Here I sit, smack in the midst of what was, at least for six weeks, the Coaching Vacancy Capital of the Basketball World, and now the positions have been filled and darned if I can find cause to criticize any of the three. Have I lost it or what? (Don’t answer all at once.)
Georgia State hired Ron Hunter. Georgia Tech hired Brian Gregory. Last but not in any way least, Kennesaw State hired Lewis Preston, who was introduced at the school Tuesday. I’d give solid B’s to Tech’s and KSU’s new men, and I’d give something better to Georgia State’s. Here’s a look at each case.
Kennesaw State: This was the trickiest of the three hires. The Owls had to first find an athletic director, and they landed an impressive one in Vaughn Williams, who apprenticed at Boston College and UConn. Then Williams, whose official start date isn’t until May, had to identify someone willing to take a job that pays less — Preston will earn $145,000 — than many major-college assistants make. And that same man would have to agree to work year-to-year. (Because it has no athletic association, KSU doesn’t offer long-term contracts )
Williams found Preston, who has spent the past three seasons as an assistant at Penn State and who’d worked under Mike Brey at Notre Dame and under Billy Donovan at Florida when the Gators took their second of two NCAA titles. As Williams noted: “That’s the Big East, the SEC and the Big Ten.”
No, Preston hasn’t been a head coach, but almost nobody who has had any success as a collegiate head coach would have dared to take this job. KSU hasn’t yet slogged through the transition from Division II to D-I, and the Owls are facing scholarship losses due to academic issues besides. Yet Preston, who’s 40, agreed with eyes wide open. “I’m confident in my abilities as a coach,” he said.
To his credit, Preston had actually heard of Kennesaw State. “I stayed at the SpringHill Suites [off Chastain Road] when I was going up to Rome to see Tony Woods,” said Preston, recalling a recruiting trip from 2007. “I remember walking around the [KSU] campus and thinking, “This is such a beautiful place, and nobody knows about it.”
He has the chance to change that.
Hiring verdict: Given the circumstances, KSU did as well as it could have — and that shouldn’t be construed as faint praise.
Georgia Tech: The Jackets’ hire hasn’t been viewed as a bonanza by the masses, but how many major programs did better? Gregory has done good (if not quite surpassing) work at Dayton, a mid-major that has more rabid fans than he’ll find here. Compare that to Missouri’s hire (Frank Haith, lately of Miami), or North Carolina State’s (Mark Gottfried, who resigned from Alabama in 2009). And surely the new Oklahoma coach wouldn’t have been received nearly as well in Atlanta, Lon Kruger having once been fired by the Hawks.
Given that Richmond’s Chris Mooney and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall and VCU’s Shaka Smart got big raises to re-up, this was a difficult year to be shopping at the mid-major market. Tech managed to find its man without subjecting itself to repeated turndowns, which is more than N.C. State.
Hiring verdict: Gregory isn’t long on charisma, but he’s a good coach.
Georgia State: One of the least successful programs in the history of Division I needed to get creative, and AD Cheryl Levick did. In Hunter, she found a man who has won with an afterthought program in a big city — he spent 17 seasons at IUPUI, which is based in Indianapolis — and managed to attract attention to boot. Indeed, she might have found the one man in the industry who has done so well but who would still regard Georgia State as a step up.
The only real success Georgia State has known was under Lefty Driesell, who was 65 when he arrived. Hunter is 46. He has time and room to grow. And he can really coach: The only losing seasons his Jaguars had were the three following their move from Division II to Division I.
Hiring verdict: There could be no better fit of coach to challenge.
By Mark Bradley