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November 19, 2008
Limelight to candlelight: Moving down
Only two of the 44 new men's basketball head coaches in the Division I ranks this season made distinct moves down.
After being fired from BCS schools, John Brady and Ben Braun are making new homes on the outer edges of the college basketball map. Brady, a two-time SEC Coach of the Year who took LSU to the Final Four just two years ago, headed to Arkansas State. Brady's new team hasn't had so much as an NIT bid this decade. Braun, who was at California for 10 years, ended up at Rice - which hasn't been to an NCAA tournament in nearly four decades.
Former St. John's coach Mike Jarvis can relate. After four years out of coaching, Jarvis has resurfaced at Florida Atlantic. He is in the same conference (Sun Belt) as Brady. Jarvis, 63, is more than three times as old as the Owls program, which began play in 1988.
Brady, Braun and Jarvis should each give American coach Jeff Jones a call. He can give them some idea of what they're getting into.
In the mid-1990s Jones was the hottest young coach in America. By 1995, Jones had taken Virginia to three consecutive NCAA tournaments, the last resulting in a run to the Elite Eight. Jones was only 34 at the time.
Just three years later, Jones was unemployed. Losing records in two of the three seasons following the Elite Eight run - along with some off-the-court problems - led to his firing. After spending the next season as an assistant on Jim Harrick's staff at Rhode Island, Jones took the head coaching job at American, a small school in Washington, D.C., that had never been to the NCAA tournament.
Initially it looked like a pit stop on a path back to college basketball's big leagues. However, Jones is entering his ninth year at American. He guided the Eagles to Patriot League regular-season titles in 2002 and 2004, but it wasn't until last season that they finally broke through with their first NCAA tournament bid.
Jones admits the long journey back to the Big Dance was humbling.
"I think maybe the success at UVa spoiled me a little," Jones said. "It was extremely rewarding and very emotional to get to the NCAA tournament here at American. We had gone through so many close calls. I learned how special and how difficult it is to get to the NCAA tournament."
Jones also learned how different life is in the mid- and low-major ranks. A much smaller paycheck is just one of many aspects he had to adjust to.
"The check you get is a big difference, but the thing that hits you initially is the resources," Jones said. "They simply aren't there from your own coaching staff to the support staff, quite honestly. You have to deal with budgeting issues, where as before (at Virginia) I didn't have to pay a whole lot of attention to the financial side of things."
Jones has to pay a lot more attention to recruiting. He points out that identifying the high-profile prospects who litter ACC recruiting classes isn't nearly as hard as finding the players who are the right fit for the Patriot League.
"We have to recruit more players," Jones said. "You can pick out the top 50 players in the country every year pretty easily. We're looking at a bigger pool of players so it takes a little longer. Sometimes you want to watch a little more. You want to be thorough. A player may not fit the ideal profile. He may be a great shooter, but a step slow, or a 4-man may be 6-4 instead of 6-8."
That's not to say there aren't advantages to recruiting outside the spotlight of a high-profile school. Just ask the man who replaced Bobby Knight at Indiana.
Third-year UAB coach Mike Davis, who was given his first head coaching job at Indiana in 2000, has a verbal commitment from the No. 2-ranked prospect in the 2009 class, 6-foot-9 power forward DeMarcus Cousins.
"I say this without any disrespect towards Indiana, but it's easier for me to recruit here than in Indiana," Davis said. "At Indiana, all eyes are on you. Everybody knows you're every move. Here, I can really get to know the players and the person and work through any situations that will arise without worrying about so many outside influences, and that's what I've always enjoyed doing.
"It's funny because some of the players we have recruited have told us the big schools have taken shots at us. It's easy for them to do that. But that just lets you know they are nervous about you, so we must be doing something right."
Rod Barnes, who is entering his second year as the coach at Georgia State, a Colonial Athletic Association school located in downtown Atlanta, knows that feeling. Barnes outrecruited the likes of Memphis, Mississippi State and his former school Ole Miss to nab four-star center Rashanti Harris, the No. 26 prospect in the 2009 class. Harris signed a letter of intent with the Panthers earlier this month.
Barnes has also turned Georgia State into a haven for high-profile transfers. The Panthers have six transfers from ACC, Big East and SEC schools - five of whom will become eligible this season - making them a popular sleeper pick in the CAA.
Barnes, who guided Ole Miss to three NCAA tournaments during his eight years as a head coach at the SEC school from 1998-2006, likes the anonymity that comes with coaching at a mid-major school inside a city that has a metro area that harbors more than five million people. Barnes says he has more time to spend with his family and his team than during his time with the Rebels.
"Here in Atlanta, I can go out to dinner with my family and not be asked for an autograph or to take a picture," Barnes said. "This is such a big place you can blend in. In Oxford, it was a different story. There are a lot more demands on your time outside of coaching. I had to travel to a lot more speaking engagements and alumni events. I don't miss that."
Barnes doesn't miss the level of competition either. If Brady, Braun or Jarvis believes it will be easier to win outside the BCS conferences they should take a look at how Barnes, Jones and Davis did in their first year at their respective schools. Each suffered through a losing season – Barnes went 9-21, Jones 7-20 and Davis 15-16.
"We don't have the names of Dean Smith, Gary Williams or Mike Krzyzewski, but guys like [Army coach] Jim Crews, [Holy Cross coach] Ralph Willard and [former Bucknell coach] Pat Flannery are very tough to go up against," Jones said. "There are no nights off in the Patriot League. It's very intense and very physical. The spotlight isn't as bright, but there is pressure anywhere. People want to win regardless of where they are. That doesn't change."
Willard, who coached at Pitt from 1994-99, is one of about 30 coaches in the low- or mid-major ranks who previously was a head coach at a BCS school, which may explain why it's so difficult to win there. That number also may say something for how enjoyable coaching can be away from the spotlight of college basketball's big leagues.
Davis says he's far happier at UAB than during his six years at Indiana. He's also more equipped to deal with the pressure of being a Division I head coach.
"Indiana is not the place to be a first-time coach," Davis said. "I'm very fortunate for my time there, but I'm a much better coach now than when I was at Indiana. Big time is in your heart and this is a big stage for me. It's all a mind-set. That's the way we approach it every day in recruitment. We can control how many times we're on national television by who we recruit and how many games we win. I love that challenge. My goal is to win a national championship and I believe we can do that here. I feel very fortunate to be the head coach here."
That bold outlook has quite a bit to do with the Blazers winning 23 games and reaching the NIT last season. Jones says winning can cure all sorts of ills regardless of where you are.
"Once you step between those lines you have the same desire to win and you have to work on the same things to be successful," Jones said. "The last couple of years at UVa certainly weren't that enjoyable because we weren't playing well. If you are winning you are happy wherever you are."
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.