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The USF job: What they're saying

27

March

Is USF's position in the Big East scaring coaches away? We asked some key people for a story in Tuesday's paper ...
TAMPA — In a span of 24 hours, two of the top known candidates for the USF men’s basketball coaching vacancy politely said they weren’t pursuing the job, with Winthrop’s Gregg Marshall and South Alabama’s John Pelphrey telling a Big East school they’d rather stay and coach in the Big South and the Sun Belt, respectively.
As the Bulls and athletic director Doug Woolard continue their search, the lure of coaching in the Big East is one of the biggest draws. At the same time, the lingering question is whether USF’s position near the bottom of the tough 16-team league may be scaring coaches away.
Just ask Robert McCullum, who was hired from Western Michigan in 2003 when USF was still in Conference USA, then found out six months later that the Bulls were moving into a much tougher neighborhood.
“If I had known we were going to the Big East, I wouldn’t have taken the job,” McCullum admitted Monday, 17 days after he was fired with two years left on his contract. “I was confident we would have success in Conference USA, there was no question in my mind. But when we moved into the Big East, we had the biggest mountain to climb.”
The same mountain still awaits his successor, and even after USF’s 4-28 mark in two years in the Big East, one of the league’s most successful coaches thinks the Bulls can win. When Woolard contacted Connecticut for permission to speak with associate head coach Tom Moore, coach Jim Calhoun encouraged him to pursue the position, telling him there was the potential for success.
“I’ve always felt South Florida has a chance to be good in this league,” Calhoun said last week. “It’s a tough job, and winning today is becoming more and more difficult, but it’s definitely not a dead-end job, and it’s not the worst job in the league, not by any stretch of the imagination. There’s room for teams to rise if you can get the right guy.”
Calhoun is the Big East’s long-term model for optimism for struggling schools. The Huskies went 3-13 the year before he took over in 1986, and he went 13-35 in his first three seasons but went on to win two national championships.
He points to other more recent models, from the proven mid-major coach and the high-level assistant route. In 2002, Richmond coach John Beilein took over a West Virginia team that went 1-15 in league play, and in his third season, the Mountaineers reached a region final in the NCAA Tournament. That next season, Kansas assistant Norm Roberts took over a St. John’s team that had gone 1-15, and he’s improved each season from 3-13 to 5-11 to a 7-9 league record this season.
Woolard could turn in either direction, and this week’s Final Four in Atlanta is essentially a job fair for coaches interested in new challenges.
That said, the athletic directors for five successful mid-major coaches —Southern Illinois’ Chris Lowery, George Washington’s Karl Hobbs, Charlotte’s Bobby Lutz, Holy Cross’ Ralph Willard and Butler’s Todd Lickliter — all said Monday that they hadn’t been contacted by anyone from or representing USF to request permission to speak with their coaches.
Woolard could be using a search firm to deal directly with coaches, but he could be choosing from a group of former Big East coaches turned analysts, such as Fran Fraschilla (St. John’s), Pete Gillen (Providence) and Mike Jarvis (St. John’s), who all have been linked to the USF job.
And there’s the possibility of unexpected additions to the pool of potential candidates. When Stan Heath was fired Monday despite winning 20 games and taking Arkansas to the NCAA Tournament, he was asked specifically about one job — USF’s — but said he hadn’t thought about specific schools. “I haven’t pursued anything. I’m not aware of anything.”
Former Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton, who is helping Woolard with his search, compares this USF job to the one he took in 1968 at Alabama, which had gone 3-15 in the SEC the previous season.
“People told me, ‘You’re crazy to take that job,’” said Newton, who would win 211 games at Alabama, including an SEC record of 85-23 over a six-year span. “But the perception of a job doesn’t always become the reality of what a job can be.”
Greg Auman can be reached at auman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3346.

[Last modified: Thursday, May 27, 2010 11:22am]

    

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