Mark Story

Even Dick Vitale wonders: What’s next for a championship-winning Kentucky coach?

After Chris Briggs coached Georgetown College to the NAIA Division I men’s basketball national title last month, he took his family to Florida for some celebratory fun in the sun.

Briggs and his wife, Elizabeth, were dining in Sarasota’s Le Colonne Restaurant when they spied a familiar face.

The Georgetown head basketball coach decided he would not approach Dick Vitale’s table. Elizabeth Briggs, a University of Kentucky assistant athletics director, was not so reticent.

“Since I wasn’t going to do it, my wife went and talked to them,” Chris Briggs said. “When (Vitale) found out we’d won the national championship, he asked me the same thing you did: Have you gotten any (coaching) job offers out of it?”

When Georgetown (33-4) defeated Carroll College of Montana 68-48 March 26 in the NAIA national championship game in Kansas City, Mo., it put an exclamation point on a stellar eight-year run for Briggs.

Since succeeding Happy Osborne as the Tigers’ head coach in 2011-12, the 37-year-old Briggs has gone 219-59 and led Georgetown to three NAIA national tourney finals appearances and two national championships (2013 and 2019).

Yet when even our state’s lower-tier NCAA Division I jobs open, one never hears the name of Briggs in the mix.

It has long fascinated me how few chances even the most successful NAIA coaches get to climb the coaching ladder.

A former UK men’s basketball student manager (2001-04) and graduate assistant coach (2004-06) under Tubby Smith, Briggs is philosophical about that.

“That’s something, if it comes, it comes,” Briggs says of a D-I head coaching opportunity. “I am very blessed to be the head coach at Georgetown, a school that I think is a special place and a (basketball) program where we play for (national) championships.”

In the current men’s hoops coaching carousel, 52 NCAA Division I head coaching jobs have opened. So far, only two schools have hired new head men from below the D-I level.

Idaho State hired Ryan Looney from Point Loma Nazarene; Lipscomb lured Lennie Acuff away from Alabama-Huntsville.

Both of those hires came from NCAA Division II, not from the NAIA.

University of Pikeville Coach Kelly Wells said it is an “awesome question” why it is so challenging for NAIA head men to move up.

“I think a lot of it has to do with just comfort zone,” said Wells, who led UPike to the 2011 NAIA national title. “I think ADs and administrators, when it comes time to issue that (news) release and hold that press conference with the new coach, they want that Division I background just for the comfort factor.”

Kelly Wells
University of Pikeville Coach Kelly Wells led the Bears to the 2011 NAIA Division I men’s basketball national title. Pablo Alcala Herald-Leader file photo

Wells noted that he and Briggs are both presently coaching in spots where it is realistic to aspire to winning national championships.

“I know Chris would say the same thing, that’s a true blessing,” Wells said. “A lot of the D-I jobs we could get in the running for, the best you could hope for is winning a conference title, you’d have no hope of competing for the national championship.”

For Briggs, Georgetown’s 2019 national title took some of the sting out of a painful overtime loss to Mid-America Christian on a buzzer-beater in the 2016 NAIA finals.

Though NAIA basketball is known for its prevalence of transfers, Briggs was gratified that Georgetown’s title run this season was populated with key players — Chris Coffey (Seneca), Eljay Cowherd (Bardstown), Troy Steward (Fleming County) and Jacob Conway (Lincoln County), among them — recruited directly from Kentucky high schools.

At any level, the side benefits that come from winning national titles are ample — and fun.

Before Georgetown played in the NAIA finals, Kentucky-born actor Josh Hopkins tweeted support of the Tigers.

Some of the former student managers Briggs worked with at UK under venerable Wildcats equipment manager Bill Keightley came to Kansas City for the championship game to surprise the Georgetown coach.

After the Tigers won it all, John Calipari tweeted congratulations. Tubby Smith’s congrats came via text.

In the hierarchy of Kentucky college hoops, head men’s basketball coach at Georgetown College holds a prestigious place.

Dr. Bob Davis won 415 games for the Tigers. Jim Reid won 529. Both are in the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.

Osborne earned 456 victories and the 1998 NAIA national title for Georgetown.

Briggs, a McCracken County native, is now more than upholding the Tigers’ regal coaching standard.

Still, even Dickie V. wonders if that will ever earn Briggs a shot at the NCAA Division I level.

“Those D-I jobs, obviously, are very hard to get,” Briggs said. “For me, it’s sort of the same thing I tell our players: ‘Control what you can control.’ I’m gonna keep working, keep recruiting, just stay at it.”

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.