Marquette’s next hire needs to be a home run. That’s true for just about every school in the country with a job opening, and the Golden Eagles aren’t exempt. A source told Paint Touches that the administration is looking for an experienced head coach who has “had elite success,” which seems to throw out the possibility — at least for now — of them going after a hot hire, an up-and-comer such as Dayton’s Archie Miller, who has Dayton in the Sweet 16 after wins over Ohio State and Syracuse.
The Golden Eagles’ previous two hires — Tom Crean and Buzz Williams — were assistants before taking over, but that can’t happen a third time. Marquette is on the brink of earning the label as a steppingstone gig. Though Crean jumped on the opportunity to coach one of college basketball’s elite programs in Indiana, Williams had everything at Marquette and that still wasn’t enough to keep him around.
And if the administration is looking for an experienced coach, one who has had elite success and won’t jump ship as soon as he finds success — if he finds success — then Ben Howland is the man for the job.
When Steve Fisher took the San Diego State gig in 2009, he was 64 years old. He had coached at Michigan for nine seasons, making the NCAA tournament seven times, winning the 1989 championship and advancing to two other Final Fours, in 1992 and 1993. He was fired for his involvement in the Ed Martin Scandal, when a booster paid four Michigan players hundreds of thousands of dollars, though an NCAA investigation found Fisher not to be guilty of significant wrongdoing, and in 1999 he was hired by the Aztecs.
San Diego State was a program left for dead when he took over; the Aztecs hadn’t advanced to the NCAA tournament in 14 seasons and had just one winning season in that span (15-14 in 1995-96). In Fisher’s time, he has completely turned around the program, and the Aztecs have now been to five straight NCAA tournaments and will play No. 1 Arizona next week in Anaheim, Calif.
Howland’s situation is similar to Fisher’s. He’s 56 years old, and in 10 seasons at UCLA advanced to three straight Final Fours between 2006 and 2008 and went 233-107, including 118 wins in the Pac-10/12. He was fired in 2013, and though it wasn’t because of a scandal on the scale of Fisher, a Sports Illustrated investigation in 2012 showed that Howland looked the other way while one of his players, Reeves Nelson, bullied and even intentionally tried to injury fellow teammates. That, combined with the Bruins’ lack of tournament success — they missed the Big Dance in 2010 and 2012 — led to his firing.
Howland isn’t looking for a steppingstone gig. At 56, he played the coaching carousel game when he bolted from Northern Arizona to Pittsburgh in 1999, and Pittsburgh to UCLA in 2003. Howland would not use Marquette as a platform to prove his talent on the court and in recruiting, because he’s already done that. Marquette is not the reclamation project San Diego State was when Fisher took over, but on the heels of a 17-15 season and a 2014-15 season that projects to yield similar results, Howland would have the ability to re-do the Golden Eagles’ program as he sees fit.
Many speculated that Howland’s firing occurred, in part, due to his lack of recruiting in Southern California. Still, in 2012 the Bruins had the No. 1 class in the country (headlined by Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson), and though none of those recruits hailed from California it was evidence that Howland still knows how to get players. Again, UCLA can recruit itself in a sense, but the top class in the country is the top class in the country.
A strong coaching staff, as always, would be important. Williams’ assistants are currently in a state of flux, waiting to see who the Golden Eagles hire before deciding whether or not to stay on staff, join Williams at Virginia Tech or find new gigs. Isaac Chew, Williams’ lead recruiter the past two seasons, tops the list.
He certainly would jump at the prospect of taking the Marquette head coaching gig — that’s unlikely given last year’s 17-15 record — and won’t be short on suitors, presumably Virginia Tech being one, when the chips eventually fall. He was key in holding together the 2013 recruiting class when Tony Benford and Aki Collins departed, and was the lead recruiter on top-100 2014 signees Ahmed Hill, Sandy Cohen, Malek Harris, as well as 7-footer Satchel Pierce. Cohen has already asked out of his National Letter of Intent, and the others may not be far behind.
It’d be a shock if Brad Autry, Williams’ right-hand man the past six seasons, didn’t wind up at Virginia Tech, while assistants Jeff Reynolds and Jerry Wainwright are also weighing their options. Howland likely would bring in his own staff for the most part, but it wouldn’t hurt to see if he could keep some of the staff on board.
Perhaps the biggest positive in support for Howland is that he seems genuinely interested in Marquette. About 15 minutes after news broke on Twitter of Williams’ departure, ESPN’s Andy Katz tweeted that “Ben Howland wants Marquette. He wants back in the Big East. He makes sense to continue similar path of play.”
Howland has always been a defensive-minded coach. The Bruins were ranked top-5 in defensive efficiency in each of their three Final Four seasons, and only once ranked outside of the top-65 in Howland’s last nine seasons. While many have critiqued Howland’s slow-paced offensive style, there’s a chance that a fresh start changes his ways. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but if he’s serious about taking over at Marquette and can get the right players, he has already proved he can make things work.
Marquette is expected to wrap up its head coaching search sometime this week, according to multiple reports, and unless Shaka Smart is somehow in the mix — he turned down the UCLA job Howland left last season — Howland is the right man for Marquette. He’s won at three different schools, doesn’t need to step on any stone to get where he wants to go and genuinely wants the job. A source told Paint Touches that a deal is not being finalized between Marquette and Howland, something which was reported Sunday night, but that could change quickly.
He won’t dance on an opponent’s home court, but Howland could have the Golden Eagles dancing soon enough.