Long-time coaches happy at lower Division I schools

Originally Published: July 26, 2007
By Andy Glockner | ESPN.com

Two hours before his coaching debut at Belmont University in 1986, Rick Byrd was hard at work. As a women's game unfolded on the gym floor, Byrd was out in the building's concourse, making some final adjustments -- to the popcorn popper at the concession stand.

You see, Byrd also was the athletic director at the then-NAIA program. And he was short-staffed. And, well, customers need to eat.

In for the long haul
Dave Bike, Sacred Heart (29 seasons)
Jim Boeheim, Syracuse (31 seasons)
Rick Byrd, Belmont (21 seasons)
Jim Calhoun, Connecticut (21 seasons)
Tom Green, Fairleigh Dickinson (24 seasons)
Greg Kampe, Oakland (23 seasons)
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke (27 seasons)
Dan Maestri, Troy (25 seasons)
Fang Mitchell, Coppin State (20 seasons)
Lute Olson, Arizona (24 seasons)
L. Vann Pettaway, Alabama A&M (21 seasons)

Fast-forward to 2007. Byrd's still at Belmont, but now his Bruins are coming off back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in Division I. That's certainly a long way from slinging sodas as your pregame prep.

Incredibly, Byrd's story is not quite as unique as it may seem. Lost among the accomplishments and longevity of big-name coaches like Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski, Lute Olson and Jim Calhoun are Byrd and six other coaches who also have been with their current programs for at least 20 seasons. What's more, five of them -- Byrd, Dave Bike (29 seasons at Sacred Heart), Don Maestri (25 at Troy), Greg Kampe (23 at Oakland) and L. Vann Pettaway (21 at Alabama A&M) -- started with their programs when they were not in Division I. (And a sixth, Coppin State's Fang Mitchell, started there in 1986, the year the Eagles went D-I.)

In an era when coaching life spans are measured in contracts rather than decades, that's impressive. Throw in the fact that all but Bike have made it to the D-I NCAA Tournament (and Bike's Pioneers should be the NEC favorite this season), and it's even more impressive. They don't get the national love of a Coach K, but in local circles, these coaches are as identifiable with their programs -- and just as happy at them.

"I'm sure that every story about someone staying at one place for a long time is different," Byrd said. "For me, it's been a lot more about the fit at the school. I've always liked Belmont. I like what it represents; I like the work atmosphere. For the most part, people are trying to help you find a way to get it done. People are trying to find a way to say yes, which is not always the case [elsewhere]."

Understand, these weren't run-of-the-mill programs at the D-II or NAIA level. Sacred Heart won a D-II national title in 1986. Troy made two D-II Final Fours in six seasons right before it moved to D-I in 1994. The other three schools were regular NCAA Tournament participants in a division in which the setup (allocating a set number of bids per region, regardless of how many quality teams are in that region) means just making it to the tournament is a major accomplishment.

Dave Bike
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDave Bike has been at Sacred Heart for 29 seasons, the second-longest streak at a current school behind Jim Boeheim's 31 seasons at Syracuse.

According to these coaches, their programs' moves to Division I were made to improve the visibility of their schools, not for athletic reasons. Sacred Heart transformed itself from a local commuter school. Troy's football team now gets national exposure on ESPN. Oakland, according to Kampe, has seen its applications increase every year since it went Division I. That's a far cry from the days when callers would have no idea this Oakland was in Michigan and would ask Kampe whether he could help land someone a round at California's Pebble Beach or Poppy Hill.

Still, the transition to Division I, especially 10-15 years ago when these programs started the journeys, can be crippling. Lack of conference affiliations combined with a lengthy ban on NCAA Tournament participation made building a program to D-I standards daunting.

"Back when we made the move, it was eight years before you could qualify for an [NCAA Tournament] auto bid, which meant you couldn't even go to your conference tournament," said Troy coach Maestri. "That's tough in two ways. One, the kids on your own team, basically there's no way you're getting an NCAA bid. The other thing is recruiting. It makes it tough. ... Other programs can say, 'Why would you attend a school where you can't even go to the conference tournament?'"

Maestri's Trojans actually won a conference regular-season title (in the old East Coast Conference) in their first season in Division I, but progress was spotty after that. Maestri said his program's D-I fortunes finally turned when the Trojans lucked into former Memphis player Detric Golden, who came to Troy for his final year of eligibility and ended up winning conference Player of the Year honors. Maestri believes that one season transformed the program -- and probably saved his job.

"The reason I'm still here is because of that one transfer," Maestri said. "If we had had some more unsuccessful seasons, it would have been hard to stay in the job. Once it's turned around, you recruit a little better, you feel better about yourself."

Bike understands. Early in its D-I days, Sacred Heart eschewed a patient building process, opting instead to build quickly around transfers. The strategy didn't work -- and could have cost Bike his position.

"I think one of the mistakes we might have made was we tried to jump at it too soon," Bike said. "We went with a couple of juco guys, [tried to] get too good too soon, and we didn't have success with those guys. So we started, made a little progress and went backwards a little bit.

"I'm very fortunate that the school has stuck with me through this transitional period. [Central Connecticut] has won [the league's auto bid in] three of the last seven years. They are the benchmark for our program and beat us [in the NEC title game] last year, but they took 13 years before having a winning record in Division I. We took eight."

Don Maestri
AP Photo/Al BehrmanDon Maestri coached Troy for 25 seasons -- the first 11 in Division II and the last 14 in Division I.

That doesn't even mention having the facilities and resources required to build and sustain a program at college's highest level. That reality hits especially hard in the SWAC, where Alabama A&M's rise has been doubly difficult.

"I knew when the decision was made to go to Division I, I had a lot of apprehensions, and it all dealt with the financial side," said Pettaway, whose Bulldogs lost to Kampe's Golden Grizzlies in the NCAA Tournament's opening-round game in 2005. "As a coach, I knew at that time what it would take to be successful at the Division I level. There are not too many Division II programs that can make that hike and be successful. I think when you look at what we have all done, we all have had some success, but nothing like what we had at the Division II level."

The success is nothing to sneeze at, though, especially for coaches who didn't necessarily think they would work at the D-I level.

"I came here as an NAIA coach. That's what I expected to be the entire time I was here at Belmont," Byrd said. "If someone came from Division I [to try to hire me] early in my career here, in the first eight to nine years, I would have considered it. Once I was here and became comfortable, I got over the climb-the-ladder mentality -- coaches who want to make the next level, don't care where they go or how they got there, just want to end up coaching at Kentucky or wherever. Belmont and Nashville made me lose that not very long after I got here. It would have taken a great situation to move to Division I from Belmont after I got here."

Instead, Byrd and the others have gotten the best of both worlds, being able to stay where they are happy while making the leap to the (relative) big time.

"A lot of people say that I have been at the same place for so long," Kampe said, "and I say, 'I haven't been at the same place.' The people are the same, but everything else is different."

Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast.