SWAC ShootAround: New faces on SWAC sidelines

Updated: September 4, 2008

Bruce Thorson/US RESSWIRE

Alabama A&M coach Vann Pettaway is by far the longest-tenured coach in the SWAC.

Circus-like offseason on SWAC sidelines

You've heard of the "coaching carousel," right? Since the 2007-08 season ended, the SWAC's been more like a broken Tilt-A-Whirl.

Five member schools will feature new bench bosses once play gets back under way this November. That's half the league. No other conference in Division I had as much turnover, or at such a high volume.

Tony Harvey

Travis Mathews/Icon SMI

Former Missouri assistant Tony Harvey is one of five new head coaches in the SWAC.

"It's going to be a real challenge for each of us," said Tevester Anderson, suddenly ranked second in league tenure with five seasons' experience at Jackson State. "You don't know what styles the new coaches will bring to the league. I'm sure some of the new guys have had recruiting years that we don't know about, because they came in late and will bring in kids late."

Surprisingly for a league with only two overall winning records, only two of the five coaching changes were the result of outright firings. Samuel West was relieved of his duties at Alcorn after five dismal seasons, and Grambling parted ways with Larry Wright after nine years and just one peek over the .500 mark. Alcorn quickly hired Larry Smith, a two-time SWAC Player of the Year from the school's late-70s glory days and a 13-year NBA veteran with Golden State, Houston and San Antonio. Rick Duckett, who assisted Dave Odom at South Carolina and previously won two CIAA titles at the Division II level with Winston-Salem State, took over at Grambling after a six-week search.

After six straight losing seasons and a 50-124 overall record, Arkansas-Pine Bluff's Van Holt turned in his resignation when the Golden Lions returned home from the conference tourney. The man UAPB hired to replace him, George Ivory, knows something about winning in the SWAC. The 1987 conference player of the year at Mississippi Valley State was an assistant at his alma mater last season, and he helped the 2007-08 Delta Devils reach the NCAA tournament.

Ivory wasn't the only one to leave the league's defending champions. In April, MVSU head coach James Green used his SWAC success to move a half-step up to the Ohio Valley Conference and accepted the vacant Jacksonville State (Ala.) job. It took MVSU more than two months to find a replacement, an odd search process in which two area high school coaches were finalists. In June, the school hired Sean Woods, whose No. 11 jersey hangs in the Rupp Arena rafters as one of the "Unforgettables" from the 1992 Kentucky squad. More recently, he'd been an assistant at TCU.

But the most bizarre of this summer's SWAC coaching odysseys has played out at Texas Southern, a school that has turned oddly timed firings into an art form.

While Ronnie Courtney was likely due for a pink slip after ringing up 99 losses in six seasons, his sudden release in July 2007 (in the middle of a recruiting period) was a shock. With every other college coach in the country settled into their summer routines, the job market was barren. So TSU turned to its all-time winningest coach, Robert Moreland, who had been fired himself in 2001 to make way for Courtney. Moreland, loyal and true to his school, accepted a one-year interim position and presided over a lame-duck 7-25 campaign.

Alois Blackwell, the athletic director who had pulled the trigger on both Courtney and Moreland, was fired by Texas Southern this past February. With a new administration and a far less Steinbrennerian approach to things, TSU conducted a proper coaching search and selected Tony Harvey. Harvey assisted Ben Jobe at Southern when the Jaguars earned the SWAC's most recent NCAA win back in 1993, and is seeking a fresh start after an NCAA investigation slapped Quin Snyder's Missouri staff --including Harvey -- with multiple violations from 1999 to 2003.

"I don't know much about most of the new coaches," Anderson said. "But I really think Texas Southern is a team to look out for. [Harvey] is an excellent recruiter and has been known to get good players wherever he's been."

"We have a lot of work in front of us," said Harvey, who has six total NCAA tournament appearances as an assistant. "But we're getting there."

Vann Pettaway of Alabama A&M, who in his 22 years (and counting) has won 421 games and beaten prostate cancer, is the unquestioned dean of league coaches. Whether Harvey or any of the other four new sideline-pacers can manage to last for even a quarter of that tenure remains to be seen.

But for now, the SWAC has a full set of 10 head coaches again, and the carnival moves forward into a new season.

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

More tragedy in the SWAC
Deshean Porchea was a reserve sophomore guard on Alabama State's SWAC regular-season champion team. On April 23, immediately following an on-campus pickup game, the Rochester, N.Y., native suddenly collapsed and fell unconscious. Efforts to revive Porchea were futile, and he was pronounced dead at a local hospital. An autopsy later revealed Porchea's heart muscles had tightened and blocked the flow of oxygen, the result of a rare and undetectable heart disease.

"It was a tremendous loss for the program, this campus, his family, all of us," said Alabama State head coach Lewis Jackson. "We still have to sit down as a program and figure out exactly how best to remember him. Everyone's still trying to deal with it."

Porchea's death was just the latest sad chapter for a conference that's had a higher tragedy rate per capita than any other league over the past five years. Mississippi Valley State assistant coach Cecil Dowell died in a car accident in May 2006, and sophomore Grambling guard Marcus Watson died after an auto collision near campus in 2005. During the 2002-03 season, MVSU guard Michael Archie was hit by a stray bullet after a home game with Prairie View, paralyzing him from the waist down.

Better late than never
Jackson State won the league's autobid in 2007 behind the 27.1 ppg of league POY Trey Johnson, but the league's coaches and sports information directors felt the Tigers had sufficient returning talent to enter 2007-08 as preseason favorites. It was a rough and injury-riddled start for JSU, starting out 2-11 in nonconference play. But with six wins in eight February games, they cemented a No. 4 seed at the SWAC tourney. And that's where they finally lived up to expectations.

In one of the hidden classics of Championship Week, leading scorer Grant Maxey (14.8 ppg) and top guard Darrion Griffin combined for 44 points in the semifinal. JSU emerged from a see-saw 77-72 overtime tilt against Alabama State, sending the regular-season champions to the NIT. And the Tigers came within a tick of a second consecutive NCAA trip, erasing an eight-point halftime deficit against Mississippi Valley State. But Carl Lucas' two clutch free throws in the final second leapfrogged the Delta Devils to the 59-58 win and tourney title.

After hitting a game-winning 3-pointer against Alabama State, Maxey scored just seven points on 3-of-9 shooting in the title game loss to MVSU. It wasn't fully revealed until later that the 6-foot-7 team leader had sustained a freak concussion after the semifinal.

"Grant was advised by a doctor not to play in the final game," said Jackson State coach Tevester Anderson. "In retrospect, he really shouldn't have played. He was still feeling some effects of that concussion. He didn't know where he was most of the time. But the championship was on the line; he wanted to play so bad. It was just a really devastating loss for us, but we feel like that experience will make us a better team this coming year."

A fully healed and battle-tested Maxey, Griffin and two other starters return for another shot at the crown, and the Tigers will be once again poised to make some March noise.

Dayton-bound
Mississippi Valley State, with an RPI of 228, only missed out on the opening-round game because of the NCAA's silent agreement that keeps both historically black conferences out of Dayton's annual 64-vs.-65 contest. Coppin State of the MEAC, with a record of 16-20 and RPI of 227, won its tournament out of a No. 7 seed and ended up losing 69-60 to Mount St. Mary's in Dayton.

MVSU's reward for its SWAC tourney championship was a straight No. 16 seed, followed by a soul-crushing 70-29 obliteration at the hands of Final Four-bound UCLA.

One of the reasons why this league perpetually gets bottom-barrel seeds is because its tourney is notoriously upset-prone. Only seven times in the past 15 years has the regular-season champion claimed the NCAA autobid, and the tourney has played out according to seed only once in the past decade. That was 1999, when 23-7 Alcorn State broke the league race open with a 12-game winning streak, finished with a 114 RPI and went to the Big Dance as a No. 15 seed. No SWAC team has been placed higher than No. 16 since.

In the 10-team SWAC era (1998 to present), only three teams have finished the season 16-2. None has survived with a single loss, and none has run through the 18-game slate unblemished. For the league to finally make a mark on the national scene and to win back the respect of the selection committee, that's the kind of dominance it's going to take.

Guaranteed
But dominance is extremely difficult, as most teams enter SWAC play dinged up and demoralized after two long months on the road. These 10 schools spend the nonconference portion of the schedule putting in palooka-like performances in return for appearance fees, which can amount to more than $60,000 per game.

Despite the financial benefit for athletic departments, these "guarantee games" always put a hefty dent in records and team morale. The SWAC struggled to its worst nonconference winning percentage in its history last season, with just eight wins against 88 losses (.083). The only bright spots were Southern and Alabama State victimizing SMU on the road, Arkansas-Pine Bluff completing a home-and-home sweep of hapless Louisiana Tech, and Jackson State's surprise 74-70 win over Iona at the Las Vegas Invitational. Otherwise, SWAC teams lost all 27 games against BCS opponents, often by frighteningly large margins.

This season will see plenty more of the same. The defending champions, for example, seem insistent on exploring the extremes of basketball travel. Mississippi Valley State will start a road trip at the NIT Season Tip-Off in Norman, Okla., on Nov. 17-18, where it will play host Oklahoma in the first round. The Delta Devils will have one day off before appearing at Montana on Nov. 20, then will fly back east to Arkansas State on the 22nd. Finally, they'll venture west again to play Washington State … the following day. That's six days, 5,452 miles as the crow flies (not including the 3,000 extra miles to get to and from the Itta Bena, Miss., campus), and a virtually assured five-game losing streak.


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2008-09 Team Capsules

By Kyle Whelliston
Special to ESPN.com

SWAC
Alabama A&MAlabama A&M
The Bulldogs will do without the services of the conference's biggest game-changer of the past two seasons, Mickell Gladness (career 4.66 bpg and an single-game NCAA record 16 against Texas Southern on Feb. 24, 2007). The heart of a defense that forced 17.9 turnovers per game (13th in Division I) returns though, as does last season's conference scoring leader Trant Simpson (15.5 ppg). The big question is whether the overall offense will improve. Nobody shot better than 50 percent, and the law of averages caught up in a quarterfinal loss to Arkansas-Pine Bluff in which A&M didn't score a second-half field goal until the 6:38 mark.

Alabama StateAlabama State
Talented 6-5 senior guard Andrew Hayles has come a long way since a turbulent freshman season, highlighted by 2005-06 SWAC Freshman of the Year honors and lowlighted by a thrown elbow and an ejection in the quarterfinals. Last season, his steady leadership spurred the Hornets to their first 20-win season in seven years. The league named Hayles player of the year, and AP All-America voters honorably mentioned him after the season.

Alcorn StateAlcorn State
The Braves battled through injuries, as eight players missed significant playing time. The slipshod defense allowed a league-worst 78.8 ppg. Alcorn was also a victim of mathematics, losing a three-way tiebreaker for the eighth and final playoff spot with a 6-12 league record. But perhaps the real reason why Samuel West was fired immediately afterward the season was because Alcorn State basketball, the most significant program in SWAC history with three NCAA wins in the 1980s, has lately been defined by excuses instead of success. West went 44-103 in his five seasons as head coach.

UAPBArkansas-Pine Bluff
The Golden Lions have been good for a low-seed upset at the conference's Birmingham-based tournament each of the last three years, but UAPB is still one of only two SWAC teams never to make the NCAA tournament. (Grambling is the other.) A senior-heavy team, including underperforming preseason POY William Byrd, was expected to do much more. Coach Van Holt resigned after six-plus years, preferring not to work through another rebuilding project, which will be overseen by former MVSU assistant George Ivory.

Grambling StateGrambling State
Larry Wright, a former Grambling standout who went on to play in the NBA, was let go April 18, the same day women's coach David "Rusty" Ponton was also let go. It was a literal housecleaning -- the two combined to win nine games in Grambling's first season in the sparkling new 7,500-seat Health & Physical Education Building. Former South Carolina assistant Rick Duckett takes over, and he'll have at least one workable piece to the Tigers' unending basketball puzzle -- 6-5 junior Andrew Prestley had several big games, including a 16-and-10 double-double in a March 1 thrashing of Pine Bluff that clinched the SWAC's No. 7 spot.

Jackson StateJackson State
A returning power trio of Darrion Griffin, Jeremy Caldwell and Grant Maxey (combined 40.4 ppg) makes the Tigers a favorite to win their second SWAC title in three years next March and take the next step after their last-second near miss in the title game this past March. And they could get some more offensive help from freshman Brandon Crawford, a high-scoring Montgomery product. He scored 24.5 ppg and grabbed 8.5 rebounds per contest during his senior year at Lee High.

MSVUMississippi Valley State
The Delta Devils' march to the championship was a team effort of epic proportions. Nineteen players suited up for Valley last season. Eight of those were seniors who either fell by the wayside over the course of the season or had to endure that historic 70-29 loss to UCLA in the NCAA first round. The team's 19.7 percent shooting was the lowest figure at the tournament in 58 years. Michael Clark, who only had to bear 13 minutes of that game, is the team's returning leading scorer at 7.8 ppg.

PVAMPrairie View A&M
Last January, long-suffering Prairie View looked like it was getting ready to make a run at a postseason berth with three wins in four games. But the Panthers promptly lost eight of 10 and missed the 10-team league's eight-team tourney for the third straight year. PVAM's top two scorers are gone, but former juco transfer Derek Johnson could end up shouldering a heavy scoring burden as a senior. He averaged 11 ppg last season and was only held to single digits three times in SWAC play.

SouthernSouthern
When head coach Rob Spivery moved to Southern in 2005 after earning two SWAC titles at Alabama State, the instant result was a 15-3 league record and a double championship (regular season and tourney). But the Jaguars have been stuck at 9-9 the past two seasons with a couple of quick quarterfinal exits, and the defensive numbers Spivery built his reputation on have been slipping backward. The team returns a couple of solid pieces in 2008 conference freshman of the year Barry Honore' and senior guard Chris Davis (15.4 ppg), who will attempt to take SU back to the northern part of the standings.

Texas SouthernTexas Southern
SWAC Hall of Fame coach Robert Moreland came out of retirement to coach the Tigers on an interim, one-season-only basis after the bizarre late-summer firing of Ronnie Courtney last summer. But a coach that led TSU to 399 wins and three NCAA berths (before being fired himself in 2001) only collected seven more Ws. The eight-scholarship Tigers endured losing streaks of five, six and 12, and they featured an indefensibly bad offense that made only 38.5 percent of their shots. It's a sad note to go out on, but permanent hire Tony Harvey will have free rein to build a new program in his image.

If I were the SWAC commish …

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

The SWAC would do a much better job of promoting itself. I can tell you from experience that the SWAC is known for not having the most accessible information in Division I. Budgets are usually tight in the SWAC, but promoting the league has to become a priority.

The conference also has to get a handle on nonconference scheduling. Guaranteed games are a fact of life in the SWAC, but the conference needs to do a better job of aligning itself with other conferences to find home-and-home series in November and December. It's not fair to the players, the coaches and the fans to have these teams on the road too much before conference play starts. SWAC champ Alabama State won the league despite starting out with eight of its first 12 on the road last season. Last-place Texas Southern played seven straight and 10 of its first 11 on the road to start the season. That has to change for the league to get some sort of momentum going into January.

2007-08 SWAC Standings

Overall record SWAC record
Alabama State^ 20-11 15-3
Mississippi Valley State* 17-16 12-6
Alabama A&M 14-15 11-7
Jackson State 14-20 10-8
Southern University 11-19 9-9
Arkansas-Pine Bluff 13-18 8-10
Grambling State 7-19 7-11
Prairie View A&M 8-22 6-12
Alcorn State 7-24 6-12
Texas Southern 7-25 6-12
*NCAA tournament
^NIT berth

For all the SWAC news and notes, check out the league page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Trant Simpson, Alabama A&M, Jr. 15.5
Chris Davis, Southern, Sr. 15.4
Grant Maxey, Jackson State, Jr. 14.8
Sollie Norwood, Texas Southern, Sr. 14.7
Andrew Hayles, Alabama State, Jr. 14.6

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Jamal Breaux, Grambling State, Sr. 7.4
Jeremy Caldwell, Jackson State, Sr. 6.8
Grant Maxey, Jackson State, Jr. 6.6
Barry Honore', Southern, Soph. 5.1
Derek Johnson, Prairie View A&M, Sr. 5.1
Joseph Jack, Southern, Sr. 5.1

Final Shots

• Is Southern the highest-rated SWAC program since the 1984-85 season? Prestige Rankings

• Which SWAC team can earn the league's coveted automatic berth? Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootArounds archive.