<
>

Turning things around takes time

4/21/2004

Sure, Jamie Dixon won 31 games in his first season. And in his second season, Dave Leitao not only got DePaul back into the NCAA Tournament, but into the second round for the first time since 1989.

But, the bottom line with any coaching change is best summed up by the man put in charge of restoring UCLA's proud program 12 months ago.

"When you take over a screwed up situation, you need time," said Ben Howland.

Are you listening New York?

The best Howland could do with the Bruins was 11 wins in 2003-04. Still, he was part of last year's flurry of coaching changes at some of the country's most prestigious schools. And the dominoes that started falling in April after the forced resignation of Matt Doherty at North Carolina created ripples from Chapel Hill, to Lawrence, Kan., to Champaign, Ill., to Carbondale, Ill. Even Milwaukee was affected when Tom Crean received a sweet extension from Marquette after being rumored as a candidate at Illinois.

This year, just 25 Division I jobs will change hands compared to 46 last year and 43 in 2002. And none carry the weight of North Carolina, Kansas, Illinois or UCLA. But that doesn't mean the new faces in new places face any less pressure to produce results.

  • Billy Gillispie will be asked to work the same magic he performed at UTEP (getting the Miners into the NCAAs two years removed from a six-win campaign) up the road College Station, as he moves into the Big 12 to coach a Texas A&M team that failed to win a conference game this season.

  • Lon Kruger was lured back to the sidelines by UNLV in the hopes he can end a four-year NCAA drought in the desert.

  • Jeff Lebo was put in charge of Auburn, just a year removed from the Tigers' Sweet 16 appearance, but on the heels of a 14-14 season under Cliff Ellis.

  • Ray Giacoletti (Utah) and Chris Lowery (Southern Illinois) each take over NCAA Tournament teams, while Tom Penders (Houston) and Larry Eustachy (Southern Mississippi) have found themselves back on the bench.

    But, Tuesday's hiring of Norm Roberts at St. John's -- on the heels of Frank Haith being chosen as Miami's head man Monday -- means the Georgetown opening is the only significant job left to be fill this spring. And, barring a sudden impulse by a high-major coach to bolt to the NBA, this season's coaching carousel was incredibly tame compared to a year ago.

    Still, this spring's carousel did turn up a couple of interesting hires at St. John's and Miami. The two schools went with assistant coaches who are being billed as the next Paul Hewitt, who in his fourth seasons took Georgia Tech to the national title game. One difference. Hewitt was a head coach at Siena before taking over Tech.

    So what do Haith, who served on Rick Barnes staff at Texas, and Roberts, a long-time assistant to Bill Self in each of his stops at Oral Roberts, Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas last season, need to do to turn their programs around? How much time do they have to do it?

    Well, both were given five-year contracts, which may or may not be enough time. St. John's is at rock bottom. Giving Roberts an extended honeymoon to rebuild the program is a must. Expecting him to turn things around in one year, let alone two, like say DePaul's Dave Leitao, would be unfair. Haith, meanwhile, is taking over a Miami team headed to the second-tier of the ACC.

    Recent history does suggest a few of this year's hirings will work wonders in the first two seasons. Remember, Stan Heath took Kent State to the Elite Eight in first season, while Dixon won the Big East in his first year at Pittsburgh.

    "Congratulations to those assistants who got those jobs," Howland said. "They are very fortunate to do so and very lucky to get jobs that the highest level."

    Howland, however, knows just how difficult a task lies ahead. Not only are new coaches in town because the last coach didn't produce, but they are ask to win with the same players who didn't produce.

    Adding to the difficultly is the NCAA's 5/8 scholarship rule, which limits schools to five scholarships in one given recruiting class and no more than eight in two seasons. Howland says this rule must be changed for new coaches to have a chance.

    The rule is under review by the NCAA's management council and board of directors this month. But until it is reversed, coaches are in a tough spot. Not only are coaches unable to get the players they want, but once they do and a player or two decides to leave, the coach can't replace the lost players.

    "If in the third year at St. John's they have a winning season and get to the NIT then (Roberts) is doing a good job," Howland said. "Miami's biggest challenge is getting C.J. Giles (of Seattle) to keep his commitment. But if the rules don't change, it's tough."

    Howland can point to his own team as a classic example of how the 5/8 rule hinders rebuilding a program. UCLA lost freshman Trevor Ariza to the NBA draft. Ariza winds up being one-and-done at UCLA, while the Bruins already have signed four players in this class. Sure, they could go after one more this recruiting season, but they also may have also lost Dijon Thompson, who declared for the draft and may or may not return.

    Despite the NBA defections, Howland is confident another strong recruiting class will get the Bruins turned around in the next two seasons. But the timetable for coaches is usually three to four seasons -- until, recently.

    The 2002 carousel landed Leitao at DePaul. All the former Connecticut assistant has done is get the Blue Demons to the NIT in his first season and into the second round of the NCAAs last month.

    "But it depends on what kind of situation you walk into," Leitao said. "I wouldn't have said that I expect to be in the NCAA Tournament in two years. Generally, coaches want to give themselves two to three years to four years to get it going. Everything is about instant gratification and that's unfortunate. We're all about March and that shouldn't be the case."

    The first chore for Roberts has to be reenergizing the NYC basketball community. He has to ensure that the people in the city want to stay home or at least feel like they're invested in the program. Winning will be a byproduct, but not required at a high level just yet. Roberts must recruit and do a better job of community relations in the first year.

    Miami has a different task. The Hurricanes must upgrade their talent base as they move to the ACC. They also have to cure a lack of interest in the basketball program. Playing at night on weekends sounds like a small step, but would certainly help with attendance. There is too much going on, outside, to play games during the day in Miami. Haith must recruit players who not only fit his system, but are talented enough to win in the ACC. Otherwise, he can't expect Miami fans to be interested in staying indoors between football and baseball seasons.

    It may have taken just two seasons for Mike Anderson (UAB), Jeff Capel (VCU), Jerry Wainwright (Richmond) and Leitao to make the alumni happy. But if any of this year's new faces can be competitive next season, climb toward .500 in year two and then make a run at the postseason in 2007, well they would be making progress. Yes, the goal is to be in the NCAA Tournament. But not until the fourth year does a coach have a roster full of his players.

    But after so much losing, asking the alumni for too much patience is tricky. Sometimes the timetable moves up, but if the administration is patient, reality says the fourth and fifth years should be worth the wait ... or time to get back on the carousel.

    Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.