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Is USF’s Amir Abdur-Rahim the Tampa Bay area’s best first-year coach?

Turns out, several area pro and college coaches flourished in their inaugural seasons.
 
In his first season on the job, USF men's coach Amir Abdur-Rahim has led the Bulls to a program-record 14 consecutive wins and their first regular season conference title.
In his first season on the job, USF men's coach Amir Abdur-Rahim has led the Bulls to a program-record 14 consecutive wins and their first regular season conference title. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published March 4

TAMPA — He trumpeted the dawn of the 2023-24 season with a mantra eliciting equal parts hope and skepticism.

In a tone steeped more in bold resolve than bluster, first-year USF men’s basketball coach Amir Abdur-Rahim insisted to players and patrons alike that his inaugural club wasn’t “the same ol’ South Florida.”

Darned if it hasn’t stuck.

The Bulls (22-5, 15-1 American Athletic Conference) are the toast of the community, and all of college basketball. A program that typically enters March on fumes is on fire. Abdur-Rahim, who somehow sold his overhauled roster on the worn tenants of unselfishness and free-throw proficiency, is a national coach-of-the-year candidate.

And for the first time in more than a decade, Selection Sunday bears significance for the Bulls nation.

All of which begs the question: Has Abdur-Rahim pulled off the best first-year coaching job in bay area pro or college sports history? We tapped into our memories, microfiche and other assorted archives, and found the 42-year-old near the top of any such list.

But the very top? Well, check out our rankings and let the deliberations ensue.

8. Lee Rose

USF men’s basketball, 1980-81

In his first season at USF (1980-81), Lee Rose led the Bulls men's basketball team to an 18-win season and the program's first postseason berth.
In his first season at USF (1980-81), Lee Rose led the Bulls men's basketball team to an 18-win season and the program's first postseason berth. [ Tampa Bay Times (1984) ]

Rose already had led two programs (UNC Charlotte, Purdue) to the Final Four when swayed to Tampa by the construction of a palatial new arena (Sun Dome) and the prospect of the Bulls hitting the big time. A stickler for punctuality who employed a ratings system for every practice, Rose led a team that had gone 6-21 the season before to an 18-11 record and NIT berth in his inaugural season. Hmm, sound familiar?

7. Richard Schmidt

University of Tampa men’s basketball, 1983-84

University of Tampa men's basketball coach Richard Schmidt, who retired in 2023, quickly resuscitated Spartans men's basketball upon his arrival in the early 1980s.
University of Tampa men's basketball coach Richard Schmidt, who retired in 2023, quickly resuscitated Spartans men's basketball upon his arrival in the early 1980s. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

After two lackluster seasons at Vanderbilt, Schmidt arrived in Tampa in 1982 to resurrect a Spartans program that had been dormant for 13 years. His first season (1983-84), he took a starting lineup that included four freshmen and won the Sunshine State Conference tournament and accompanying NCAA Division II tournament bid en route to a 20-11 season. It was the first time in NCAA history that a first-year team (in any division) made its national tournament.

6. Fran Curci

Storm, 1991

Former University of Tampa football coach Fran Curci led the Storm to an Arena Football League title in his first season in 1991.
Former University of Tampa football coach Fran Curci led the Storm to an Arena Football League title in his first season in 1991. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

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Though he had run three college programs and led the University of Tampa to 25 wins in only three years (1968-70), Curci had been away from head coaching for a decade when hired to take over the area’s new Arena Football League team, which had relocated from Pittsburgh.

In lieu of a learning curve to this bizarre brand of football, he embraced it instantly, leading the Storm (who played in what is now known as Tropicana Field) to an 8-2 regular season and berth in ArenaBowl 5. In that game, former Chamberlain High quarterback Jay Gruden tossed five touchdown passes in a 48-42 win at Detroit. Curci was named Arena Coach of the Year.

5. Dirk Koetter

Bucs, 2016

Former Bucs coach Dirk Koetter, right, speaking with quarterback Jameis Winston, remains one of only two Tampa Bay coaches to earn a winning season in his first year.
Former Bucs coach Dirk Koetter, right, speaking with quarterback Jameis Winston, remains one of only two Tampa Bay coaches to earn a winning season in his first year.

Koetter’s tutelage of Jameis Winston in his rookie year (when he threw for 4,042 yards) prompted the Bucs to fire head coach Lovie Smith and promote this veteran NFL offensive coordinator. Though Koetter’s tenure fizzled in three seasons, he remains one of only two Bucs coaches to post a winning record in his first year.

Despite assorted injuries, the Bucs finished 9-7, winning six of their last eight games and finishing just shy of a playoff berth. Winston had another 4,000-yard season, and Mike Evans (96 catches, 1,321 yards, 12 TDs) earned his first Pro Bowl nod.

4. Eddie Firmani

Rowdies, 1975

In his first season as Rowdies coach, Eddie Firmani led Tampa Bay to the North American Soccer League championship.
In his first season as Rowdies coach, Eddie Firmani led Tampa Bay to the North American Soccer League championship. [ Courtesy of Tampa Bay Rowdies ]

Nicknamed “The Turkey” (for how he flapped his elbows when he ran), Firmani was hired as the first coach of the Rowdies, who joined the North American Soccer League as an expansion club for the 1975 outdoor season. Though his resume included a distinguished pro and international playing career, he had fizzled in his only prior coaching stint (with an English pro club).

That all changed in Tampa, where the Rowdies took the locals — and league — by storm. Tampa Bay won eight of its first nine en route to a 16-6 regular season record, and ultimately defeated Portland, 2-0, in the ‘75 Soccer Bowl before a CBS audience for the league title.

3. Guy Boucher

Lightning, 2010-11

Then the NHL's youngest coach, Guy Boucher led the Lightning to the Eastern Conference finals in his inaugural season in 2010-11.
Then the NHL's youngest coach, Guy Boucher led the Lightning to the Eastern Conference finals in his inaugural season in 2010-11. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

The NHL’s youngest coach at the time of his hiring, Boucher was part of the franchise’s evolution that began when Jeff Vinik purchased it in February 2010. Though the Lightning hadn’t qualified for the playoffs in the previous three seasons, Boucher led his inaugural team to a 46-25-11 regular season behind an innovative — and sometimes unorthodox — style of play and 21-year-old prodigy Steven Stamkos (45 goals).

A surreal playoff run behind veteran Martin St. Louis (10 goals, 10 assists) ensued, with Tampa Bay reaching the Eastern Conference finals.

2. Amir Abdur-Rahim

USF men’s basketball, 2023-24

USF coach Amir Abdur-Rahim gathers his team during a break in the second half against Temple at the Yuengling Center on Jan. 4.
USF coach Amir Abdur-Rahim gathers his team during a break in the second half against Temple at the Yuengling Center on Jan. 4. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Exactly no one saw this season coming. When Abdur-Rahim arrived from Kennesaw State last March, Bulls fans merely hoped he’d elevate the Bulls to relevance, not a ranking. After bringing in 12 new players and sustaining some unsightly early-season lumps, Abur-Rahim’s club has congealed into a complete team that plays defense and delivers 3-point daggers with equal ruthlessness.

The Bulls have clinched the program’s first regular-season conference title, have set a program record with 14 consecutive wins and recently sold out the Yuengling Center on consecutive Sunday afternoons. Could a magical March loom?

1. Jon Gruden

Bucs, 2002

Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden runs onto the field in 2012 clutching the Lombardi Trophy as he and the 2002 Super Bowl team are introduced during the halftime show against the Eagles at Raymond James Stadium.
Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden runs onto the field in 2012 clutching the Lombardi Trophy as he and the 2002 Super Bowl team are introduced during the halftime show against the Eagles at Raymond James Stadium. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Barring Abdur-Rahim being serenaded by “One Shining Moment” at the Final Four’s conclusion, Gruden remains atop this list. Desperate for an offensive jolt to complement their elite defense, the Bucs jettisoned Tony Dungy in 2002 and traded for this sneering offensive wunderkind, who delivered in his first season.

The Bucs didn’t take a quantum leap offensively, just historically. Behind that defense (which allowed a franchise-low 161 points) and efficient veteran Brad Johnson (22 TDs, six interceptions), Gruden and Co. hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in San Diego after a 48-21 annihilation of the Raiders in Super Bowl 37.

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