Three Coaches in New Positions Ready To Take Off Running

Posted by Chris Johnson on October 30th, 2012

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

Coaching changes are powerful developments. They can ignite struggling programs, send promising ones on a downward spiral, and have drastic implications (both good and bad) for the administrators who made them. Sometimes, a regime change preserves a middling trajectory established by the previous coach, in which case another switch is likely forthcoming. Otherwise, why hire a new coach in the first place? In any case, this offseason brought few radical coaching changes. That’s mostly because there weren’t many significant changes to be made – Illinois, Kansas State, LSU and South Carolina headlined the list. The average college basketball fan will find little intrigue in that selection. It doesn’t exactly project “excitement” or “allure.” Even so, the hires made are no doubt transformative endeavors for the programs that occasioned them. They wanted a change of direction, found a coach who shared that vision, matched vacancy with proscribed fit – and voila! Some of these new faces in new places will have a better chance of succeeding right away, and thus validating their new position. Missouri’s Frank Haith, one of the most widely criticized hires in years, personified the seamless transition. He made it work from the moment he arrived in Columbia. The next question is who has the best chance to do that this season. Trying to decipher which coaches can succeed right away requires keen insight, situational knowledge and a bit of guesswork. Because most changes are made to improve the previous coach’s way of running things, most new guys don’t inherit the best situations. Instead, they are hired to improve from the flaws of the previous regime. Anyway, in the interest of sparing you from a more drawn-out coaching hire lecture, here are three coaches poised to thrive in their new stomping grounds.

Ohio: Jim Christian
Previous job: TCU
Replacing: John Groce
 

The Bobcats are set to continue their recent success under Christian, who has plenty of experience in the MAC (photo credit: US Presswire).

Over the past half decade and change, we’ve come to know Ohio as the sporadic NCAA Tournament outfit you absolutely dread seeing your favorite team matched up with in a first-round setting. In 2010, they took down three-seed Georgetown. Last season, the Bobcats raised their Giant Killer profile to a whole new level, beating four-seed Michigan and 12-seed South Florida before dropping an overtime decision in the Sweet Sixteen to one-seed North Carolina. That’s the kind of run that puts your program on the map,  and puts your coach squarely on the wish list of hiring programs across the country. It granted John Groce a move up the conference coaching ladder, into the rugged Big Ten, where he’ll attempt to use his up-tempo offense and Chicago recruiting ties to pump some life into a downward-trending Illinois. Losing Groce hurts, but his replacement is no less capable of continuing the Bobcats’ recent Tournament success. On its face, the hiring of Jim Christian is nothing to get excited about. A ho-hum four-year tenure at TCU preceded his newest position, where he compiled a 38-58 record and failed to generate the type of fundamental culture shift required to lift the Horned Frogs out of their current state. As credentials go, his tenure in Fort Worth hardly inspires confidence. But if you look beyond his recent history in the Mountain West, and delve into the breadth of his college hoops coaching career, the move to bring in Christian makes absolute sense.

From 2002-08, Christian presided over a perennial MAC contender in Kent State. He led two NCAA Tournament teams and only once finished a season with anything below an invitation to the NIT. Back in familiar MAC territory, Christian can re-institute the coaching style that made him so effective a decade ago. More importantly, the Bobcats bring back basically everyone of consequence from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team. That includes guards D.J. Cooper, Nick Kellogg and Walter Offutt, a backcourt trio capable of going toe-to-toe with most power-conference counterparts. A return to the NCAA Tournament is a safe projection. More radical, though completely within reason, is a more flattering regular-season profile (the Bobcats finished with a 13-5 MAC record last season), an at-large Tournament birth and another run past the first weekend.

Kansas State: Bruce Weber
Previous job: Illinois
Replacing: Frank Martin
 

The match of doctrinal expertise and personnel is practically seamless for Weber at Kansas State (photo credit: Getty Images).

A personal rift between Frank Martin and Kansas State athletic director John Currie was reportedly at blame for the former coach’s sudden departure this offseason. Martin personified positive growth and progressive change in college basketball generally, and in Manhattan, specifically. He elevated a struggling program and turned the Octagon of Doom into one of the nation’s most feared home court environments. Any logical Wildcats fan is right to expect at least some drop-off. In the long-term, Kansas State could very well lose the ascendancy Martin provided. But most college basketball fans care about the here and now, and Kansas State looks poised to deliver on that front. Aside from big man Jamar Samuels, the Wildcats welcome back every major rotation player from last season’s eight-seeded team. That includes backcourt mainstays Angel Rodriguez, Rodney McGruder and Will Spradling, plus rim protectors Jordan Henriquez and Adrian Diaz. When you bring back practically the same team that knocked off two-seed Missouri twice, three-seed Baylor once, won 21 games overall, and four of six Big 12 contests to finish the regular season, there’s plenty of reason for optimism. But Weber introduces a particularly favorable dynamic that could push the Wildcats to a top-tier finish in the Big 12.

Say what you want about the former Illini coach, about his inability to groom four and five-star talents into cohesive entities, about his poor motivational tactics – but the man can flat out coach defense. And if there’s one thing Martin left behind in Manhattan, besides a relentless sideline scowl and a sailor’s vocabulary, it’s defensive tenacity. He preached it above all else, and his players took that philosophy and ran with it. Last season, Kansas State ranked #21 in adjusted defensive efficiency and #27 in turnover percentage, per KenPom.com. With Martin gone, the tactical nuances will change, but the baseline philosophy won’t. Weber ascended the coaching ranks touting a reputation for hard-nosed half court D, and his Illinois teams – with little exception – took to that philosophy. Now that the institutional framework for Weber’s defensive style is already in place – at least this season, it is – the Wildcats are ready to pick up right where they left off.

Colorado State: Larry Eustachy
Former job: Southern Miss
Replacing: Tim Miles
 

The Rams bring back enough depth and experience to make a Tournament run in Eustachy’s debut season (Photo credit: Getty Images)

There is a clear delineation between these three coaching switches and the situations that preceded them. Each new coach is taking over a program left in good hands by his predecessor, who by virtue of his previous building work, is taking on a bigger challenge. Where Eustachy’s hire differs is in the upward move he made to land in his new spot. While it can be argued that both Christian and Weber made negative or lateral switches – Christian leaves a power conference team (albeit a moribund and completely lifeless one) for a MAC school, while Weber departs the fertile Chicago recruiting grounds and Big Ten stature for a less renowned entity in Manhattan – Eustachy’s move from Southern Miss to Colorado State marks another step forward in his coaching rebirth. Were it not for a set of particularly salacious photographs featuring an intoxicated Eustachy in compromising positions with college females at a house party, the former Iowa State coach may have already reached a more desirable coaching locale. It bears remembering that Eustachy once stood among the nation’s hottest young coaches, having proven his sideline skills against the Big 12’s best, leading Iowa State to consecutive Big 12 regular season championships (2000-01) and a conference tournament championship (2000).

That’s not to take away from the budding hoops power he’s taking over in Fort Collins, Colorado, the one coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance and welcoming back the core of last season’s lineup. The backcourt alone features three talented seniors. All-Mountain West honorable mention Dorian Green, who averaged 13.5 points and a team-leading 2.5 assists last season, is poised for a huge farewell campaign. Returning leading scorer Wes Eikmeier (15.6 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 2.1 APG) may challenge for a league scoring title. These are all very positive signs for a team that enters 2012-13 with a relatively low profile. That’s what happens when you play in a non-power league with UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico – folks tend to glance at the top, and neglect the next tier. The Rams are more than capable of challenging their more-hyped league brethren. They proved it last season by beating all three of them on their home floor. There’s no question Miles had a lot to do with last year’s success; It’s the main reason why Nebraska pulled him into the power-conference ranks – so he could blaze a similar path to success. But Eustachy’s job at Southern Miss, relatively speaking, is no less impressive. He took a program with little history, tradition or basketball enthusiasm and over the course of eight years morphed the Golden Eagles into a formidable Conference USA foe. He may not bring Miles’ upbeat candor or his social media savvy, but Eustachy’s experience, acumen and tactical malleability will help ease initial growing pains and ensure a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.


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