After the brief flirtation with ESPN analyst and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy that seemed surreal but accomplished its goal of establishing the perception that Texas A&M basketball has the horsepower to attract the attention of a big-time name, Bill Byrne’s coaching search has transitioned into a quieter, more conventional stage. Sources indicate that the focus has shifted to interviews with three mid-major head coaches – Billy Kennedy of Murray State, Ben Jacobson of Northern Iowa, and Gregg Marshall of Wichita State.
Wichita State? Yes, after raiding the Shockers four years ago to hire Mark Turgeon, it appears Bill Byrne is again looking to the Kansas school for one of his finalists. After a slow start his first two years in Wichita, Marshall won 29 games in 2011 and led the Shockers to the NIT Championship. Jacobson emerged on the national scene in 2010 when his Panthers shocked No. 1 seed Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. In that same year, Billy Kennedy’s Racers made some noise of their own, defeating No. 4 seed Vanderbilt in the opening round before losing a 54-52 heartbreaker to fifth-seeded and eventual national champion runner-up Butler.
In terms of age, Jacobson is the youngest at 40. Marshall is 48 while Kennedy is 47. So all three candidates are in their prime years of coaching at this level. At first glance, it appears all three men have similar backgrounds and success, but in terms of fitting into the needs at Texas A&M, some significant differences emerge. Let’s look a little closer at each candidate.
Ben Jacobson – Northern Iowa
Jacobson was born in Mayville, North Dakota and was named North Dakota Mr. Basketball in 1989 as a senior in high school. He played his collegiate ball close to home at the University of North Dakota and upon graduation took an assistant coaching position at the school. After seven seasons at North Dakota, Jacobson was hired by Greg McDermott at North Dakota State to join his staff. A year later, Northern Iowa hired McDermott and Jacobson followed him to Cedar Falls, Iowa with a population of 36,000.
After three consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament from 2004-2006, Iowa State hired McDermott and the Panthers promoted Jacobson to head coach. After two sub-par seasons that saw Jacobson register a 36-27 record and two fifth place finishes in the Missouri valley Conference, the team flourished in 2009 and 2010. In 2009, the team won 23 games and won the MVC title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Jacobson’s head coaching tenure. In 2010, he won 30 games and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen after the shocking win over Kansas. The Panthers took a step back in 2011 with a 20-14 record, good for a berth in the postseason CIT Tournament.
Pros: Young coach that has proven he can win big games on the big stage.
Cons: Take out the big upset of Kansas, and Jacobson has not raised the bar at Northern Iowa. McDermott took the Panthers to three consecutive NCAA appearances before leaving for Iowa State. Jacobson has been t the NCAA’s in two of his five years as head coach. In addition, his entire playing and coaching career has been exclusively in a 450-mile diameter between North Dakota and Iowa. He has no experience of any kind at a BCS school. As expected, his roster is filled with players from North Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota.
Gregg Marshall – Wichita State
Marshall spent most of his career in the Carolinas with stops at Belmont Abbey, College of Charleston, and Marshall University before landing his first head coaching job at Winthrop. In his nine seasons, he led the Eagles to five first place finishes in the Big South Conference and seven trips to the NCAA Tournament. His accomplishments caught the eye of Wichita State and he was hired in 2007 to coach the Shockers. In his first move from the east coast, Marshall struggled to a 28-37 record his first two seasons but he’s found his stride going a combined 54-18 and won the NIT Championship in 2011.
Pros: He had an incredible list of accomplishments at Winthrop and after a slow start he has the Shockers back to being contenders in the tough MVC Conference. With four Texans currently on his roster, he has adapted to a change of geography and now has established contacts in both the Houston and Dallas areas. Two of those Texans, Turre Murray and J.T. Durley, were significant starters on the 2011 squad.
Cons: Despite the turnaround of the WSU program the past two seasons, Marshall has yet to lead the Shockers back to the NCAA Tournament in his four seasons at the helm coming off the Sweet Sixteen performance in 2006. Then again, Mark Turgeon managed only one NCAA appearance in his seven seasons in Wichita and that was good enough to get the Texas A&M job in 2007.
Billy Kennedy - Murray State
Not as well-known as the other two candidates, the Murray State head coach has the most versatile and extensive background of the three. From Metairie, Louisiana outside of New Orleans, Kennedy toiled as an assistant for 12 seasons across the country at New Orleans, Wyoming, Tulane, Texas A&M (1990-91), Creighton, and California before finally getting his first head coaching job in 1997 at Centenary. After quickly changing the fortunes of the Gents in two seasons, his alma mater Southeastern Louisiana, tabbed him to be the head coach in 1999. He slowly and quietly improved the Lions over his first four seasons, but the program took off in 2003 with a 20-9 record and a Southland Conference championship. In 2004, Kennedy guided the Lions to another Southland Conference crown and the school’s first trip ever to the NCAA Tournament.
He was immediately hired to take over the tradition-rich Murray State Racers in Kentucky, a program that has not to this day had a losing record since 1978. Former coaches include Mark Gottfried who went on to lead Alabama to the No. 1 ranking at one point, as well as Mick Cronin who currently the head coach at Cincinnati. In fact, Murray State has been to the NCAA Tournament 12 times since 1988. Kennedy has continued the tradition and in fact led the Racers to the brink of a Sweet Sixteen berth in 201 losing by two points to Butler.
Pros: Kennedy has taken two different programs to the NCAA Tournament. He has resurrected two dormant programs, and then sustained the great success at Murray State and has continued a long-line of great coaching hires by the administration at Murray State. Kennedy has had a wide range of experiences with jobs across the country as well as jobs at both mid-majors and at BCS schools. He has the most diversified background of the three candidates. In addition, while it was one brief season 20 years ago, Kennedy did coach at Texas A&M and is familiar with the environment.
Cons: Murray State is a powerhouse in the Ohio Valley Conference so NCAA Tournament bids are expected at the school. In his four year tenure, Kennedy has taken the Racers to only one NCAA Tournament in five seasons along with an NIT berth in 2011.
What also makes Kennedy the odds-on favorite to be the next Texas A&M head coach going into the interview process this weekend is his acquaintance with John Thornton. Thornton acted as the interim head coach in 1990 after the sudden mid-season resignation of Shelby Metcalf. Kennedy was hired on to the 1991 staff that followed Thornton and there was a lot of crossover work as Thornton stayed on and took an administrative position at his alma mater. Of course, Thornton is currently assisting athletic director Bill Byrne with the current coaching search. So, Thornton is very familiar with Kennedy from an up-close and personal standpoint.
The only issue that must be addressed by the search committee in regard to Kennedy is to determine his level of knowledge of the recruiting infractions committed by head coach Kermit Davis in that 1991 season. The infractions led to Davis’ firing and the resulting sanctions led the Texas A&M program into a swoon that lasted over 20 years until the hiring of Billy Gillispie by current athletic director Bill Byrne. Kennedy was a young No. 3 assistant at the time, so he likely had no knowledge of the infractions. Still, the committee must inquire about the circumstances and feel comfortable that he did not have any involvement in those activities.