- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
Billy Gillispie, two years removed from leading the University of Kentucky, reportedly was on the list. Ditto Tim Floyd, just out of USC.
So when athletic director Mack Rhoades made the announcement that the new men's basketball coach at the University of Houston would be James Dickey, instead of thunderous applause and giddy exclamation points on message boards, the reaction was more like, "Huh?"
Critics panned the hire, even if it did fit perfectly with Conference USA's reputation as a landing spot for coaches looking for second chances.
Dickey gets the skepticism. Fans clamored for pizzazz, and instead they got a 56-year-old man who is two years removed from a college bench and nearly 10 from a head-coaching position.
"Before I was offered the job, like most people, I thought I was a long shot,'' Dickey said.
The only person who didn't see it that way, apparently, was the only person who mattered: Rhoades, who was immediately impressed with Dickey's pedigree and personality. He called other coaches and administrators, and listened when Eddie Sutton, Dickey's former boss at Oklahoma State, gave his endorsement.
But it was Dickey's résumé that really stuck out. Namely, his ability to build Texas Tech into a player without an abundance of university cash.
In the two years prior to Dickey's arrival in 1991, the Red Raiders were 13-45 and had only the faintest whiff of a recent basketball history. They had been to only two NCAA tournaments in the previous 15 years.
In Dickey's first six seasons there, Texas Tech went 117-57 and made two NCAA appearances, including a magical 30-2 record in 1996 that ended in a Sweet 16 run.
Things are on the uptick at Houston. There are plans for a major renovation of Hofheinz Pavilion, but they are merely that: plans. The university still needs to raise the $60 million to make it happen.
And the fact is, on the program budget scale of Nicholls State ($471,000 spent on basketball expenses) to Duke ($13.8 million), Houston falls on the low side of the middle, spending $2.49 million last season, according to Department of Education numbers.
Houston needs a man who can squeeze a lot out of a little and, even more, a man who can squeeze dollars out of the fan base by ingratiating himself to the community. Gillispie was good at the former, but it was the latter that got him hung up at Kentucky.
"This is a hard job,'' Rhoades said. "Everybody remembers the glory days of Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon, so there are high, high expectations here. But yet we're not competing with the budget that others are. You need somebody who has been seasoned through those challenges, through those ups and downs. Coach Dickey is so good at taking what is positive and capitalizing on that.''
Dickey has learned the positive approach through some hard knocks. In 1997, the Red Raiders were about to make an appearance in the first Big 12 tournament, but on the eve of the tourney, the university learned that two of its basketball players were ineligible. The university immediately withdrew from the event and took itself out of any postseason consideration (TTU was 19-9 at the time).
A year later, the NCAA slammed the school. The academic scandal involved more than 70 ineligible athletes and encompassed the entire athletic department. The 1996 Sweet 16 appearance from Texas Tech's greatest team was vacated.
Dickey wasn't implicated by the NCAA and survived the scandal, but his program didn't. With the loss of nine scholarships over four years, Texas Tech couldn't compete. Dickey went 47-66 over the next four seasons and was fired in 2001, eventually replaced by Bob Knight.
"That was a very difficult time,'' Dickey said. "It's something you don't wish on anyone. The thing I took from it that was important is you have to surround yourself with quality people in academics, compliance, people who understand where you want to go and how you intend to get there.''
Rhoades said he and his staff did their due diligence before hiring Dickey and came away "completely comfortable with his time at Texas Tech.''
After a year out of the business, Dickey reconnected with Sutton -- whom he had first worked with at Arkansas -- and spent six years on the Oklahoma State bench with the elder Sutton and his son, Sean.
When Sean Sutton resigned under pressure in 2008, Dickey decided to stay put. He could have petitioned right away for a job somewhere, but his oldest daughter, Lauren, was finishing school in Stillwater and he didn't want to uproot her. Instead, Dickey coached his son's middle school travel team and volunteered at Stillwater High School.
"Coaching is coaching,'' Dickey said. "I was getting to be in the gym with players who wanted to get better, so it couldn't have been better for me. I missed being at the collegiate level, being on a campus, but I really enjoyed being around my son every day, being on the court and riding those old yellow school buses again.''
Now Dickey needs some of those old yellow school buses to deliver some players.
Dickey's biological roots are in Arkansas, but his coaching roots are in and around Texas, and the university is hoping he can count on those connections to haul in some local talent. The biggest knock on Dickey's predecessor, Tom Penders, was his inability (or, as some perceived, his unwillingness) to recruit the local area at a time when the state has turned into a hoops hotbed.
In the ESPNU 100 rankings, eight players from the class of 2010 call Texas home, and 15 more spread across the classes of 2011 and 2012.
Dickey wisely has kept on Michael Young -- of Phi Slama Jama fame -- as director of basketball operations and already has reaped some rewards for it. Young's son, Joseph, who originally committed to Providence, is going to Houston.
"We hope we can get that talent level,'' Dickey said. "I'm still waiting for that cab to pull up with the next Hakeem in it.''
A Hakeem-in-training would do.
Frankly, the university could use something to rally around. Houston had big hopes for its football season, with Heisman candidate Case Keenum as its quarterback. But on Saturday, Keenum tore his ACL in the second quarter against UCLA. In the third quarter, backup Cotton Turner broke his clavicle. Both are done for the season.
So now it is time for an early eye on the hoops team, where Dickey inherits a squad that turned a mediocre 15-15 season into a stunning run through the Conference USA tournament and an NCAA bid.
It marked the first time in 18 years that the Cougars and all their rich history of Phi Slamma Jamma appeared in the bracket.
"That really surprised me,'' said Dickey, who was at the C-USA tourney, watching his brother Randall, an assistant at UTEP. "We have a great tradition here. I mean, when you're talking about the 50 greatest players, three of them have been here -- Elvin Hayes, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem. That's a tradition that we need to build on.''
And Dickey believes he is just the long shot to do it.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.