Today’s earlier post about Johnny Jones’ future has become something of a viral sensation, thanks to TigerDroppings and some of the other LSU sports message boards kicking it around, and I figured I should do a follow-up to it – particularly after receiving a couple of e-mails from readers asking who I would hire if I was in Joe Alleva’s shoes if and when Jones were to be sent packing after the season.
And to reiterate, no – I do not believe Jones will be retained. Unless LSU finds a way to beat Auburn at the PMAC Tuesday night, the team’s losing streak will increase to a school-record-tying 14 games, and what’s left on the schedule after Auburn is three games (at Georgia, Tennessee at home, at Mississippi State) against teams within striking distance of .500 in the SEC and still fighting for postseason tournaments. The chances of winning any of those games are slim, and it’s no more likely that LSU would fare any better in a first-round SEC Tournament game against the #11 seed (right now that would be Auburn). Even if they’re actually contemplating keeping Jones around at present, he’s most likely to cure those thoughts by losing out and running a school-record losing streak to 18 games.
Nobody loses 18 games in a row in his fifth season at a place like LSU and keeps his job. Nobody.
I think the peculiar buzz surrounding the idea of Jones sticking around for another year isn’t so much the product of reality as panic, fueled by two things. First, the circumstances – LSU’s athletic director Joe Alleva has shown a pattern of behavior influenced more by politics than competitive concerns, which has a lot to do with why Jones got the job he’s about to be fired from in the first place, and the “poor LSU” act put on by university president F. King Alexander has already manifested itself with respect to the expense of coaching changes and other athletic department transactions.
And second, as I noted earlier today, it’s the complete silence from the athletic department about the state of the basketball program. That has created a vacuum, and all kinds of things rush in to fill a vacuum. Including rumors that the coach responsible will be kept because it’s too expensive to buy him out and nobody cares about basketball at LSU.
It would have been helpful if at some point in the last two weeks Alleva had put out a statement to the fans that yes, he’s mindful of the condition the men’s basketball program is in and yes, he is formulating a plan to improve that condition. It would have shown a little bit of respect to the people who are shelling out for the terrible product on the floor, even if the statement was vague as to what the plan actually was.
At this point, though, the “we’ll evaluate this at the end of the season” line has lost any use it may have had. Even if Jones were to miraculously turn things around and win all of the remaining games on the schedule, he’s still no better than 13-17 at the end of the regular season and unlikely to be any higher than 13th in the league standings. That’s still a disastrous season by any measure; no competent athletic director would retain a coach whose product was this poor in his 5th year even at 13-17 rather than the more likely 9-21.
So I’ll maintain the assumption Jones is gone regardless of the whisperings otherwise, and address the question at hand – who’s on my list?
For functionality’s sake, I’ll break this down into three groups, and for manageability’s sake I’ll include five or six possibilities in each group.
The first group I’ll call The Unattainables; these are the coaches who at least arguably have better jobs than the one LSU would be hiring for, and it would take probably much more money than LSU is willing to spend and perhaps a better sales job than Alleva has shown himself capable of performing in order to get them, but for various reasons they’re worth at least a call or an e-mail to make them say no.
1. Tom Crean, Indiana – IU is one of the five most storied programs in all of college basketball, and Crean is responsible for rebuilding the Hoosiers into a Big Ten power after taking over a complete disaster several years ago. He makes $3 million per year. What on earth is he doing on this list? Well, Indiana is struggling through a rough 15-12 season so far, and has little chance of making the NCAA tournament. Even though the Hoosiers were 27-8 last year, won the Big Ten regular season title at 15-3 and made the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, there is a lot of talk he’s on the hot seat – especially after four straight losses. In the event Crean should happen to become available, Alleva should snap him up. Prior to this season he’s made the NCAA Tournament four of the last five years, and in three of those seasons he advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. Prior to taking the Indiana job after the Kelvin Sampson disaster left virtually nothing standing, Crean rebuilt the program at Marquette and made seven straight postseason tournaments, including five NCAA trips and a Final Four. He’s a two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year and won a National Coach of the Year award in 2012. And yes, he’s a grumpy guy – after the last five years of the nicest guy around whose teams are just as congenial to opponents, a little misanthropy wouldn’t hurt this program a bit.
2. Mick Cronin, Cincinnati – Cronin, who has the Bearcats sitting at 24-3 and 13-1 in the American Athletic Conference, just a half-game behind SMU in that league, is on his way to a seventh straight NCAA Tournament appearance. A disciple of both Bob Huggins and Rick Pitino, he’s a Cincinnati native who makes about $2.2 million per year. Cronin’s also a reasonably young coach; he’s 45 years old. Why is it worth a call to attempt to pry him out of what looks like a job he’ll have until he retires? Because UNLV went after him last year and, depending on who you talk to, came pretty close to getting him. UNLV is a pretty attractive basketball job, and the Mountain West is occasionally a decent league, but that program isn’t any better off than LSU is – they’re 10-17 right now and close to the conference cellar, and last year they were 18-15 and went to no postseason tournament. UNLV shouldn’t have been able to hire Cronin and for a while it looked like they were going to. Meanwhile. Cincinnati wanted to get into the Big 12 and was turned down, so Cronin is stuck outside of the Power 5. A job at LSU could fix that. Offer him more than what UNLV offered last year, and make him say no.
3. Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech – Williams was a Crean assistant who took over at Marquette, and kept that program humming – from 2008-13, he went to five straight NCAA tournaments before leaving for Blacksburg, where he’s taken a more or less perennial also-ran and made them competitive in the ACC. Two years ago, Virginia Tech was 11-22, and last year they went 20-15 and made it to the NIT. This year they’re 18-8 with a fighting chance to crawl onto the NCAA bubble. To say the 44-year old is a winner is an understatement – if he can turn the Hokies into a factor in the monster that is the ACC, there is almost nothing he can’t do. His current contract has him at $2.6 million per year, scaling upwards to $3.3 million in 2022-23. So why would he consider coaching at LSU? Well, Williams isn’t from Up East – he’s a Texan. And his first head coaching job was just down the road at UNO in 2006-07. The argument could be made that LSU in the SEC has a better shot at becoming high-level competitive on a sustaining basis than Virginia Tech in the ACC. Alleva would need to come up with an initial offer of $3 million just to get in the door with Williams, but there is reason to believe he might listen to the right pitch.
4. Chris Collins, Northwestern – Alleva might have a connection with Collins, who was an assistant to Mike Kzryzewski at Duke from 2000-13, including much of Alleva’s time there; we don’t know if that would be an asset or a liability in trying to hire him to LSU. For the most part former Coach K assistants haven’t been great hires at other programs, but in Collins’ case there is reason to think he could be an exception to that rule. He’s in his fourth year in Evanston, and he’s improved that program every season – from 14-19 to 15-17 to 20-12 to 20-7 this year. Last year Collins got a bump in salary to about $1.7 million, which is more than Jones makes but not so much that an aggressive offer couldn’t wrest him away – again, assuming that he would be willing to work for Alleva. Collins is known as a big-time recruiter who can get in the door with anybody in the country, but his kids at Northwestern have to be elite students in order to get into school. Between that limitation and the relative ease of the SEC compared to the brutal Big Ten while still being a Power 5 conference, plus the Duke connection with Alleva, there might be an opening. Northwestern’s history as a basketball program is that whenever they stumble on a coach who produces any success at all he departs at the first opportunity; a call to Collins could put that history to the test.
5. Steve Prohm, Iowa State – Prohm is in his second year at Iowa State, having taken over for Fred Hoiberg after the latter left to coach the Chicago Bulls, and it’s Hoiberg’s status that might offer the best hope LSU could grab the Cyclones’ current head man. The Bulls are 28-29 as of this writing, hanging on to 7th place in the Eastern Conference, and that’s after going 42-40 and missing the playoffs last year for the first time in eight years. Which means there’s a decent chance Hoiberg could be out, and if so he might be the Nick Saban Circa 2007 of Iowa State basketball. Particularly since Hoiberg is an alumnus at ISU. Prohm, meantime, was 23-12 last year, including a Sweet Sixteen trip in the NCAA tournament, and is sitting on the bubble at 17-9 right now. That’s a good, but not great, record, but it’s the splashy 104-29 record he had in four years at Murray State, including a 31-win season and a 29-win season, which makes Prohm an interesting possibility. Couple that with the fact he’s got a relatively local background; Prohm was a student assistant and graduate assistant at Alabama, and then coached with current Texas A&M head coach Billy Kennedy at both Centenary and Southeastern Louisiana, then spent a year as an assistant at Tulane before hooking back up with Kennedy at Murray State and then taking over for him there. Prohm only makes $1.2 million, so grabbing him while Iowa State covets Hoiberg’s return is a not-to-distant possibility under the right conditions.
The next group I’ll call The Attainables, and it’s the group from which LSU’s next coach likely comes. These are coaches who, despite the current state of the LSU program, are still decent possibilities to accept the job at a figure somewhere near the $1.5 million or so that Jones is making. LSU offers a chance at a larger profile and a higher ceiling than where they are, and in most cases Jones’ salary would be a significant upgrade from what their current employer could hope to match.
1. Will Wade, VCU – If I had to pick a favorite for the job, it would be Wade, whose VCU team is really, really fun to watch this year and a couple of weeks ago won an absolute war of a game over Archie Miller’s Dayton team (that game was a hell of a lot more enjoyable to see on TV than anything LSU has had this year, believe me). Miller, incidentally, would have been at the top of this list but for Mark Gottfried’s firing; with Gottfried out it seems relatively certain that NC State will move heaven and earth to get their most prominent coaching alumnus back on campus in Raleigh. But that’s OK, because Wade is younger (he’s 35) and one might argue more successful in less time than Miller at a similar program. Further, Wade is in his second successful stint as a head coach; before taking over for Shaka Smart at VCU last year, he built the program at Chattanooga, and last year he was 25-11 in Richmond. VCU coaches who have moved on to bigger programs seem to have a jinx attached to them – Jeff Capel didn’t make it at Oklahoma, Anthony Grant washed out at Alabama, Smart seems to be flagging at Texas – but the buzz is Wade is the best of the four, and he’s the one who actually built a program somewhere else. And this might be the best team of all in the modern era. VCU is 22-5 and tied with Dayton at 12-2 atop the Atlantic 10. Wade makes around $1.4 million, but VCU went as high as $1.8 million to keep Smart – so LSU should be prepared to go at least that high if they want to land him.
2. Kermit Davis, Middle Tennessee – Davis would be the “inside” hire on this list, seeing as though he spent a few years as the lead assistant to John Brady at LSU from 1997-2002. He’s been the head coach in Murfreesboro ever since, and for the first nine years he hovered between 15-17 and 19-12, most of the time finishing in the top half of the Sun Belt Conference but never really breaking out with a great team. And then in 2011-12 something happened, because since that point Davis has been just about the most successful coach anywhere in the country. The records: 27-7 (NIT Quarterfinals), 28-6 (NCAA tournament), 24-9, 19-17 (CIT), 25-9 (beat Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA), and 22-4 so far this year. He’s going to have won 24 or more games in four seasons out of five, which is a crazy amount of success at a place like Middle Tennessee where there is no particular tradition of it. What’s more, Davis is well-known and well-liked among LSU hoops people; he’s as nice a guy as there is in coaching, and he’s known as one hell of a good evaluator and developer of talent. Not to mention he makes all of $370,000 at Middle Tennessee, which means he’s eminently gettable at Jones’ current salary. The downside here is Davis is 57, which is a bit older than you’d hope for. But if the aim is to stabilize LSU’s program and make it competitive again without having to break the bank, this is as safe a bet as you can make.
3. Kevin Keatts, UNC-Wilmington – Keatts is a Rick Pitino disciple, and he’s a recruiting machine. To give you an indication as to what an authority he is where it comes to the high school hoops circuit, before Pitino hired him as an assistant at Louisville Keatts was the head coach at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, the storied prep school known for its status as a factory for high-end talent. After earning a ring with Pitino, Keatts took the UNCW job and put that program on a fast track, going 18-14 two years ago, 25-8 with an NCAA bid last year, and a fancy 24-5 record and a 13-3 mark for first place in the Colonial Athletic Association. This is likely going to be the third season in three that Keatts has won or tied for the Colonial’s regular-season title. Furthermore, Keatts’ teams are fun to watch; they employ a frenetic, up-tempo offensive style with lots of three-point shooting. He learned that under Pitino, as you’d imagine. Keatts makes about $350,000 per year, so he’s gettable for a reasonable price. There’s a bit of a risk here, though, as along with that up-tempo style is a so-so defense. That’s something Jones’ teams have been uniformly atrocious with, and it could make one skittish that perhaps he wouldn’t fix a problem. There is little question he’s a major improvement over Jones, though.
4. Niko Medved, Furman – Nobody has heard of Medved, but we’re falling in love with him thanks to the season he’s having. Let’s first recognize that Furman’s basketball program was going nowhere when Medved got the job there; they were 15-16 the year before he was hired, and it took him some time to rebuild the program. From 9-21 to 11-22 to 19-16 last year, including a CIT bid, and now he’s sitting at 20-9 and 13-3 atop the Southern Conference, with a loss Saturday ending a 10-game winning streak. He’s got one senior in his playing rotation, so this isn’t necessarily a team that vaporizes next year. Medved’s team plays some serious defense despite lacking a lot of size in the paint (the best inside player is only 6-6), they absolutely shoot the lights out (as a team they’re hitting 39 percent from the three-point line and of the six players who have attempted 75 or more three-pointers the worst shooting percentage is .357) and he’s known as a very strong recruiter – particularly from his time as an assistant to Tim Miles and later Larry Eustachy at Colorado State, where he helped rebuild that program as an assistant. He’s 43 years old. Medved signed a contract extension in late January which would hold him until 2022, but we can’t find anything on a salary. It doesn’t matter; Southern Conference teams don’t pay their coaches more than $250,000 a year – if that. LSU calls and he’s coming. Watch Furman as February turns to March, and see if they don’t end up busting a few brackets in the Big Dance.
5. Steve Forbes, East Tennessee State – Forbes has had a very solid run at ETSU, going 24-12 last year with a trip to the Vegas 16 tournament and posting a 22-6 record so far this year. He’s just a half-game behind Medved’s Furman team with a 12-3 SoCon mark. Those are pretty good numbers, and they look even better when one considers that prior to taking the ETSU job Forbes went 31-2 and 30-4 as the head coach at Northwest Florida State College, finish as the NJCAA national runner-up. Forbes has a nice pedigree as an assistant as well; after the success as a JC head coach and before getting the ETSU job he spent two seasons as an assistant to Gregg Marshall at Wichita State, and before Northwest Florida State he was Bruce Pearl’s lead assistant at Tennessee. Pearl at Tennessee and Marshall at Wichita State were exceptionally successful, as our readers are aware, so Forbes is on about a 10-year run of being involved in some awfully solid basketball. Before that he was an assistant to Billy Gillespie at Texas A&M, which went so well that Gillespie got the job at Kentucky. And before that Forbes was an assistant at Louisiana Tech from 2000-03. Long and short of this, here’s a coach who has worked every highway and byway in the South looking for basketball players, and been involved with winners more or less at every stop. Forbes is 51 years old, and he makes about $235,000 a year.
6. Paul Weir, New Mexico State – Weir is a name probably next to nobody around LSU has heard of, but back in December I watched his New Mexico State team look outstanding in beating the pants off a Bobby Hurley-coached Arizona State team. That was the ninth win in a streak that would hit 21 before NMSU dropped a pair of games on the road at Cal State Bakersfield (coached by none other than former Ole Miss head coach Rod Barnes!) and Grand Canyon (coached by Dan Majerle). They’re sitting at 23-4 right now in Weir’s first year as a head coach in Las Cruces, where he’s been since 2007, and they’re a dominating team which plays stifling defense, owns the glass and gets to the foul line at a ridiculous pace. Weir coached under Mike McConathy at Northwestern State and Steve Alford at Iowa before landing at New Mexico State as an assistant to Marvin Menzies, who left for the UNLV job Cronin turned down last year, and it seems pretty clear that Weir, rather than Menzies, was the primary reason for that school’s run of success (seven conference championships in nine years) over the last decade. Weir is just 36 years old, and he makes just $250,000 a year.
Finally, this group is The Applicants, and they’re the coaches whose resumes don’t quite rate a serious consideration for the job at present because of a number of factors – but because they’ve got some sort of a connection to LSU they might get a hearing. This would have been the group Jones would have come from when he was hired, and as such he wasn’t an exciting choice at the time – and in general, we wouldn’t recommend any of these names as being a great bet to drastically improve the program. That said, a coach’s stars tend to rise and fall, and sometimes you can find someone who’ll do quite well for you despite coming from lackluster circumstances.
1. Matt McCall, Chattanooga – We did a post on McCall earlier this year, suggesting that LSU fans remember his name given his connection with assistant AD Eddie Nunez, who like McCall is a protege of Billy Donovan at Florida. At the time, McCall had his team at 15-4 and looked like he was going to win the SoCon, but his stock has dropped a bit since then. Chattanooga is now sitting in fourth place in their conference at 10-5, with a 19-8 overall record, and in that time he’s lost twice to Forbes’ East Tennessee State team and once to Medved’s Furman club. That 4-4 fizzle over the last month makes us think he might not quite be ready for the LSU job seeing as though it was Will Wade who actually built the team McCall is coaching right now. Having said that, though, he’s still in contention for the SoCon championship and there’s always the conference tournament. If McCall can win his three remaining regular-season games and make a run into the NCAA dance, he might progress back into the ranks of The Attainables.
2. Mike Rhoades, Rice – Rhoades’ name has shown up on some message boards as a potential dark horse for the LSU job, and he’s not a wholly unattractive candidate. It isn’t that he doesn’t have some good stuff on his resume, but rather that he’s a year or two away from being a reach. Rhoades is 18-9 at present, 8-6 in Conference USA, and that’s a big jump from the 12-20 records he posted in his first two seasons at Rice. Prior to that he was an assistant to Shaka Smart at VCU, including that 2011 season which ended in the Final Four, and prior to that he spent 10 years at Division III Randolph-Macon, compiling a 197-76 mark which included four trips to the Division III NCAA tournament. It’s a nice resume and he’s got a reputation as a good coach, but he’s a little like John Brady was when he was hired – he hasn’t done anything quite yet that would merit the LSU job.
3. Roman Banks, Southern – Banks’ name has been thrown around as the local candidate, and to be fair he’s done some nice things. This year Southern is 9-5 in the SWAC and 13-14 overall, so unless he can get them to make a run in the conference tournament he’s going nowhere, but he’s made the NCAA dance twice in the previous four years (even winning a game in the tournament in 2013) and won the league regular season championship one other time. Before arriving at Southern Banks was the head coach at Southeastern Louisiana from 2006-11, and had a little success there. He’s been around the game in and around Baton Rouge for a while and maybe it would be good PR for him to get a courtesy interview, but there is nothing here which screams “here’s the next great SEC basketball coach.”
4. Kelvin Sampson, Houston – Sampson at one point was considered one of the best coaches in the country, and a decade ago it would have been a monster hire for LSU to get him. That was before he put Oklahoma on probation for violating NCAA recruiting contact rules in a relatively flagrant fashion, and after he’d skipped off to Indiana and did the same thing, crashing that program, Sampson had to spend some time as an NBA assistant before Houston picked him up to resurrect a mediocre program. Like he did at Oklahoma and Indiana, and in fact Washington State before those two places, he’s won with the Cougars – Sampson was 13-19 two years ago and 22-10 last year, making the NIT, and this season he’s 18-8 and 9-5 in the AAC, which is good enough for third place behind SMU and Cincinnati. But come on. He’s 61 years old and he’s put two different programs on probation. Why his name has been thrown around for the LSU job is beyond me.
5. Rick Stansbury, Western Kentucky – Stansbury, who had some moderate success at Mississippi State from 1998-2012, has been actively campaigning for the LSU job, according to the grapevine. In that pursuit he’s done some interesting things; Stansbury hired a former Tulane assistant, Shammond Williams, and spent the fall stealing Louisiana recruits away from Jones. He signed Madison Prep’s Josh Anderson and Chalmette’s 6-11 stud Mitchell Robinson, which he has zero busines doing at Western Kentucky, and the rumor was that Stansbury would get those two players out of their letters of intent and bring them to Baton Rouge if he was hired. In the meantime Stansbury, who made the NCAA tournament six times and the NIT five times at State, has a WKU team picked to finish second in Conference USA this year sitting at 7-7 in the league and 13-14 overall. No, you can’t go from 13-14 at Western Kentucky to the head coaching job at LSU, no matter who you are and no matter who your recruits might be in Year One. Robinson is a one-and-done player; he’s not likely to do anything more for LSU Basketball than Anthony Randolph or Ben Simmons did – LSU needs to actually build a program for once. Stansbury is 57, and he makes half a million bucks a year. He’d crawl to LSU, but Alleva would be crazy to ask him to.
UPDATE: To the Unattainables list we should add Mike Brey at Notre Dame, as there is a little bit of buzz out there which says Brey may have some interest in the job. His connection to LSU is two-fold: first, Brey played college ball at Northwestern State from 1977-80, so he’s got a little bit of a Louisiana background, and second, he’s reportedly a close friend of LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri, who was Notre Dame’s baseball coach before coming to LSU. Brey is an established winner at a high level, for sure – this is his 17th year there, and he’s been to the NCAA tournament 11 times and the NIT four times in the first 16 – including a pair of Elite Eight trips in the last two years. A similar level of success is quite likely this year; Brey is 21-7 right now, 10-5 in the brutal ACC. So why would he consider leaving? Well, when you’re stuck with Louisville, Syracuse, North Carolina and Duke in your conference, not to mention Florida State, Virginia and Miami and all the others, the SEC might look like virgin territory. Plus Brey makes $1.7 million at Notre Dame, which is not an enormous amount of money – particularly for a coach who’s been on the job since 2000. It’s entirely possible Alleva could buy him.