With George Washington deciding Monday to fire coach Karl Hobbs, there are now just five vacancies left to be filled in Division I college basketball. Thus, we are approaching the conclusion of one of the quieter coaching carousels in recent years. Since the end of last season, 45 schools have searched for a new coach, but only nine compete in the six power conferences. Lots of dominoes fell this spring, but they weren't very big, and they didn't make much of a sound.
Still, there was plenty to sift through as the changes came fast and furious over the last few weeks. Here, then, is your resident Hoop Thinker's take on the best and worst of the 2011 coaching carousel:
Smartest hire: Cuonzo Martin, Tennessee. Too many athletic directors make bad hires because they are trying to "win the press conference." Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton, who hasn't made a ton of great decisions over the last couple of years, went the opposite route. The Tennessee fans who are wailing that Hamilton didn't land a "big" name are living in an alternate universe. No big name is going to take a job at a program that is about to be hammered by the NCAA.
Martin has a proven track record. He spent eight years as an assistant at Purdue, and in just three years as the head coach at Missouri State he took the Bears from a middling Missouri Valley team to one that won the regular season championship. He has excellent playing credentials from his decorated career at Purdue and his brief stint in the NBA, which will go over well on the recruiting trail. Finally, he is a man of high character, which was revealed through his successful battle with non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. If Tennessee fans give Martin the support he deserves instead of the derision he doesn't, he will reward them with a winner.
Second-smartest hire: Ed Cooley, Providence. Let's face it, this is one of the worst jobs in the Big East. The fans and the administration have unreasonably high expectations, and even when you're at your best you're probably going to finish eighth. Being the head coach at Providence requires energy and personality, and Cooley has an abundance of both. This guy is a New Englander through and through: He was born in Providence, played at Stonehill in Easton, Mass., and spent 12 years in the region as an assistant coach, most recently for nine years at Boston College. He also did a great job in five years at Fairfield, which won the MAAC last season.
Best trend: Hiring assistants. I don't have any empirical evidence to prove that more schools are hiring assistant coaches, but it feels like it has happened with increasing frequency the last few years. Assistants put in very long hours in recruiting, game planning and player development in hopes of getting the chance to call their own timeout someday.
So I'm happy to see guys like Matt Langel (Temple assistant hired by Colgate), Paul Lusk (Purdue to Missouri State), Steve Masiello (Louisville to Manhattan), Archie Miller (Arizona to Dayton), Mark Montgomery (Michigan State to Northern Illinois), Rob Murphy (Syracuse to Eastern Michigan), Lewis Preston (Penn State to Kennesaw State), King Rice (Vanderbilt to Monmouth), Dave Rice (BYU to UNLV) and Rodney Terry (Texas to Fresno State) get their big breaks. Of course, now they also have a head coach's problems, so best of luck to them.
Riskiest hire: Billy Gillispie, Texas Tech. Gillispie is back where he belongs, in the Lone Star State, where he proved at UTEP and Texas A&M that he can win with lesser talent. The problem is that at both of those stops, and especially during his disastrous two-year stint at Kentucky, Gillispie exhibited behavior that was both erratic and criminal.
In Lexington he did not deal well with the public or the media, and had one notorious incident where he was so angry at a player (Josh Harrellson) that he ordered him to sit in a bathroom stall during the coach's halftime talk. Gillispie has also had multiple DUI arrests. He has since admitted to having a drinking problem and put himself through John Lucas' rehab center in Houston.
I'm hoping that Gillispie has straightened out his personal life and learned some valuable lessons about how to treat people, but time will tell whether his hiring in Lubbock is worth this considerable risk.
Worst performance by an athletic director: N.C. State's Debbie Yow. Actually, this might have been the worst performance of the decade. Yow was sitting next to her newly hired basketball coach, Mark Gottfried, when she launched a thousand headlines with her now-infamous remark that Maryland coach Gary Williams tried to "sabotage" the school's coaching search. Yow and Williams had a bitter relationship for most of the 16 years she spent as the AD at Maryland. Instead of Gottfried being the story -- and he was a darn good hire under the circumstances -- Yow had everyone talking about the enmity between her and Williams. That only reminded us why so many good candidates turned down the N.C. State job in the first place.
Second-worst performance by an athletic director: Mike Alden, Missouri.Here's a rule all AD's should follow: If you're going to get on a plane to meet with a candidate, be sure you get a yes. Alden broke that rule when he flew to Florida to interview Matt Painter, only to be publicly rebuffed as Painter re-upped at Purdue. From there, Alden made the spring's most questionable hire by plucking Frank Haith from Miami.
I like Haith and I do think he's a good coach, but in seven years at Miami he posted a .384 winning percentage in the ACC and made the NCAA tournament once. Had Haith stayed at Miami he would have entered next season at the top of everybody's hot-seat list. Part of an AD's job is to empower the coach he hires, and I fear Alden has put Haith in a position where it will be very hard for him to succeed.
Biggest racket: The search firm. The most important decision an athletic director can make is the hiring of a football or men's basketball coach. It is at the very top of his or her job description. Everything else basically comes down to fundraising. So why would an AD pay close to six figures to farm out his or her primary responsibilities to someone else?
Yes, a search firm can provide some helpful information, especially regarding salaries and buyout clauses, but the main purpose of the search firm is to keep the details of the process out of the media. Yet most of the time those details leak out anyway. Nor is it difficult to connect the dots between a search firm helping a school hire an AD to the AD's decision to use that same search firm to hire a coach. This part of the process is pointless and corrupt, and I predict its days are numbered.
Most surprising contract extensions: Tie between Richmond's Chris Mooney and VCU's Shaka Smart. Both these guys were red hot coming off their teams' performances in the NCAA tournament, and they had some great opportunities. Mooney had been high on Georgia Tech's target list since last year, and Smart seemed a perfect fit for N.C. State, where his us-against-the-world shtick would have played great. Yet both men signed long contract extensions for considerably less money. I'm all for loyalty and job security, but I can't help but wonder if these guys might someday come to regret those decisions. Big-time opportunities don't come around every year, and no mid-major coach stays hot forever.
Under the gun: Brian Gregory, Georgia Tech. I believe Gregory will do a very good job at Georgia Tech because I have known him a long time and have seen him in action. But my personal belief in Gregory will mean bupkis if he doesn't win. Too many Georgia Tech fans believe that the school had to make an economical hire because it spent so much dough on a new arena and Paul Hewitt's buyout.
In eight years at Dayton, Gregory brought the Flyers to two NCAA tournaments, and the last two years they finished seventh and eighth, respectively, in the Atlantic 10. Yes, Gregory spent six years as an assistant to Tom Izzo at Michigan State, but he's also a Midwestern native with no natural recruiting ties to the south. The Yellow Jackets are going to be really bad next year, so it would help Gregory's cause if he could sign a prominent local recruit or two to keep the local skeptics at bay for a little while.
Worst firing: Jeff Capel, Oklahoma. You'd think bringing a school to the Elite Eight would buy a guy more than two years, but Capel was unceremoniously dumped by OU after leading the Sooners to a 14-18 record (5-11 Big 12). The wild card here is the ongoing NCAA investigation into alleged contacts between some of Capel's former players and NBA agents. OU athletic director Joe Castiglione never explicitly said the investigation was the reason Capel was fired, but the AD made sure everyone knew that Capel's replacement, former UNLV coach Lon Kruger, had an impeccable reputation.
If Capel is found to have committed wrongdoing, then Castiglione's decision to cut him loose will have been justified. But if Capel is exonerated by the NCAA, his firing will be one of the more egregious examples of the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mindset that has come to plague college athletics.
Best boost to a 401(k): Jim Larranaga, Miami. Larranaga pulled one of the real stunners of the spring by deciding to take his talents to Coral Gables, but when you think about it the move was a no-brainer. Larranaga has not had as many job offers from power conference schools as you might think. The most notable temptation came three years ago, when Larranaga thought about taking the job at Providence, his alma mater. Now, at the ripe old age of 61, Larranaga made an obvious and understandable grab at a big payday and the chance to coach in the ACC. He has had better teams at George Mason than the one he'll coach next season, but make no mistake, Miami is a much better job than George Mason. Given the money, the location and the league, you can't help but conclude Larranaga did a smart thing.
Best landing strip: Gainesville, Florida. After Billy Donovan lost his top three assistants this spring, he filled two of those spots with former head coaches from power conferences: John Pelphrey, who was fired by Arkansas and had served previously on Donovan's staff at Florida, and Norm Roberts, the former St. John's coach who spent last season working as a studio analyst for SNY. They're both smart hires. Both guys have a history of being excellent recruiters (Pelphrey had just brought in his best class at Arkansas) and both are still young and hungry enough to want to be head coaches again.
Worst recyclers: Cal State Bakersfield's Rod Barnes and Texas A&M Corpus Christi's Willis Wilson. Barnes was let go by Georgia State after going 35 games under .500 in four years, while Wilson spent the last two seasons as an assistant at Memphis after getting fired by Rice following his 16th year on the job. I know everyone wants to be a head coach, especially if you've been a head coach and are now an assistant, but I think it's a bad career move to take a dead-end job. It smacks of desperation, and these guys are better than that.
Sleeping with the enemy award: Dane Fife, Michigan State assistant. When a guy played at Indiana and had a brother and father who both played at Michigan, you'd figure the last thing he would ever do is cash a paycheck in East Lansing. Yet that isn't the most surprising aspect of Fife's decision to join Tom Izzo's staff. The most surprising thing is that Fife had a job as a Division I head coach at IPFW, where his teams went a respectable 82-97 (43-39 Summit League) during his six years there. Fife is only 31, yet he has a wealth of experience because he got hired by IPFW at 25. Between his experience, competitive fire and many recruiting contacts in Michigan and Indiana, Fife will be a big help to Izzo. In return, Izzo will be a big help to Fife down the road. No head coach works harder to get his assistants head-coaching gigs than Izzo.
Worst procrastinator: Jeff Altier, athletic director, Stetson. Altier announced on Feb. 20 that his coach, Derek Waugh, was going to step down at the end of the season and take another position within the school's athletic department. That should theoretically have given Altier a head start on finding Waugh's replacement, but he didn't announce the hiring of former Belmont assistant coach Casey Alexander until April 20. You might think that it wouldn't take an AD two full months to hire a little-known mid-major assistant coach who works in the same part of the country. But you'd be wrong.
Worst loss of an alum: Princeton. If you're an Ivy League school, there's no shame in losing your coach after his team comes within a bucket of beating a No. 4 seed (Kentucky) in the NCAA tournament. But when you're Princeton, and you're supposed to be the class of the Ivy, and your coach is an alum, and he leaves for ... Fairfield? I'd say there's some shame in that.
No disrespect to Fairfield, but if schools like Butler, Gonzaga, Richmond and VCU can lock up their coaches when they're in high demand, there's no reason why Princeton couldn't have done the same for Sydney Johnson. Princeton athletic director Gary Walters seems to be under the impression that it's such a big honor to coach at Princeton that the school doesn't need to pay its coach at market value. Johnson proved him wrong.