Sun Belt coaches at top of the game
Coaches sport impressive resumes, including Final Four trips
If you asked the average basketball fan around the country to name a handful of coaches in the Sun Belt Conference, you’d probably draw a blank.
But after you read them a list that includes two guys who have led teams to the Final Four and then throw in big names like Mike Jarvis and Isiah Thomas, and, well, you might get their attention.
Start with Arkansas State, whose fourth-year head coach is John Brady. He guided LSU to the 2006 Final Four. Ten years earlier, ASU assistant coach Richard Williams took Mississippi State to the 1996 Final Four, the only such trip in that school’s history. For that matter, Brady and Williams are part of a handful of SBC coaches with ties to Mississippi State and LSU, but more on that later.
Jarvis was three points away from taking St. John’s to the 1999 Final Four. A Northeast guy, whose resume includes coaching Patrick Ewing and Rumeal Robinson in high school and successful stints at Boston University and George Washington, Jarvis begins his third SBC season as a believer.
“The thing that I appreciate, whether in the Northeast or the Southeast or wherever it is, there’s good basketball being played all over the country. And this league has some of the best coaches in America,” Jarvis said in his heavy Boston accent, joking that “just listen to me and you know I come from the People’s Republic of Cambridge, Mass.”
And certainly the Northeast boasts plenty of great coaches. Jarvis, for example, was once a former assistant to UConn’s Jim Calhoun when they were at Northeastern in 1972-72.
The longest-tenured coach in the league is Johnny Jones, now in his 11th season at North Texas.
“We have a great nucleus of coaches,” Jones said.
Jones ,who played on LSU’s 1981 Final Four team, has won the SBC twice at UNT.
“The league was really good when we first arrived,” Jones said, acknowledging that it was dominated by Western Kentucky and, briefly, Louisiana-Lafayette
“Now you look around and see that there are more teams that are competitive,” Jones said.
WKU, by the way, has the most NCAA tournament success among SBC schools, most recently beating Illinois in the first round in 2009 under current coach Ken McDonald, a year after making the round of 16 in 2008 with victories against Drake and San Diego under then-coach Darrin Horn, now at South Carolina. Before that, the league last won an NCAA game in 1995, when WKU beat Michigan in overtime.
Next up on the tenure list is Kermit Davis, Jr., in his 10th year at Middle Tennessee.
“A lot of coaches have left here for really high-paying jobs,” Davis said. “I’m seeing facilities change in a positive way. Basketball emphasis in the league has hopefully improved,” he said.
Recruiting in the SBC, Davis said, “was better this year than any other time in the league for the time I’ve been in it from top to bottom.”
A big reason might be stronger assistant coaches. Take Arkansas-Little Rock, for example, where head coach Steve Shields boasts quite an impressive staff. He added Robert Lee, who won three SBC titles during his 14 years at Louisiana-Lafayette, the last six as head coach.
“That will enhance our program,” Shields said.
The UALR staff also includes Joe Kleine and Charles Cunningham. Kleine, the former Olympian and 1998 NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls, is a former Arkansas star who is in his fifth season at UALR. And Cunningham, perhaps best known for coaching Popeye Jones at Murray State, was an assistant on the 1997 Minnesota team that went to the Final Four. He’s starting his fourth year in Little Rock.
Big names probably help, too. Thomas, who won the national championship at Indiana, won two NBA titles with the Detroit Pistons as a player, which got him in the Naismith Hall of Fame, also coached the New York Knicks.
Thomas said he has enjoyed the move from the pros to college and the rewards that come with it.
“The coaching in this league is spectacular,” Thomas said. “Every night every team is well prepared. Every night the kids play hard, they execute, they do all the little things you need to win a basketball game, whether it’s at the professional level, college level or the high school level.”
Thomas offered another perspective.
“That’s been the pleasant surprise in the Sun Belt, but coming from the NBA and having drafted players out of the Sun Belt and drafted a lot of mid-major players, the coaching you get at the mid-major level is superb,” Thomas said. “And if you look at any NBA roster you will see a lot of mid-major players because of the coaching that takes place.”
Ronnie Arrow, head coach at South Alabama, has a resume perhaps as impressive as any of the other coaches in the league – winning three national junior college championships at San Jacinto in Texas – before having great success at South Alabama, then starting the Division I program at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi before returning to USA. Without listing every coach in the league, you still have to mention Don Maestri at Troy, who is in his 29th year, having taken the program from Division II on up, including when it joined the SBC in 2005. And the entire time David Felix has been at his side as a loyal assistant as Maestri will win his 500th game this season.
The SBC is also filled with ties that bind and nowhere is that more evident than at Arkansas State, where Brady landed after being fired at LSU. Before the 2010-11 season, Brady hired Williams.
“I said this last year when Richard came on, but I don’t know of any staff in the country that has two coaches who have taken teams to the Final Four,” Brady said. “And it’s worked out real well.”
More than Brady imagined.
“It’s funny how it’s flipped,” Brady said. “When I was working for him at Mississippi State, Richard can be a little short and high strung, I used to tell him when the players were coming off the floor for a timeout to be calm, be positive, ‘Be calm, be positive with them Richard.’ Now it’s flipped the other way. With his age and his experience and maturity he says the same things to me when they’re coming in from a timeout. When it’s not going well, he says to me, ‘John, be positive now. Be positive.’ It’s really gone the full circle and how he’s helped me.”
This is probably the time to try to explain the threads that run through Mississippi State and LSU. You might have to pay attention, because this can get confusing.
Consider that Former Louisiana Tech head coach Keith Richard, second-year head coach at the SBC’s Louisiana-Monroe, is from Baton Rouge and coached at LSU for Trent Johnson, who replaced Brady.
Start with Brady, a Mississippi native who was once an assistant at State under one of the game’s all-time greats, Bob Boyd.
“Richard and I go back a long way. He was coaching high school in Natchez, Miss., when I was a senior at McComb High School. Our relationship has gone back a long way. I introduced him to Bob Boyd when [Williams] was at Copiah-Lincoln Junior College and Bob Boyd eventually hired him at Mississippi State and the rest is pretty well documented after that.”
That’s nothing. Kermit Davis’ father was the head coach at State. That’s where he and Brady became friends.
That’s also where Bob Marlin got to know those guys. Marlin, a 1981 graduate of State, is the second-year head coach at Louisiana-Lafayette who seems to know everyone in basketball from someplace, especially the SBC.
“There are some really good coaches in this league,” Marlin said. “Last year was my first year in the league and I’m really good friends with a lot of those guys. I’ve coached against them before and coached with them.”
Shields was his assistant when they were at Pensacola Junior College. His father and Kermit Davis’ father are friends and he and Kermit Davis, Jr. were high school rivals.
“Our league, as far as coaches go, compares with any conference in the country, period, bar none,” Jarvis said. “Which means these kids are being coached up, which means you’ve got guys who know how to win. It means you’ve got guys who have been to the Final Four, who have been to the Elite Eight, who have been to the Sweet 16. These guys want to win. Guys compete. They get their kids to compete and they get their kids to believe they can win. That’s what I think makes the Sun Belt special.”