- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Donnie Jones didn't move laterally from Marshall to Central Florida.
He moved up.
The standings don't show it, and neither does the name recognition. But you would be hard-pressed to find someone in college basketball who has been to Central Florida's campus, has recruited Florida and is aware of Marshall's recruiting struggles within a region that has power teams Kentucky, West Virginia, Louisville and Cincinnati within a short drive to disagree with that assessment.
In 2009-10, Marshall finished 11-5 in Conference USA, 24-10 overall, and reached the second round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, its first postseason appearance since 1988. Jones also coached freshman Hassan Whiteside, a shot-blocking center who could be a top-20 pick in the June NBA draft.
UCF finished 6-10 in C-USA, 15-17 overall before Kirk Speraw was fired.
Central Florida has 50,000-plus students in a destination location, playing in the 10,000-seat, 3-year-old UCF Arena.
Marshall has 13,000-plus students in a 9,600-seat arena that opened in 1981.
"It was the toughest decision for me to make," said Jones, who spent a 11 years as Billy Donovan's assistant at Florida and earned a master's degree at Marshall while Donovan was the head coach of the Thundering Herd from 1994 to '96. Jones met his wife in Huntington, W.Va., as well.
"Sometimes you make a business decision, not a personal one," said Jones, who was above .500 in two of three seasons he was at Marshall.
Donovan said the Marshall job was exceptional when it was in the Southern Conference, but not so much when it had to compete in the upper-Midwest-dominated MAC or the spread-out Conference USA.
"You've got Big East/ACC type of guys in the area, and you'll have a hard time beating West Virginia on them or Kentucky or Ohio State, so you've got to take JC kids or some kids that you're waiting in the final hour academically," Donovan said. "Marshall has great fans and great passion, and I've got six or eight buddies that I keep in touch [with] from there. But when you look at the resources and the facilities within Conference USA -- it's a hard decision for Donnie to move from West Virginia -- but you can see how Donnie saw it wasn't a lateral move within the league."
It's not, especially when you consider "the resources in Central Florida, the growing enrollment, the new arena, the city of Orlando," according to Donovan.
It didn't hurt that Keith Tribble was the athletic director at UCF. As Orange Bowl CEO, Tribble had befriended the Florida staff when it had played in the Orange Bowl Classic, a basketball game that precedes the football game.
Tribble and Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley are good friends as well.
Jones said Tribble contacted him once the job was open. He said he didn't pursue it and wasn't thinking about getting the gig during the season. He also won't be surprised if there is any residual bitterness when he returns to Marshall with the Knights against his replacement, former Pitt assistant Tom Herrion.
"I just felt like it was the right thing," Jones said. "When Billy left here, there was bitterness. When [John Calipari] went from Memphis to Kentucky, there was bitterness. When Tubby Smith went from Georgia to Kentucky [within the same league], there was bitterness."
And if there is bitterness for Jones, he'll deal with it. But he has a bigger worries at UCF.
"The biggest thing they don't have is an identity and tradition," Jones said. "We've got to build that, and it will take some time. It's not going to happen overnight. It has the potential to be a sleeping giant. It's sleeping and in need of a wake-up. We've got to get it out of bed and stretch."
Central Florida is poised to be in position for possible poaching from a larger conference if chaos ensues from a Big Ten move. If the Big East football partners were looking for another member to pair with South Florida in the South, Central Florida is a viable alternative. Marshall wouldn't have the same luxury of being marketable to a power-six league.
But that's still an unknown. What is a given now remains Central Florida's potential. Marcus Jordan, Michael's son, is the biggest name on the team and not just because he refused to wear the school's Adidas over his father's Nike. Jordan averaged eight points per game as a freshman last season. Jones talked with Michael over the phone but has yet to meet him in person.
"[Marcus has] a great attitude, and he'll be one of the leaders of this team," Jones said. "We signed five new players; we've got the whole team here for the summer."
Memphis is the favorite in C-USA. UTEP lost Derrick Caracter and Arnett Moultrie, but you can guarantee that with Tim Floyd at the helm, the Miners will be a player. Southern Miss is expected to be a contender. UAB and Tulsa, which both lost key players, will maintain the status of regulars near the top of the league under Mike Davis and Doug Wojcik, respectively. Jones has some schools he must leapfrog here soon to make UCF not just a sleeping giant but one that actually matters (see: same term used for Rutgers in the Big East for a decade).
"There's a reason Reggie Theus [assistant with Timberwolves], Isiah Thomas [head coach at FIU], Joe Dooley [assistant at Kansas] and Tim Floyd were talked about for this job," Jones said. "There is a commitment to the facilities; you can recruit good players. Memphis proved you can play out of this league for the national title. It can happen."
Calipari's recruiting helped put the Tigers on the map. Josh Pastner is trying to do the same with an elite recruiting class. But Memphis has tradition, a reliable, passionate fan base and a major corporate sponsor in FedEx as well as an NBA team in the building that never hurts drawing recruits for access to the league. So putting UCF into that category is a bit of a reach at this point. But it's not a stretch to project that the Knights can be a regular in the top five with a consistent approach.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.