Ranking the High-Major Coaching Hires

By Kevin Sweeney

First off, thank you all for bearing with me as I took a bit of a break from writing about hoops this offseason– quite frankly, I was busy and devoid of ideas. But I’m back, and this week I’ll bring you my thoughts on every coaching change from this year’s carousel.

I’ll first explain my methodology in an attempt to prevent confusion. Basically, I am ranking these hires based on my perception of how good the coach is in comparison to the job they are accepting. For example, I’m not saying Mick Cronin is a worse coach than Ron Hunter by having UCLA’s hire of Cronin below Hunter’s at Tulane, but given who each school could reasonably have expected to land, Hunter’s hire is a better one than Cronin’s. I have included some consideration of what the coach has done so far in terms of building a staff and early recruiting wins. Generally, I evaluate a hire based on experience, regional fit, recruiting prowess, and coaching acumen.

We’ll get things started today with the high-major ranks, which featured some great hires and some weird ones.

#1. Texas A&M (Buzz Williams)– The Aggies’ long-term pursuit of Williams was one of the worst-kept secrets of the college basketball season, but they were able to lure the native Texan back to his home state from Blacksburg. An elite rebuilder who has been to the Sweet 16 at two different programs, Williams was a grand slam hire in College Station, and his recruiting could take a step forward from his Virginia Tech days by being closer to the area in which he has the most connections.

#2. Nebraska (Fred Hoiberg)– It was no secret the Cornhuskers would pursue the Lincoln native after he was fired by the Bulls, but the idea he’d actually accept the job was met with skepticism. But Hoiberg chose to return to Lincoln, potentially over better jobs in both college and the NBA. The Nebraska job is a polarizing one– amazing facilities and fan support and the ability to sell football, but no real tradition and a tough area to recruit in. Hoiberg had to build a roster from scratch after taking over and did so with a hodge-podge of transfers, JUCO players, and freshmen, and we’ll see if he can rekindle some of the magic he had rolling at Iowa State in Lincoln.

#3. Arkansas (Eric Musselman)– Another home run hire, as one of the hottest names in college coaching landed in Fayetteville after a remarkable stint at Nevada. Things soured down the stretch of a 2018-19 season that was so hyped up, but Musselman did unbelievable things in building up the Nevada program from 9-22 to a top-15 team nationally in the span of 4 years. He has already put together a terrific transfer recruiting class that should have the Razorbacks in top-25 contention in year one.

#4. Alabama (Nate Oats)– This one was a bit odd regionally, but in terms of coaching acumen Oats is a grand slam for Alabama. He’ll bring a toughness and accountability to the program that was lacking under Avery Johnson, and both Oats and right-hand-man Bryan Hodgson have shown the ability to go into crowds to land recruits. The cupboard Oats inherits is far from bare, and if he can quickly instill his culture into the program, this team should have lots of year 1 success.

#5. Michigan (Juwan Howard)– Definitely the hardest hire to evaluate at this point, given Howard’s complete lack of college coaching experience and the massive shoes he has to fill in John Beilein. While the recent wave of NBA hires have been largely hit-and-miss, I believe in Howard’s ability to grind on the recruiting trail and those familiar with him have raved about his knowledge of the game. Early returns on the hire look good given how strong a staff he assembled (Phil Martelli, Saddi Washington, Howard Eisley).

#6. Cincinnati (John Brannen)– Not enough was said about the job Brannen did in four-year run at Northern Kentucky, earning a pair of NCAA Tournament berths and averaging 24 wins per year in the last three seasons at a program in its Division 1 infancy. That’s why it was no surprise when Brannen earned the Cincinnati job after Mick Cronin departed for UCLA. He was able to retain star wing Jarron Cumberland and from there was able to mix and match with transfers and freshmen to fill out the roster and put the Bearcats right back into the thick of things in the AAC.

#7. Tulane (Ron Hunter)– This one was pretty impossible to evaluate given how much different a level Tulane is on in the college hoops hierarchy despite being in the AAC. Hunter is a very solid coach, a grinder on the recruiting trail with NCAA Tournament success. It’s going to take awhile, but Hunter seems like the right guy to hand this job to at this juncture.

#8. Virginia Tech (Mike Young)– Young wasn’t the flashy hire for Virginia Tech, but has proven to be an excellent coach during a long tenure at Wofford. He’s coming off leading Wofford to a remarkable season in which the Terriers spent time in the top 25, and now finally gets a crack at a bigger job after 17 years and almost 300 wins in Spartanburg. The main question with Young was not his coaching ability but rather his ability to land top talent in the ACC, but he has done a nice job of answering that so far by landing top-100 freshman Jalen Cone among others in the early period.

#9. St John’s (Mike Anderson)– The search process as a whole was somewhat laughable for the Red Storm, with too many leaks and an apparent disconnect throughout the nation as to how good (or bad) the St John’s job actually is right now. Anderson’s name came in out of left field after a whole host of mid-major names were tossed around, and the former Arkansas man quickly accepted it. I think most in college basketball think Anderson is a good coach (desptie not quite living up to expectations in Fayetteville) but the regional fit was as weird as they come. I was skeptical, but Anderson has done just about everything right so far, hiring a pair of assistants with strong ties to the region in Van Macon and Steve DeMeo, retaining LJ Figueroa and Mustapha Heron, and gaining some quick commitments. I’m in wait-and-see mode on this one, but it could turn out a lot better than the disaster many originally believed it to be.

#10. Vanderbilt (Jerry Stackhouse)– Vanderbilt moving on from Bryce Drew despite a brutal year three was a surprise, and the Stackhouse hire was definitely a bit outside the box. The concern for me is recruiting in the SEC given the elite coaching around the conference and Stackhouse’s lack of college coaching experience. Hiring elite recruiting assistant David Grace certainly should help, though.

#11. Temple (Aaron McKie)– This one has been done for over a year now, but McKie now has officially taken over for Fran Dunphy after the long-time head man officially ended his tenure after the 2018-19 season. McKie is a Philly guy and a Temple guy, both positives, but for Temple not to do a full search and see what’s out there when McKie is far from the clear-cut guy seems short-sighted, in my opinion.

#12. UCLA (Mick Cronin)– I’m not anti-Cronin generally– I think he’s a pretty solid coach who has won as much as he has at Cincinnati for a reason. But for a job that tries to act like a top-5 program in the country, landing a guy with Cronin’s resume and lack of NCAA Tournament success is underwhelming. He has no ties to California and has a reputation for not wanting to play games on the recruiting trail or with boosters– two things he’ll have to do in Westwood.

#13. Washington State (Kyle Smith)– Smith is a smart, smart guy whose “nerdball” worked well at San Francisco and brings the type of outside-the-box thinking that is imperative at a difficult job like Wazzu. I just question how he’ll consistently recruit enough talent to Pullman to make the Cougars relevant, even with Smith’s ability to maximize what he has.

#14. California (Mark Fox)– About as uninspiring a hire as could have been made. Fox is a good guy and he won at Nevada, but showed himself to be a middling Power 5 coach at a better job in Georgia. A major reason for his struggles in Athens was on the recruiting trail, and given the mass influx of talent necessary at Cal I am not overly optimistic. I think he’ll win enough to get Cal out of the basement, but I find it hard to believe Fox is the guy to get the Bears back to regular NCAA Tournament contention.


  1. What about Alford for Nevada? A ten year contract for a proven winner says something. Only missing an experienced big man for a strong unit.


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