What will it take to make USF basketball a winner?

Florida assistant John Pelphrey is the perfect option  as an assistant from a successful program, Tom Jones writes.
Florida assistant John Pelphrey is the perfect option as an assistant from a successful program, Tom Jones writes.
Published Mar. 19, 2014

Here's a sure-fire way to get USF basketball on the map: cheat.

Start paying players. Buy them cars. Fix their grades. Get mom and dad a swank house in South Tampa.

Instead of showing off the new facilities and bragging about the weather and academics, just stuff hundred dollar bills into brown paper bags and hand them out to recruits. Maybe then the Bulls can become one of the nearly 70 programs that makes the NCAA Tournament.

My motto: a Final Four in five years and NCAA probation in six.

I'm kidding, of course. But you do wonder if breaking the rules is the only way USF will ever have a respectable basketball program.

Once again, USF is looking for a head coach. Stan Heath was fired after seven years. He was a nice enough guy, but a 97-128 record, including a 3-15 mark in the American Athletic Conference this season, wasn't going to cut it.

So now USF looks for the next coach who will finally wake the sleeping giant and turn it into a college basketball powerhouse.

Good luck with that.

Is USF a good job? Everyone seems to think so.

Everyone is wrong.

USF is not a good job. And do you know why? Because it has never been a good job.

Think about it. When has this program ever been relevant?

It has been to only three NCAA Tournaments. It has won only two NCAA Tournament games.

Coaches have come and gone. From Lee Rose to Bobby Pascal. From Seth Greenberg to Robert McCullum. And now Heath has come and gone.

So where does USF go from here?

By all accounts, USF hired a sharp athletic director in Mark Harlan, the former associate athletic director at UCLA. Harlan had little, if any, say in the firing of Heath. That move appeared to be the doing of USF president Judy Genshaft.

But let's hope Genshaft stays out of the way when it comes to hiring the next basketball coach. It's not her area of expertise, and Harlan needs to make his mark at USF.

The biggest name floating around is Ben Howland, who took UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours from 2006-08. This rumor is gaining steam because Harlan worked with Howland at UCLA. Although it's not known if they have a good relationship.

Howland was fired last year after going 25-9 and getting knocked out in his first game of the NCAA Tournament. Geez, going 25-9 and making the tournament at USF might get you a parade down Fowler Avenue and a statue outside the Sun Dome. There was a little more to Howland's firing than his record. He was criticized for not recruiting well enough in California, and a negative Sports Illustrated story accused Howland of losing control of his team.

Certainly, Howland would be a big-time hire, and he would bring a suffocating defensive style that could help USF win sooner rather than later. But would Howland be interested in USF? There are rumors that he would rather go to Wake Forest, assuming Wake fires coach Jeff Bzdelik.

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That makes sense. Wake is in the ACC. It's a better job. And that's the problem USF is going to face going forward.

Spin it all you want, but the American Athletic Conference is not a major conference. It's not bad, but it's not the ACC or the Big Ten or the Big 12 or the Pac-12. Louisville, the best hoops program in the American, is leaving after this season for the ACC.

USF's conference still has Memphis, Cincinnati and UConn. Tulsa is coming in. But if you're a coach with your choice of offers, coaching a bad program in an average conference doesn't sound like a dream job.

There is talk that coach Buzz Williams is unhappy at Marquette. But why would you leave Marquette for USF even if you were unhappy? It's a step down and could be a potential career-killer for a guy who someday hopes to land a big-boy job in a major conference.

USF has three choices.

It could find a young coach at a small, up-and-coming program, kind of like how Southern Cal scooped up Andy Enfield from Florida Gulf Coast. Maybe USF could make a run at, say, Manhattan's Steve Masiello or Fairfield's Sydney Johnson or Robert Morris' Andy Toole.

It could go after an out-of-work coach such as Howland. Bruce Pearl was a thought until Auburn hired him Tuesday.

Or USF could make a run at an assistant from a successful program, and here's the perfect guy from that option: Florida's John Pelphrey.

He's still a young guy at 45 and has spent valuable time as an assistant under Billy Donovan both at Florida and Marshall. He has high character. He also has run his own program, coaching South Alabama and Arkansas, winning 54 percent of his games and going to two NCAA Tournaments. And he knows how to recruit in Florida. Actually, USF interviewed Pelphrey back in 2007 before hiring Heath.

Right now, USF is not a good job. Forget all that stuff about facilities and weather and conference and so forth. This will only be a good job when the right coach comes and makes it a good job by turning USF into a winner.

Pelphrey seems like the right fit.

Then again, it's USF. History suggests there is no right fit.