Ranking the Mountain West CoachesPosted by Andrew Murawa on January 30th, 2014
Any time you get around to comparing one coach to another, it’s a shaky situation. Isn’t the real decision about who is the better coach decided on the court? Sure, one coach may have more talent than another, but then again, isn’t pulling in talent part of the job description? So, prior to unveiling my rankings of the coaches in the Mountain West, lets offer up some criteria. For the most part, recruiting is excluded from this analysis. The question that we’ll attempt to answer instead is this: Pick any random team in the country — you don’t know its roster or its strengths and weaknesses — which Mountain West coach would give you the best chance over this and the next couple of seasons to get the most out of those players and leave the program in the best possible place at the end?
Well, here’s one man’s take, feel free to disagree.
- Steve Fisher, San Diego State – The results speak for themselves. Not only are the Aztecs the best team in the conference this year, Fisher’s done the most unbelievable job of building a program in the conference. Seriously, his track record at SDSU may not deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as elite program-builders with national titles under their belts like Lute Olson and Jim Calhoun, but this trajectory is very, very close. Put it this way: There’s one sure-fire Hall-of-Famer in this conference and it is this man. He’s head and shoulders above the rest. The knock on him when he was at Michigan was that he could recruit well but wasn’t much of a teacher or a tactician. And earlier in his career at San Diego State, he struggled with some end-game scenarios (the 2006 NCAA Tournament First Round loss to Indiana still upsets me). But these days, his record in unimpeachable. He gets his players to improve from one season to the next and throughout their careers. Even while bringing in solid talent, he gets his team to exceed expectations. The team that he puts on the court is something that his supportive community can be proud of. Not only is Fisher far and away the best coach in the Mountain West, he’s on the very short list of the best in the nation.
- Larry Shyatt, Wyoming– Larry Shyatt is one damn fine basketball coach too. He came to Wyoming — taking over a program that had won a total of 20 games in the previous two years while showing no heart — and immediately delivered back-to-back 20-win seasons with a roster no more talented than what he inherited. Sure, some of those Cowboys games may be slog-fests and he’s not going to bring ton of recruits to Laramie (who is?), but Shyatt is squeezing every bit out of his roster.
- Larry Eustachy, Colorado State – He’s the second-most respected coach in the conference and has certainly accomplished more as a head man in his career than Shyatt, so Rams’ fans certainly have reason to feel slighted here. And there’s no doubt he can really coach. He handed off a strong Utah State program for Stew Morrill to run with; he took Iowa State to an Elite Eight; he revived a moribund Southern Mississippi program; and he helped get Colorado State its first win in the NCAA Tournament since 1989. He’s a terrific tactician, does a solid job pulling players and, if early indications are correct, is currently just getting warmed up for a long run in what will likely be his final stop on the sidelines.
- Stew Morrill, Utah State – He’s not accomplished a ton in the postseason in Logan (he’s 1-8 in the NCAA Tournament), and his non-conference scheduling philosophy deserves to be shamed repeatedly and vociferously. But this dude has proven time and again that he can coach. He’s won at least 21 games in each of the last 14 seasons, although that’s a number he’s going to have to do some work to get to this season in his more competitive conference. But you can bet he’ll have the Aggies competing for Mountain West titles as often as not once he gets acclimated to the talent level.
- Dave Pilipovich, Air Force – He’s hasn’t even been a head coach for two full seasons yet, and his career record is just 29-29. But he plays an exciting brand of basketball, coaches up his guys and gets them to improve. Just compare the Falcons under Jeff Reynolds to the same players under Pilipovich and it is a matter of night and day in the difference.
- Rodney Terry, Fresno State – After a decade as an assistant coach under Rick Barnes at Texas, Terry took over the Bulldogs three years ago in their final year in the WAC. His career record is just 32-50, but taking into account a rebuilding job and a healthy dose of bad luck, and the six-spot may be significantly underrating him. He’s a future star in the coaching world; he just needs a few breaks to go his way and some patient bosses.
- Craig Neal, New Mexico – He’s been a head coach for all of 19 games, so it is hard to judge him so soon, especially considering the talent he inherited. He’s been a part of a lot of success in this program, though, earning him the benefit of the doubt. He just can’t be ranked any higher than the coaches ahead of him with more of a track record.
- Dave Wojcik, San Jose State – He’s got a career 6-14 record. He’s got the worst job in the conference. And likely nobody outside of the San Jose State program has watched the Spartans closely enough to really get a line on Wojcik’s in-game adjustments. But first impressions are positive.
- Leon Rice, Boise State – After more than a decade as a Gonzaga assistant, Rice got a chance to run his own program in Boise, and he’s helped take the Broncos to one of just six NCAA Tournament appearances in their history. But he’s still got a lot to prove. While his team plays a fun style, there is definitely not a history of stout defense in his three-plus years as a head coach. And some of the Broncos end-game decisions this year and last have been, well, “odd.” Maybe Rice is lower on this list than guys like Terry, Neal and Wojcik only because we know more about him, but it does appear that he’ll have a long opportunity to change minds about his coaching acumen in his current position.
- David Carter, Nevada – When Mark Fox left Reno for the “greener” pastures of Georgia, the Wolf Pack had won 21 or more games six seasons in a row. Since then, the Wolf Pack have been up and down. Carter posted 21 wins in his first year as head man with a talented roster, but slipped up in the conference tournament when it counted. 2011 was a disastrous 13-win year. He bounced back big with a strong 28-win year in 2012, but again struck out in the conference tournament. And then the last two seasons in the Mountain West have been eye-opening. He’s probably saved his job with the strong start to conference play this season, but he’s going to need to start pulling in more significant talent in order to keep the Nevada program from slipping back to it’s pre-Trent Johnson irrelevance.
- Dave Rice, UNLV – Is it unfair to have a guy who has won 63 of his first 89 games as a head coach last in his conference? Is it unfair to have a guy who continues to pull in big-time recruits all the way down here? Is it unfair to hold a 12-7 record on a team that lost seven rotation guys from last season against a head coach? Probably yes to all of those questions. But we’ve yet to see anything approaching coherent offense out of the Rebels in Rice’s tenure; they’re the very example of a roll-the-ball-out-and-let-em-play kind of team. He gets his team to play hard, sure. He recruits like a mad man. And the wins are piling up. But given all the talent he’s pulling into Las Vegas, his teams have been major underachievers.