Commentary

Time to grade the coaching carousel

Originally Published: April 29, 2011
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

The annual rite of spring that is the college hoops coaching carousel is often described in metaphorical terms. There it is: "coaching carousel." It's hard to trace the origin of this phrase, but one imagines it stuck for two reasons:

1. It's alliterative; it rolls right off the tongue.

2. It creates an image of self-serious college hoops coaches in Gob Bluth suits ("Come on!") riding pink ponies on a gilded spinning wheel. A few of them could be holding cotton candy. This is a very funny image.

That said, the "carousel" metaphor doesn't really get to the heart of the matter. The annual process of hiring and firing coaches at college hoops programs is really a two-sided game of musical chairs. March arrives, coaches are dismissed, the music begins, and so commences a month-long scramble among coaches and athletic directors for the best, most important and most lucrative seats. Nobody wants to be standing in May.

Usually, this scramble is far more pronounced. Usually, the music -- the rumors, innuendo, indications and guesswork -- is much louder. This year's version came and went with minimal fuss. No truly elite programs had openings this offseason, and most of the best jobs on offer were either rebuffed by top choices (NC State, Missouri), in the midst of a budget crunch (Georgia Tech) or facing the ever-frightening threat of NCAA sanctions (Tennessee).

Like any other year, though, there were impressive hires, major misfires and a wide range of decisions. Some fan bases came away thrilled. Others less so. As the musical chairs game winds down -- there are just a handful of remaining positions available, the most high-profile being Jim Larranaga's former job at George Mason -- let's take a look back and assign some letter grades to the biggest hires of the 2011 offseason.

There's no such thing as pass-fail here, but grades are relative to each program's situation: How well did a school do given its size, stature and extenuating circumstances? (For a full list of this season's coaching changes, click here.)

Red pens ready? Then away we go.

[+] EnlargeAnderson
AP Photo/Beth HallMike Anderson has the locals fired up after returning to Arkansas, where he was a longtime assistant.

Arkansas
Hire: Mike Anderson
Replaced: John Pelphrey
Grade: A-plus
Comments: If the programs that hired coaches this year were an undergraduate class, then Arkansas is the star pupil that didn't even need to try that hard. Sure, mending the fences broken at the controversial end of Nolan Richardson's career wasn't easy -- new athletic director Jeff Long has honored Richardson's tenure at every turn, and even lured the coach back on campus for a retrospective ceremony -- but once that work was done, landing Richardson's former right-hand man was the obvious and easily accomplished move. If anyone knows how to bring "40 Minutes Of Hell" back to the once-rocking Bud Walton Arena, it's Anderson.

Bradley
Hire: Geno Ford
Replaced: Jim Les
Grade: A
Comments: Considering the recent struggles of Braves basketball, athletic director Michael Cross deserves commendation for luring Ford away from Kent State. The Flashes won 25 games in Ford's final season at KSU, and all but one player, Rodriquez Sherman, is set to return this fall. Bradley, on the other hand, finished 12-20, light-years away from a one-off run to the Sweet 16 in 2006. In other words, it's easy to see why Ford would have wanted to stay at Kent State for at least one more profile-boosting season. That he didn't is something of a coup.

Dayton
Hire: Archie Miller
Replaced: Brian Gregory
Grade: A
Comments: Dayton fans deserve to be excited about more than hosting the First Four. This loyal, passionate fan base -- which has seen an economic downturn devastate an already struggling local economy, and seen its team limp to too many NIT berths under former coach Brian Gregory -- deserves to be excited about its Flyers, too. Enter Archie Miller. At 32, Miller will be one of the youngest coaches in Division I hoops, but he doesn't lack for experience, and even a hint of his older brother Sean's success would count as a major boon to UD fans.

Fairfield
Hire: Sydney Johnson
Replaced: Ed Cooley
Grade: B-plus
Comments: How did Princeton let Sydney Johnson, beloved former player and passionate alumni -- so passionate he broke down in tears after his team's NCAA tournament loss to Kentucky -- get away? Money. Princeton didn't want to pay Johnson market value for his services, so he broke from the school and landed at Fairfield, where he should be able to continue the recent success that earned former coach Ed Cooley a shot at the Big East.

Fresno State
Hire: Rodney Terry
Replaced: Steve Cleveland
Grade: A
Comments: Former coach Steve Cleveland didn't have much success on the court at Fresno, but he did clean up the Bulldogs' program in the wake of NCAA sanctions. Now Cleveland will step back and take a job within the athletics administration, and Rodney Terry -- a nine-year Texas assistant who recruited Daniel Gibson, Dexter Pittman, Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph (among others) while serving on Rick Barnes' staff -- seems like the perfect choice to take that modest progress to a consistently competitive level.

Georgia Tech
Hire: Brian Gregory
Replaced: Paul Hewitt
Grade: D
Comments: In case you thought this class was an easy A, allow me to present the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and their new coach, former Dayton head man Brian Gregory. Gregory has had some success as a head coach, but he was one of the least inspiring hires in recent memory. When Dayton fans are cheering a coach's move to another school with snarky on-campus signs, you know something's not quite right. Tech doesn't deserve an F here, if only because its budget was hamstrung by Paul Hewitt's still-incredible $7 million buyout. Belt-tightening or no, though, Tech could have scoured the mid-major ranks for any number of more exciting candidates with arguably higher upsides.

Kent State
Hire: Rob Senderoff
Replaced: Geno Ford
Grade: C-plus
Comments: Kent State was in no mood to shake up its coaching staff after the aforementioned Ford's move to Bradley. That's why new athletic director Joel Neilsen stuck his neck out and hired Rob Senderoff, an assistant under Ford popularly known for his role as the guy who facilitated the three-way calls that ignominiously ended the Kelvin Sampson era at Indiana. Senderoff is a risk -- how many coaches with 30-month show-cause penalties get a job this quickly? -- but a risk that could pay dividends, as Kent State preps for a big season in the MAC.

[+] EnlargeLarranaga
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesIt took awhile, but Miami finally found a coach -- 61-year-old Jim Larranaga of George Mason.

Miami
Hire: Jim Larranaga
Replaced: Frank Haith
Grade: B-plus
Comments: It's not often that a coach who leaves for apparently greener pastures is succeeded by a demonstrably more successful replacement, but that's exactly what happened at Miami this spring. After former coach Frank Haith was hired at Missouri (we'll get to that one in a second), the Hurricanes hired George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, who famously took the Patriots to the 2006 Final Four and completed another brilliant season in 2011. The only reason this isn't an A: At 61, Larranaga could be on the tail end of his career. But that's nothing to fret over now. All in all, this was a great hire of a proven winner, one that could finally put the frequently ignored Canes back on the map.

Missouri
Hire: Frank Haith
Replaced: Mike Anderson
Grade: F
Comments: There's no getting around it -- this was a brutal offseason for Missouri fans. Losing Mike Anderson to Arkansas wasn't ideal, but it was livable, especially because Missouri AD Mike Alden appeared just-this-close to landing one of the best candidates in the country in Purdue coach Matt Painter. Despite the much-rumored dalliance, Painter returned to Purdue. That left Alden scrambling, and at the end of his scramble, he settled on Miami coach Frank Haith. Wait … Frank Haith? Sure, he recruited well in Coral Gables and earned deserved praise for his emphasis on academics, but by the time the Tigers hired him, he had amassed a 43-69 record in the ACC and taken Miami to just one NCAA tournament in seven years. Naturally, Missouri fans freaked out, and Haith found himself answering questions about the backlash by praising the fans for their "passion." Haith may still prove us all wrong (and should have a solid team in Year 1), but given the close call on Painter, this was a glaringly disappointing hire. Frankly, it would have been disappointing either way.

Missouri State
Hire: Paul Lusk
Replaced: Cuonzo Martin
Grade: B
Comments: When you have one of the most successful seasons in school history, and your head coach does what Missouri Valley coaches often do after successful seasons, it's probably not a good idea to rock the boat. Like Cuonzo Martin, Paul Lusk arrives at Missouri State after years of serving as an associate head coach at Purdue. In other words: The Bears didn't rock the boat. But they did get a solid coach to maintain the momentum Martin created in 2010-11.

NC State
Hire: Mark Gottfried
Replaced: Sidney Lowe
Grade: C
Comments: NC State fans have high expectations. There's nothing wrong with that, of course; every fan base should want to win as much as possible. The question is whether Wolfpack fans' expectations are too high, whether the hopes of consistently competing with in-state rivals Duke and North Carolina have scared away the sort of high-profile coaches the fans desperately crave. Did that dynamic affect this year's hire? It's hard to say. More clear is the final product of athletic director Debbie Yow's up-and-down search: former Alabama coach Mark Gottfried. Pack fans may have been hoping for someone more exciting, like VCU's Shaka Smart or Wichita State's Greg Marshall, and Gottfried is not that. But he did take the Crimson Tide to five straight NCAA tournaments from 2002-06, a solid track record the more intriguing options on the list couldn't have matched. Unexciting? Sure. But it'd be a mistake to confuse "unexciting" with "bad."

Oklahoma
Hire: Lon Kruger
Replaced: Jeff Capel
Grade: B-minus
Comments: Ending up with Lon Kruger as your head men's basketball coach is not too shabby. But did Oklahoma need to fire Jeff Capel in the first place? That answer will have much to do with the results of the NCAA's ongoing investigation into potential violations committed during the Capel regime. For now, Oklahoma moves on with Kruger, a veteran rounding out his third decade as a head coach. Most recently, Kruger engineered an impressive rebuild at UNLV, where he went to the NCAA tournament in four out of the past five seasons and helped make the Runnin' Rebels a worthwhile attraction for the first time in over a decade.

[+] EnlargeMitch Henderson
AP Photo/Mel EvansMitch Henderson was a member of the Princeton team that upset UCLA in the 1996 NCAA tourney.

Princeton
Hire: Mitch Henderson
Replaced: Sydney Johnson
Grade: C-plus
Comments: Here's the thing: When a beloved alum engineers Princeton's first trip to the NCAA tournament in seven years -- and nearly takes down Kentucky while there -- you work to keep that guy at the school. Thanks to an unwillingness to provide Sydney Johnson with a raise (come on, Princeton alums: surely you've got some donation-ready cash lying around), the Tigers lost Johnson to Fairfield. The good news? Rising Princeton coaching alumni are legion. Athletic director Gary Walters landed one in Mitch Henderson, Johnson's teammate at the school and an 11-year assistant under Northwestern coach Bill Carmody, who himself was a Princeton assistant when Henderson and Johnson played at the school in the mid-90s. It's all in the family in central Jersey. But will the transition really be so seamless?

Providence
Hire: Ed Cooley
Replaced: Keno Davis
Grade: B-minus
Comments: This much we know for sure: Ed Cooley will get Friars fans fired up. Not only is Cooley a native son made good; he also happens to be extremely charismatic, which is always helpful when you're trying to recruit and compete against the likes of Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim and the rest of the Big East's marquee coaches. But did Providence put too much stock in an unproven coach? Cooley's only head-coaching experience came in his five years at Fairfield, and his only truly "successful" season came in 2011, when the Stags won the MAAC regular season and went to the second round of the NIT. One addendum worth noting here -- and one that doesn't affect Providence's grade, because that wouldn't be fair to the other students (er, programs) -- is Cooley's recent hire of longtime UConn assistant Andre LaFluer, who helped recruit some of Calhoun's best players in recent seasons.

Tennessee
Hire: Cuonzo Martin
Replaced: Bruce Pearl
Grade: B-plus
Comments: In a perfect world, Tennessee wouldn't have had to fire the most successful coach in school history. Of course, this is not a perfect world. In this world, Bruce Pearl probably had to be fired to help the Volunteers avoid an incredibly awkward (and likely damaging) situation in front of the NCAA Committee on Infractions this summer. Either way, the likely NCAA sanctions are going to be tough on Tennessee, which is why the hiring of Martin was an inspired choice. The new Vols coach is no stranger to adversity (he overcame poverty and then battled and overcame non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in the late 1990s) and his dual experience building Missouri State into a Missouri Valley contender and as a longtime Purdue assistant should serve him well in what could end up as a sort of long-term hybrid rebuilding project before all is said and done.

Texas Tech
Hire: Billy Gillispie
Replaced: Pat Knight
Grade: B-minus
Comments: There's a reason Billy Clyde Gillispie made his way to the pinnacle of the college hoops coaching profession at Kentucky: The man can coach. More specifically, he can coach in Texas, where he had success both at UTEP and Texas A&M before taking the job in the Commonwealth. We all know what happened next: Kentucky stagnated, Gillispie struggled with the public aspects of his unique role, and his departure was followed by an arrest for driving under the influence and a stint in a rehabilitation program. There's a huge risk-reward aspect involved here, as would be the case wherever Gillispie made his inevitable return. But if it works out -- in other words, if Gillispie finally has his life in balance -- this could be the perfect match of downtrodden program and deeply driven coach, and success could be soon to follow.

Dave Rice
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonDave Rice won a national title as a player under Jerry Tarkanian. He'll now lead the Runnin' Rebels.

UNLV
Hire: Dave Rice
Replaced: Lon Kruger
Grade: B
Comments: UNLV established itself as the flashiest of programs under iconic coach Jerry Tarkanian, but its recent coaching hires have tended toward the pragmatic. Athletic director Jim Livengood could have chosen flash over substance in former UNLV star and Minnesota Timberwolves assistant Reggie Theus, who came stamped with Tark's endorsement. Instead, Livengood went with the solid but unspectacular choice: BYU associate head coach Dave Rice. Rice is a former glory-era UNLV player and assistant coach who has spent the past six years as an assistant under BYU coach Dave Rose. He's a Tarkanian guy too, but he comes with regional experience, recruiting chops and the results-over-flash style that served predecessor Lon Kruger so well in recent seasons.

Utah
Hire: Larry Krystkowiak
Replaced: Jim Boylen
Grade: C-minus
Comments: The Utes are still waiting to reach the highs they experienced under Rick Majerus. With the exception of a trip to the NCAA tournament in 2009, the Jim Boylen era never took, so Utah now turns to former NBA player and assistant coach Larry Krystkowiak. Krystkowiak has bounced around the NBA ranks for much of the past decade, but he does have some college experience, most notably a two-year stopover at his alma mater, Montana, from 2004-06. The Griz went 42-20 with two NCAA tournament appearances in those two seasons, which is nice enough. But does Krystkowiak have the chops to totally build a program from the ground up? Can he recruit players to a dormant program that is suddenly joining a new conference (Pac-12)? Is he in for the long haul, or will the NBA come calling again?

Wyoming
Hire: Larry Shyatt
Replaced: Heath Schroyer
Grade: A
Comments: Question -- Since when is Wyoming a destination job? Answer -- It isn't. But the fact that the question is even being asked speaks to how impressive the Cowboys' latest hire really is. Yes, Wyoming lured Billy Donovan's top assistant since 2004, Larry Shyatt, out of the Sunshine State and into frigid Laramie. Given where this program has been in recent seasons -- Heath Schroyer's tenure saw one postseason trip, and the Cowboys finished 3-13 in the Mountain West each of the past two seasons -- getting Shyatt to return to Wyoming for an extended stay is arguably the biggest surprise of the 2011 coaching carousel. Or the 2011 game of musical chairs. You know: whichever you prefer.

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail collegebasketballnation@gmail.com or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).