Wolfpack to the NCAA tournament five times. He then was a Pac-12/Pac-10 head coach for nine years, leading the Arizona State Sun Devils to the NCAA tournament twice, including his 2008-09 squad that featured James Harden. 

    Sendek's North Carolina State and Arizona State teams won 20 games or more 10 times before he was fired at Arizona State following the 2014-15 season.

    The headline from Jon Wilner's San Jose Mercury-News' story on Sendek's introduction as Santa Clara's head coach said what everyone was thinking: "Santa Clara stepping up basketball commitment with Herb Sendek hiring."

    According to Wilner, new Santa Clara athletic director Renee Baumgartner backed it up by saying, "We're going to treat this as a top-20 program. (Sendek) will have the resources to be successful."

    The hiring has changed the way Bronco basketball is viewed.

Dan Majerle, Grand Canyon Antelopes

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    The progress Grand Canyon University has made in its three seasons as a Division I program is impressive, and Dan Majerle, the head coach for those three seasons, should get most of the credit.

    Majerle brought instant name recognition to Grand Canyon's Phoenix campus after spending seven years as a member of the Phoenix Suns, where he was a three-time all-star.  However, no one knew whether he could actually wins games when he was hired in March 2013, because he had never been a head coach at any level. His coaching experience consisted of five years as a Suns assistant. Plus, he had the task of ushering in Grand Canyon's transition from Division II to Division I.

    The Antelopes are still in the transition phase of their move to Division I and won't be eligible for the NCAA tournament until 2017-18. But it looks like they will be ready.

    After going 15-15 in his first season, Majerle led Grand Canyon to a 17-15 record in Year 2, then had a major breakthrough in 2015-16. The Antelopes finished 27-7 overall this past season and 11-3 in the Western Athletic Conference—tied for second.

    They handed the WAC champion New Mexico State Aggies their only conference loss, beat Mountain West champion San Diego State on the Aztecs' home court and won two games in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament. The average home attendance of 5,806 indicates that the team has made a mark locally and is positioned for further success.

    Last May, Majerle received a four-year contract extension that takes him through 2019. Grand Canyon is already distinctive as the only for-profit school in Division I, and it may develop a basketball reputation by the time it is eligible to play in the NCAA tournament.

Tim Cluess, Iona Gaels

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    Tim Cluess has been the head coach at his school as long as anyone on this list. However, it seems that only recently has the face of Iona Gaels basketball changed in the eyes of observers. Furthermore, Cluess' style of play has made as big an impression as Iona's success.

    The Gaels experienced occasional success under previous coaches Tim Welsh, Jeff Ruland and Kevin Willard, but nothing consistent enough to mark Iona as a basketball powerhouse in the Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference.

    That changed under Cluess. In his six years at the helm, the Gaels have won at least 20 games every year. More telling is the fact that Iona has three regular-season MAAC titles and three NCAA tournament berths under Cluess after winning no conference titles with only one NCAA tournament bid in the nine years preceding his hiring.

    He has also changed the image of Iona basketball with his aggressive, fast-paced, high-scoring style of play. The Gaels ranked among the nation's top five teams in scoring in four of Cluess' six seasons, and they led the nation in both 2012 and 2013.

    The Gaels now have a reputation as a high-scoring squad that figures to compete for the MAAC title every year and provide a challenge for power-conference teams in the postseason.

Matt McCall, Chattanooga Mocs

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    Matt McCall's remarkably successful first season at Chattanooga produced optimism that he can make the Mocs a perennial Southern Conference powerhouse. But it is a little too soon to declare that he will have a long-term impact.

    Altering a program's image requires more than a single successful season, and it could be argued that Will Wade paved the way for McCall's success by transforming the program in his two seasons at Chattanooga.

    The Mocs had been near the bottom of the Southern Conference standings before Wade led them to second-place finishes in his two seasons at Chattanooga in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

    McCall grabbed the reins when Wade took the Virginia Commonwealth job and led the Mocs to new heights. Their 29-6 record in 2015-16 represented Chattanooga's best winning percentage in 33 years and included road wins over the Georgia Bulldogs and Dayton Flyers and their first NCAA tournament berth in seven years.

    McCall was just 33 years old when he was hired in April 2015, providing expectations that Chattanooga will continue to grow with McCall. Most of the players from this season's squad are back next year, so McCall is in position to have another big season. If McCall backs up his first-year results with similar success in Year 2, then the face of Chattanooga basketball will be changed.

Wayne Tinkle, Oregon State Beavers

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    Coaches have come and gone at Oregon State for years with no hint of sustained success. The Beavers had finished with losing conference records 21 years in a row when Wayne Tinkle arrived prior to the 2014-15 season. Tinkle had some success at Montana, but the notion that he could turn Oregon State into a winner seemed far-fetched.

    Craig Robinson, Tinkle's predecessor and the brother-in-law of President Barrack Obama, provided some hope when the Beavers went 21-15 in 2011-12. But that was his only winning season in his six years in Corvallis, Ore., and he was shown the door after the 2013-14 season.

    Oregon State showed improvement in Tinkle's first season when the Beavers went 17-14, which was just their third winning season since 1989-90. The breakthrough came this past season when Oregon State avoided a losing conference record for the first time since 1992-93 by going 9-9 while earning its first NCAA tournament berth since 1990.

    Suddenly, things seemed possible at Oregon State.

    If Tony Bennett could turn the Washington State Cougars into a perennial conference contender in his short stay a decade earlier, then maybe Tinkle could do it at Oregon State. The image of Oregon State basketball is starting to change, but it won't be fully formed unless the Beavers do it again next season. 

    The major question is whether Tinkle and Oregon State can continue to have success after the departure of Gary Payton II. He was an all-conference selection after both of his seasons at Oregon State and a major reason why the Beavers' fortunes improved. 

    Payton will not be around next season, leaving the job of changing the face of Oregon State basketball completely up to Tinkle.

Jamie Dixon, TCU Horned Frogs

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    Texas Christian owns one of the worst basketball programs among power-conference teams. However, with one move that took place off the court, the face of the program changed. The hiring of Jamie Dixon as head coach alters the way people look at the Horned Frogs.

    TCU's coaching hire before Dixon reflected the state of the program. The LSU Tigers finished last, last and eighth in the Southeastern Conference standings in Trent Johnson's final three seasons as the Tigers' head coach before being hired to guide the Horned Frogs prior to the 2012-13 season. Not surprisingly, TCU finished last in the Big 12 in three of Johnson's four seasons in Fort Worth before he was fired.

    It seemed like a dead-end job that only a desperate coach would take.

    TCU has not reached the NCAA tournament in 18 years and has been to the Big Dance only twice since 1971. The Horned Frogs were not contenders when they were members of Conference USA and the Mountain West, and they have been pummeled in their four years in the Big 12. They never finishing better than ninth in the 10-team conference.

    But the prospects changed dramatically on March 22, 2016, when TCU introduced Dixon as its new head coach.

    Dixon had taken the Pittsburgh Panthers to the NCAA tournament in 11 of his 13 seasons as head coach, and that included the 2015-16 season. The Panthers were ranked No. 4 in the nation in the final Associated Press polls in 2009 and 2011, and all his head coaching experience came in two of the best basketball conferences in the country: the Big East and the Atlantic Coast Conference.

    TCU is Dixon's alma mater, and he was a key member of the 1985-86 and 1986-87 Horned Frog squads that won Southwest Conference titles. It was the one link that could lure a coach with Dixon's resume to a down-trodden program like TCU's; Dixon brings legitimate hope for success.

Larry Brown, SMU Mustangs

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    Southern Methodist may be the best example of a coach changing the face of a program, because no one has made a bigger impact on a program's basketball image than Larry Brown.

    Before Brown arrived at SMU, it had won more than 21 games in a season just once since 1984-85, and it had not been to the NCAA tournament since 1993. Not since 1957 had the Mustangs been ranked in the final Associated Press poll, and they had only one winning season in the nine seasons immediately before Brown's hiring.

    There were doubts that Brown could change that trend when he was hired in April 2012. No one questioned his coaching ability. Brown had, had major success everywhere he coached at both the college and pro level. He had been enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach 10 years earlier.

    But the man was 71 years when he was hired and had not coached anywhere for two years. The mere hiring of Brown gave the SMU program some needed cachet, but would the man known for his vagabond ways stick around long enough to have a lasting impact?

    The answer turned out to be a resounding "yes." After a 15-17 stumble in Brown's first season as coach, SMU improved to 27-10 in Year 2, recording the most wins at the school since the Mustangs went 28-7 in Dave Bliss' final season of 1997-98. Somehow the Mustangs failed to make the NCAA tournament that year despite finishing tied for third in the American Athletic Conference.

    The Mustangs did get an NCAA berth in Brown's third season, when the Mustangs went 27-7 and finished alone atop the AAC standings. For the first time in 58 years, SMU was ranked in the final Associated Press poll, coming in at No. 18. 

    NCAA violations sullied the program's image a bit the next season. The sanctions included a nine-game suspension for Brown and a postseason ban for the team in 2015-16. But SMU climbed as high as No. 8 in the AP rankings when it started 17-0 and ended with a 25-5 record and a second-place finish in the AAC. Again SMU was ranked in the final AP poll.

    Brown's Mustangs have won 25 games or more three years in a row, something that had never been accomplished at SMU. In fact, the Mustangs had never won 25 games or more in two consecutive years until Brown showed up. Observers now expect SMU to be a conference title contender every year regardless of the personnel. 

Mike Dunleavy Sr., Tulane Green Wave

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    Much like what Dixon is doing for TCU and Sendek for Santa Clara, Mike Dunleavy Sr. is doing for Tulane. He gives the school's basketball program an image boost by his mere presence.

    If nothing else, the hiring of Dunleavy indicates the Green Wave are serious about putting a competitive basketball team on the floor. Tulane simply had not been competitive since Perry Clark left in 2000.

    The Green Wave have had just one winning season in the last eight years, and they did not finish higher than seventh in the conference standings in any of the past nine years. They made a step up in class when they moved from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference prior to the 2014-15 season, and that has not worked out.

    Tulane finished last in the 11-team AAC this past season.

    The Green Wave had cycled through a series of no-name coaches before landing Dunleavy. But in Dunleavy, Tulane has a man who was an NBA head coach for 17 years and was named NBA coach of the year in 1999. 

    In his first season as a head coach, he took the Los Angeles Lakers to the 1991 NBA finals, and his 2000 Portland Trail Blazers squad reached the Western Conference finals before losing in seven games to a Lakers team featuring Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. Dunleavy has coached the likes of Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Scottie Pippen.

    Granted, Dunleavy has never coached on the college level, so there are some things he needs to learn. At 62, Dunleavy is older than you would like for a new head coach. But he is nine years younger than Brown was when SMU hired him, and Dunleavy provides instant name recognition.

    Tulane's goals with Dunleavy in charge have changed.

    According to Andrew Lopez of the New Orleans Time-Picayune, in his introductory press conference Dunleavy said that Tulane should aspire to be like Villanova and Duke, with a berth in the Final Four being within reach. The hire and his comments tend to alter the perception of Tulane basketball, and that begins to change the face of the program.

Eran Ganot, Hawaii Rainbow Warriors

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    The best way to change the face of a program is to perform well in the NCAA tournament when the stakes are high and the eyes of the country are on you. The Rainbow Warriors did exactly that when they knocked off the California Golden Bears in the first round this season.

    Hawaii was certainly aided by the fact that Cal lost two starters for health reasons the week of the game, but the bottom line was that the 13th-seeded Rainbow Warriors upset fourth-seeded Cal of the Pac-12 and did it rather convincingly.

    Suddenly, the college basketball world was impressed with first-year head coach Eran Ganot, who had never been a head coach before taking the reins at Hawaii in April 2015. From an image standpoint, Ganot's regular-season accomplishments seemed to take on greater importance after the surprising first-round victory.

    Hawaii finished the 2015-16 season with a 28-6 mark, setting a school record for victories while winning an NCAA tournament game for the first time in school history. 

    Hawaii, which captured both the regular season and tournament Big West Conference titles, had not finished higher than fourth in the conference standings since 2001-02, which was also the last time Hawaii got an NCAA tournament bid.

    It was, quite simply, the best season in the history of Hawaii basketball. However, the program's improved image will fade quickly if two questions are not answered adequately.

    Question No. 1: Did Ganot simply fall into a great situation?

    The Rainbow Warriors had been building toward a successful 2015-16 season before Ganot arrived, going 20-11 in 2013-14 and 22-13 in 2014-15. To prove he was the architect of change, Ganot would need a second consecutive successful season. That leads to the second question.

    Question No. 2: Can Ganot come close to duplicating Hawaii's 2015-16 season next year?

    The odds are stacked against him. Not only will Hawaii lose most of the talent from this season's squad, but Hawaii was hit with NCAA sanctions that ban it from postseason play in 2016-17. 

    If the Rainbow Warriors tumble back into mediocrity next season, then the image gains made in Ganot's rookie season as head coach will disappear. However, if Ganot can build a winner despite those limitations, the perception of Ganot and Hawaii basketball will be greatly enhanced.

Kevin Keatts, UNC Wilmington Seahawks

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    Don't feel bad if you don't recognize the name.

    Kevin Keatts is hardly a household name. But if he continues to lift the North Carolina Wilmington Seahawks program like he has in his first two years, then the name will be bandied about like Gregg Marshall's was after he turned the Winthrop Eagles into a winner.

    Keatts was on the Louisville staff when the Cardinals won the 2013 NCAA championship, but not much was expected when he was named UNC Wilmington's head coach in March 2014. His only head coaching experience had come at Hargrave Military Academy, and he was taking over a program that had not smelled success in years.

    Buzz Peterson, Keatts' predecessor at UNC Wilmington, was fired for a reason. In the six seasons before Keatts arrived, the Seahawks had gone 7-25, 9-22, 13-18, 10-21 and 10-20 before finishing that ugly run with a 9-23 season and a last-place finish in the Colonial Athletic Association in 2013-14.

    As if by magic, Keatts led the Seahawks to an 18-15 overall record and a share of the CAA regular-season title in his first season, earning conference coach-of-the-year honors for his worst-to-first transformation. He parlayed that impressive rookie season into a better showing in his second season, setting a school record for wins in a 25-8 season that ended with a share of the regular-season CAA title, a conference tournament championship and the school's first NCAA tournament berth since 2006.

    The Seahawks held their own in their NCAA tournament game against the Duke Blue Devils, taking a four-point lead early in the second half before losing by eight. Keatts was named CAA coach of the year again, the first coach to win the honor in consecutive seasons.

    Presumably, he will remain at Wilmington for at least one more season since he signed a contract extension in April that takes him through the 2020-21 season. With his success in his first two seasons, Keatts has established the fact that the Seahawks will be a factor in the CAA as long as he is their coach.

LeVelle Moton, North Carolina Central Eagles

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    North Carolina Central's 13-19 record and sixth-place finish in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in 2015-16 took some of the steam out of the Eagles' rise to prominence. However, there is no doubt LeVelle Moton changed the way people looked at North Carolina Central in his seven years as its head coach.

    Moton took over in 2009, when the Eagles were in the midst of their five-year transition to Division I status. They had gone 4-26 and 4-27 in the two seasons immediately before Moton arrived, and they struggled to a 7-22 finish in Moton's first season before showing considerable improvement by going 15-15 in 2010-11.

    North Carolina Central became a full Division I member in 2011-12, and it went 17-15 that season while finishing fifth in its first season in the MEAC.

    The breakthrough came the next season, when the Eagles finished 22-9 and placed second in the conference at 15-1. They continued the surge the next season, going 28-6 overall and 16-1 in the conference while earning the school's first NCAA tournament berth.

    North Carolina Central administrators knew what they had in Moton, so they signed him to an eight-year contract extension that raised his base salary from $100,000 to $250,000 prior to the 2014-15 season, according to Myron Medcalf of ESPN.com.

    North Carolina Central was just as good in 2014-15, when it went 25-8 overall and 16-0 in the conference. A surprising loss in the conference tournament cost the Eagles their second straight NCAA tournament berth, but they nearly beat Miami on the Hurricanes' home court in the National Invitation Tournament. Moton was a finalist for the Iowa State job that went to Steve Prohm, according to sports editor Bobby La Gesse of the Ames Tribune. But Moton is still at North Carolina Central.

    With a three-year conference record of 47-2, Moton had made North Carolina Central a name worth remembering in college basketball circles. One disappointing season cannot destroy that, although the 2016-17 season will be pivotal.

Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech Hokies

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    Virginia Tech is on the verge of changing its basketball image, but the 2016-17 season will be pivotal in determining whether the Hokies have turned the corner or not under Buzz Williams.

    Before coming to Blacksburg, Va., Williams had already established himself as a big-time coach at Marquette, taking the Golden Eagles to the NCAA tournament in five of his six seasons there, including a berth in the Elite Eight in 2013. Then he made the odd decision in 2014 to leave an upper-tier Big East program to take a job at a lower-tier Atlantic Coast Conference program.

    Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com devoted an entire article to trying to explain why Williams made the move.

    The Hokies had a limited basketball tradition, having been to the NCAA tournament only once in the previous 18 years and not at all since 2007. Virginia Tech's conference records in the three years before Williams arrived were 4-12, 4-14 and 2-16, the latter accompanying the 9-22 season in 2013-14 that led to the firing of James Johnson.

    The Hokies experienced growing pains in Williams' first season, finishing last in the ACC. However, they improved significantly in Williams' second season, going 20-15 overall and 10-8 in the ACC this past season.

    The season began with a disappointing loss to the Alabama State Hornets but ended with five straight wins heading into the ACC tournament. The Hokies finished ahead of Pittsburgh and the Syracuse Orange Men, both of whom received NCAA tournament berths. Wins over Virginia and Miami demonstrated how far the Hokies had come. 

    Much more is expected of the Hokies next season. The key players from this season's team will be back, including Zach LeDay and Seth Allen. Virginia Tech's first NCAA tournament berth since 2007 is well within reach, and an ACC title is not completely out of the question. That would certainly change the face of Virginia Tech basketball.

Matthew Driscoll, North Florida Ospreys

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    It has taken Matthew Driscoll several years to turn North Florida into a respected basketball program, but the Ospreys seem to have it going now.

    Driscoll took over prior to the 2009-10 season, North Florida's first season as a full Division I member. The Ospreys had won no more than eight games in any of their four transition years to Division I status, and they showed significant improvement in Driscoll's first season, finishing with a 13-18 record and a seventh-place finish in the Atlantic Sun Conference.

    North Florida continued a slow but steady rise over the next four years before it made its breakthrough in 2014-15.

    The Ospreys finished 23-12 and won the conference's regular season and tournament titles. It was the first time they finished among the top three in the Atlantic Sun standings, and it provided the Ospreys with their first NCAA tournament berth.

    Driscoll backed it up with another regular-season conference title in 2015-16. Despite a rigorous nonconference schedule, North Florida finished 22-12, including a road victory over the Illinois Fighting Illini and an overtime loss at LSU. A loss in the conference tournament prevented North Florida from making a second straight NCAA tournament appearance, but the perception of North Florida as an up-and-coming basketball school had been established. 

    Assuming Dallas Moore withdraws his name from the NBA draft and returns for his senior season, North Florida should continue to improve its basketball image under Driscoll.

    Moore, who led the team in both scoring (19.8 ppg) and assists (6.0 apg), was the 2016 Atlantic Sun player of the year.  Two other starters return for the 2016-17 season, and that may be enough for Driscoll to solidify the program's status.

King Rice, Monmouth Hawks

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    The Monmouth Hawks burst into the national consciousness in 2015-16, partly because of the innovative sideline celebrations by their bench players and partly because of their impressive nonconference victories.

    It was the culmination of five years of building by head coach King Rice, who had no college head coaching experience in 2011 when he took over at Monmouth. It was a considerable task because Monmouth had not finished higher than eighth in its conference in any of the five years preceding Rice's arrival.

    The improvement was steady but slow, a chore made more difficult by Monmouth's move from the Northeast Conference to the Metro Athletic Athletic Conference in 2013.

    The Hawks made significant progress in 2014-15 when they went 18-15 and finished tied for third in the MAAC standings. But the major breakthrough came this past season when Monmouth beat high-profile nonconference foes Notre Dame, UCLA, USC and Georgetown and finished first in the MAAC with a 17-3 record.

    Point guard Justin Robinson was acknowledged as a star and was named MAAC player of the year. Monmouth's loss to Iona in the MAAC tournament finals prevented the Hawks from earning an NCAA tournament bid. However, it did not erase the acclaim that came with their 28-8 season, which eclipsed the school's previous record for wins in a season by seven victories.

    Rice was the architect of the team's rise, and he has a chance to bolster the program's image next season. The 5'8" Robinson should get increased media exposure next season as a senior, and nearly every key player from this season's team will be returning with him.

    Monmouth could earn its first national ranking ever at some point next season, and that would certainly change the basketball image of this West Long Branch, N.J., school.