Mark Story

The coaching carousel: One SEC school wins big; why UCLA, Rick Pitino are losers

The most fascinating part of each men’s college basketball season comes after the final contest. For intrigue, it is tough to beat the deal-cutting game of musical chairs that is the coaching carousel.

With most of the major job vacancies now filled, here are the biggest winners and losers:

WINNER: Texas A&M. After poaching Jimbo Fisher from Florida State to coach football, outgoing Aggies athletics director Scott Woodward lured Buzz Williams away from Virginia Tech to run the A&M men’s hoops program.

Williams, 46, led Marquette to five NCAA Tournaments in six seasons (2008-14) including three Sweet 16 trips and one Elite Eight. At Virginia Tech (2014-19), Williams took the Hokies to three straight NCAA tourneys for the first time in school history.

Texas A&M has never advanced past the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. With Williams, the Aggies should have the coach to change that.

Buzz Williams.JPG
New Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams took Marquette to five NCAA Tournaments in six years and led Virginia Tech to NCAA tourney appearances in three straight seasons for the first time in school history. Chuck Burton AP

LOSER: Rick Pitino. In the ethics-challenged world of major college basketball, it’s all but impossible for a coach with a track record of winning to become too toxic to be hired.

Pitino, 66, was unquestionably the most accomplished coach available this offseason. Coaching searches at UCLA, St. John’s and UNLV — programs that have slipped far from their historic peaks — would have seemed logical landing spots for Pitino under normal circumstances.

Instead, after the scandal-plagued finish to his tenure at Louisville, Pitino apparently remains so radioactive among university administrations that he did not appear to get even get one sniff at a college job.

WINNER: Nebraska. After ousting Tim Miles, the Cornhuskers landed ex-Iowa State and Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, 46, with a lucrative seven-year, $25 million contract.

“The Mayor” might not have been a hit with the Bulls (115-155 from 2015-19), but he did terrific work before that at Iowa State (115-56 from 2010-15).

Hoiberg won 23 or more games in each of his final four seasons at Iowa State and led the Cyclones to four straight NCAA tournaments. His hiring is a coup for a Nebraska program that is the only one in a Power Five conference never to win a men’s NCAA Tournament game.

Fred Hoiberg debuts at Nebraska.JPG
Nebraska Athletics Director Bill Moos, left, used a seven-year, $25 million contract to woo former Iowa State and Chicago Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg to the Cornhuskers. Nati Harnik AP

LOSER: UCLA. The Bruins announced the firing of Steve Alford on New Year’s Eve. Yet with months of lead time to organize its coaching search, UCLA still wound up in a dysfunctional scramble this spring.

UCLA’s disjointed search included apparently offering Kentucky’s John Calipari less money than he was making at UK to relocate. Then, in TCU’s Jamie Dixon ($8 million) and Tennessee’s Rick Barnes ($5 million), the Bruins inexplicably wooed coaches with high contract buyouts that UCLA was not prepared to meet.

Ultimately, UCLA settled for ex-Cincinnati Bearcats head man Mick Cronin, a competent if unexciting choice whose 6-11 career NCAA Tournament record does not exactly scream “the man to return UCLA to its former glory.”

Mick Cronin at UCLA.JPG
New UCLA Coach Mick Cronin led the Cincinnati Bearcats to nine straight NCAA tournaments but only advanced past the first weekend one time (2012). Brian van der Brug TNS

WINNER: Cincinnati. John Brannen, 45, did a stellar job at Northern Kentucky, leading the Norse to two NCAA tournaments and an NIT trip in their first three years of postseason eligibility after moving up from NCAA Division II.

Under the departed Mick Cronin, the Bearcats made nine straight NCAA tourneys but Cronin’s grinding, defensive-oriented style was not exactly a fiesta in terms of entertainment value (and, see above, didn’t produce much success in the NCAA Tournament once there).

Brannen brings a more polished offensive approach (78.5 points per game, 47.8 field-goal percentage, 36.2 three-point percentage last season at NKU) that should make UC more fun to watch and might make the Bearcats more dangerous in March.

John Brannen celebrating
New Cincinnati head coach John Brannen led Northern Kentucky to two NCAA Tournament appearances and a trip to the NIT in its first three seasons of Division I postseason eligibility. Paul Sancya AP

LOSER: Vanderbilt. After a dismal 9-23 season (0-18 SEC) that was sabotaged when star freshman point guard Darius Garland was lost for the year to injury on Nov. 23, new Vandy athletics director Malcolm Turner pulled the plug on third-year coach Bryce Drew and replaced him with two-time NBA All-Star Jerry Stackhouse.

Star-level NBA players have not fared well as college head coaches. Chris Mullin just stepped down as St. John’s coach after going 59-73 from 2015-19.

Clyde Drexler bombed at Houston (19-39 from 1998-2000). Isiah Thomas was even worse at Florida International (26-65 from 2009-12).

In fairness, the jury is still out on Patrick Ewing at Georgetown (34-29 over the past two seasons). Penny Hardaway (22-14 last season) has energized a slumbering Memphis program with early recruiting success.

Stackhouse, 44, is not a coaching neophyte. He was NBA G League Coach of the Year in 2017 and was serving as a Memphis Grizzlies assistant when hired by Vanderbilt.

In hiring former NBA star Jerry Stackhouse as its new head men’s basketball coach, Vanderbilt is defying a definite trend. Mark Humphrey AP

The former president of the G League, Turner must have been impressed with what he saw from Stackhouse in the NBA’s minor league.

Still, in hiring a former NBA star as its coach, Vanderbilt is betting against a persistent college coaching trend.

Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.