(originally published on March 7, 2012)
A recent blog posting by Helen Wheelock got me thinking about coaching job searches and who administrators hire. Seems like most of the talk always centers around the DI coaches, especially the “up-and-comers”. I do not profess to know exactly what makes a good coach in all situations. Good coaches in a bad situation can lead to struggles and failures, whereas unproven coaches (i.e. assistants) in good situations can lead to success and excitement.
I decided to put together a list of some of the best coaches I know. These coaches are not necessarily up-and-comers. They are just individuals that know what they are doing and have proven they can get the job done. Isn’t that what is important for an A.D. anyway? Coaching X’s and O’s are pretty much a common language across the divisions.
In fact, often at the lower levels, a coach needs to be even more diverse and versatile in their coaching strategies because they are not always able to hand pick the exact team that they’d like to have each year like their Division I counterparts. In terms of recruiting, it all is a game of salesmanship. What is the product that you are selling, how much do you believe in the product and how will you best sell it.
For a small college coach, there are numerous obstacles (cost, lack of name recognition and branding, less gear, less television exposure, etc…). Small college coaches are like the paper salespeople in the hit TV show “The Office” when going up against Office Depot and Staples…they have to be creative, persistent, and truly believe in what they are doing. I would suggest that small college coaches can coach at the DI level successfully. A lack of DI experience by the head coach can be made up by a competent staff that does have some DI experience.
So, without further a due, here are some of the best coaches that I know (I’ve been around a lot of places over the years and have met some great coaches that aren’t on this list…that doesn’t mean they can’t coach or that I think less of them, I’ve just limited it to those that come to mind right away).
MATT BOLLANT (UW-Green Bay) – Doesn’t really fit this category anymore because he is the head coach at UW-Green Bay. However, five years ago, he was an NAIA head coach at Bryan College. I just wanted to mention him because he is a great coach and a great recruiter. He deserved to get a good Division I job. He has not disappointed as he led the Phoenix to the Sweet-16 last year and this year is primed to experience similar success. I personally believe that he didn’t get the Wisconsin job this past spring because they wanted to go with a more glamorous assistant and not with a proven winner. At the time, he said that he wasn’t too disappointed because his Horizon League team was actually better than the in-state Big Ten team. Then all he did this year was go out and whoop Wisconsin…oops.
MARK CAMPBELL (Union University) – His numbers are so extravagant that you would think they are a typo…In 13 seasons as a head coach, he has won 4 NAIA National Championships, won 89% of his games, won 35 games in a season six times, held the #1 NAIA ranking for 48 straight polls (2006-2011) and been WBCA coach of the year twice. As a coach in Mark’s conference, all I heard this year was that this was a down year for Union. That was true, they only went 31-2, averaged 71 ppg and were #2 nationally. As crazy as these numbers are, he is a great guy. He and his wife have adopted a child from India which is quite an unselfish act. He wants to win as much as the next guy but he truly wants to do it the right way and has a good perspective on things.
ROBIN HAGEN-SMITH (Shawnee State) – I don’t know her personally but everybody I have ever talked to about her has good things to say about her character and her coaching ability. When I attended the 2011 NAIA National Tournament, everywhere I went, it seemed that people couldn’t say enough about her coaching abilities when she led Shawnee State to the Final Four in a Cinderella run. This year, she has her team back in the Top-10 going into the national tournament.
CRAIG JACKSON (Montreat College) – Former University of Pacific head coach was a nemesis of mine for three years when I was at Bryan College. He absolutely knows his basketball. He is always prepared. He took a Montreat program that had very little institutional support, scholarship money or tradition and he has turned it around. They have been ranked the last few years and has had a number of 20-win seasons. That is not easy to do at Montreat College.
RUSTY KENNEDY (Our Lady of the Lakes) – Nobody I know has done more with less than Rusty. He has found ways to win games at many different institutions where others have failed. He is not polished like most coaches. He doesn’t fit your stereotypical image of a big-time coach but the man can coach. He isn’t necessarily a “player’s coach” but his players seem to love him. The comparison that comes to mind is Bob Huggins but with less baggage and controversy. He just won the Red River Conference Tournament and is finally rewarded with his first trip to the national tournament. He is very deserving.
CHRIS KIELSMEIER (Wayne State University) – I coached against him for 4 years when I was in Texas. He finally won a NCAA-III National Championship during the 2007-08 season and then got rewarded with a DII job. He has made that program something special. They are now a consistent resident in the Top-25 polls. He started at Iowa State for Bill Fennelly as a graduate assistant so that has helped him establishing a big-time mentality no matter where he is at. Entering this season (his 11th), he has a career record of 246-66.
MARTY ROWE (Lee University) – I first learned of him when he took an overachieving Brescia College team to the NAIA Final Four in the early 2000’s. I was asked to interview to replace him when he left for Lee. What I learned in my research convinced me that I didn’t want to be the guy to replace him at Brescia, where they were short on talent, short on funding and but high on expectations after his successful stint. I have since become friends with him and have seen up close (practices, games, camps, clinics) how good of a coach he is. He is also a great recruiter. At the small college level, he’s as good as you get. When he decides he wants a prospect, he normally gets them…even if they are a DI prospect.