Horizon League struggles with unprecedented coaching turnover

In the Horizon League, seven out of 10 programs have changed coaches in the past 13 months.
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One of Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone’s philosophies is nothing is constant but change. But even in 24 years as commissioner, LeCrone has never seen as much change among his men’s basketball coaches as what has occurred in the last 13 months.

Seven of the Horizon League’s 10 programs have changed head coaches in that time, starting with UIC firing Howard Moore last March and ending with Bryce Drew leaving Valparaiso for Vanderbilt last week. Thirteen months into the job, Steve McClain, Moore's replacement at UIC, is suddenly the fourth-longest tenured coach in the conference.

“It’s unprecedented,” Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Before this off-season, the Horizon League had never seen more than five programs need to replace head coaches during any two-season span. At the beginning of last season, every head coach had been entering at least his fourth year in the conference.

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“Sometimes you go through years of total stability,” LeCrone said, “and sometimes there are years of change when very talented people decide to take other jobs.”

But only two of the five coaches who departed left for better jobs. Drew could not resist an SEC offer, and Brian Wardle left Green Bay last season for an opportunity to rebuild Bradley.

While Moore's firing made sense after his UIC teams failed to exceed 10 wins in four of his five seasons, the firings of Billy Donlon at Wright State and Rob Jeter at Milwaukee turned heads.

Wright State athletic director Bob Grant fired Donlon after a 22-win season and conference championship game appearance. The Raiders had also appeared in the 2013 and 2014 title games, although they never broke through to the NCAA tournament.

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“It’s very scary to think what this business is turning into at our level," Kampe said. "When you win 22 games, and you get let go, and you’ve been in the league championship three of the last four years, you can really coach. That’s just scary to anybody in this profession."

Paul Biancardi, another former Wright State coach who worked under Grant, came to Donlon’s defense and criticized Grant on Twitter.

Though not commenting specifically on Wright State, new coach Scott Nagy acknowledged the possibility of tensions between athletic directors and coaches that go beyond on-court results.

“There’s a lot of things that go unseen that I think a lot of times the athletic director takes heat for, and he just has to take it because he’s not going to defend himself and throw people under the bus,” said Nagy, who took the Wright State job after 21 years at South Dakota State. “If you just want to look at wins and losses for whether a guy should keep his job, then it looks bad. But there are other things going on that people don’t know about and never will know about.”

Former Michigan assistant LaVall Jordan snagged the Milwaukee opening last week and already feels the high expectations that have permeated the conference. Athletic director Amanda Braun had fired Jeter despite a pair of 20-win seasons in the last three years and a 2014 NCAA tournament appearance.

“Winning is hard in any league, and this league isn’t any different,” Jordan said. “Everybody wants to compete for championships and the NCAA tournament, so the expectations do make it difficult.”