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Untitled Document

Knudson: Not Your Stepping Stone


By Mark Knudson, The Mtn. Insider
March 29, 2012

It’s tough holding on to good coaches these days when your school is not considered one of the big time programs and doesn’t play in what’s considered to be a power conference. It’s a dilemma many Mountain West schools have had to deal with over the years.

Wyoming, for instance, has historically had problems keeping good football coaches in Laramie. Bob Devaney, Fritz Shurmur, Pat Dye, Fred Akers, Dennis Erickson and Joe Tiller are all highly successful coaches who held the head job at UW before heading off to ‘bigger’ programs.

Followers of UNLV could only shake their heads when basketball coach Lon Kruger left Las Vegas for Oklahoma after the end of the 2010-11 season. What does OU hoops have that UNLV doesn’t? UNLV has been the far better program in recent years, and this year’s Rebels under Dave Rice would have smoked this year’s Sooners under Kruger. When you think UNLV, you think powerhouse basketball program. When you think Oklahoma, you think football. And where would you rather live, Las Vegas or Norman?

So why did Kruger make the move? Because OU plays in the Big 12 Conference.

Now, a similar fate has befallen Colorado State. Basketball coach Tim Miles has left a growing and successful program in Fort Collins to take over a struggling program at Nebraska. The Huskers have been a bottom feeder in the Big 12, and now the Big Ten, for years. The team Miles leaves behind in Fort Collins would crush the team he’ll be coaching next season in Lincoln. But, Nebraska plays in the Big Ten, the best basketball conference in America.

While there’s only so much he can do, CSU athletic director, Jack Graham, has publicly stated that he won’t sit back and allow his school to be known as a ‘stepping stone’ for coaches and that he’ll do whatever he can in the future to keep quality coaches in Fort Collins. There’s a touch of irony here, because historically, it’s been the AD position that’s been the revolving door at CSU. After the late, great Fum McGraw stepped down in 1986, the door began spinning: Oval Jaynes left for Pitt, Tom Jurich moved to Louisville. Time Weiser went back to Kansas State. Jeff Hathaway went to UConn.

Now Graham, a former CSU football player with strong ties to the school, has to find the right guy to replace Miles and hope that it’s someone who will be just as successful and not be planning another move. In new football coach Jim McElwain, he believes he’s found the next Sonny Lubick. In hoops, Graham is searching for the next Boyd “Tiny” Grant, someone who will retire a CSU Ram. There are factors working against him, like the instability of the conference landscape and the number of zeros he can put on a paycheck. But still, Graham believes the right guy is out there.

Graham is hiring a search firm to help him find that right guy, which is a formula used with success in bringing in McElwain. There’s a lot of support on campus for assistant coaches Craig Smith and Niko Medved. Handing the reigns to Smith or Medved would keep continuity within the program and probably ensure that next season’s CSU team would remain a pre-season favorite to win the MW title. But is that what’s best for program in the long run? At nearby Northern Colorado, they elevated assistant coach BJ Hill to the lead chair when Tad Boyle let to take the job at Colorado. Hill’s first team – with Boyle’s recruits – made it to the NCAA tournament. The following season, they fell off the map. Continuity only matters in the short term.  

St. John’s assistant coach, Mike Dunlap, has been mentioned as a candidate, too. He’s familiar with the region, having won Division II National Championships at Denver’s Metro State in 2000 and 2002. He was also an NBA assistant under George Karl in Denver, and Karl raves about Dunlap. The search firm would also get strong endorsements for Dunlap from the likes of Lute Olson and Steve Lavin.
In order to attract the kind of coach they’re looking for, Graham and his search firm will have to show prospective hires like Dunlap that CSU’s commitment to basketball is every bit as strong as those at schools who play in conferences with ‘Big’ in their name.

See all of Mark Knudson's blog entries HERE.
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