The one-time elementary school teacher. The member of a legendary quintet. The Italian citizen. The former financial planner for Edward Jones.
They are the biggest winners in the rookie coaching class of 2019-20.
Consider the thrill. A man spends the first season of his life as a college basketball head coach, and his team ends up playing in the NCAA Tournament. Twenty-four rookie coaches began this season with such hope. As of Thursday, only 10 had winning records, so It won’t happen for most.
But it might for these four. If there was a rookie-of-the-year award for coaches, here would be the finalists.
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Eric Henderson, South Dakota State
The Jackrabbits were 343rd in the nation in returning experience when the season started — among the departed was Mike Daum, one of the top scorers in Division I history — and picked to finish fifth in the Summit League. That was unusual for a program that has produced five conference tournament titles in eight years. But they reloaded with a new coach, and now are 22-8 and have clinched at least a share of the league season championship. One reason is, they’re sixth in the nation in field-goal percentage, and have shot 50 percent or better in 14 of their 15 league games.
“I think there’s always pressure when you take over a program that has the tradition like South Dakota State. It was never really talked about. I think people understood what we were losing, with over 6,000 points and 3,000 rebounds,“ Henderson said. “But on the other hand, we had a core group of about six or seven kids that had been here for two or three years. Most of them had redshirted, so they had been around the program and knew what it was about.”
Henderson had been a South Dakota State assistant for three seasons, but his path before that was not your garden variety road to Division I head coach. He spent time as a girl's high school coach, a principal... and a second-grade teacher.
“I feel like being a coach, you’re still an educator, to try to help these young people grow and continue to learn,” he said. “Not necessarily A-B-Cs or 1-2-3s but certainly about life. That’s been my approach as a coach, so I feel like I get the best of both worlds. I get to continue to be an educator but get to do it through the passion of basketball.”
And teaching second-graders?
“I always told the teachers at the end of the year, I don’t know what we learned, but we sure had a hell of a lot of fun.
“Something that has helped us be successful this year that I probably have learned throughout my journey is less is more. Try not to over-coach and act like you’re John Wooden and have all the answers. Try to keep it real simple... That’s been our approach and it’s something that I learned whether I was a second-grade teacher or high school principal or college basketball coach.”
Juwan Howard, Michigan
November was such a joyride for Howard. The Wolverines started 7-0, swept through the Battle 4 Atlantis, and in one week soared from unranked to No. 4 in the Associated Press poll. Not even Howard and the rest of the Fab Five did anything like that back in their Ann Arbor glory days. Hey, what’s so hard about this coaching stuff?
Then, the mood killer.
Leading scorer Isaiah Livers went down with an injury, and the Big Ten was... well, the Big Ten. Winning suddenly became very hard, and Michigan lost five of six, dropping down and then out of the top-25. Now Livers is back, and the Wolverines have won seven of eight, including Michigan State, and on the road at Purdue and Rutgers, where the Scarlet Knights had been 17-0. Michigan is still seventh in the Big Ten, but if everyone can stay healthy, Howard could have an exciting first March as a college head coach. The Wolverines are 13-4 with Livers, and 5-5 without.
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Dane Fischer, William & Mary
He came out of Ithaca College headed for the business world, as a financial planner. Then the coaching bug took a chomp of him, such as the day he kept excusing himself from a regional business meeting to check the scores from the NCAA Tournament. Now, look where Fischer is. The Tribe opened 4-0, and no coach at William & Mary had started his career that way since 1943.
They later hit something of a lull, losing five of seven, but have regrouped to win four in a row and stand second in the Colonial. The league’s preseason poll decided they’d finish seventh. Included in the 20-10 record are 10 true road victories. William & Mary might just as well be known as Nathan & Andy — as in 6-10 Nathan Knight and 7-0 Andy Van Vliet, the twin towers of trouble who between them have 31 double-doubles, Knight second in the nation with 22.
So there is reason for Fischer, a former assistant at Bucknell, Rider and George Mason, to be popular. Should the Tribe win the Colonial tournament, he’d bring something totally new to the nation’s second-oldest university. William & Mary is one of the last four original Division I schools never to play in the NCAA Tournament. Considering the records of the others — The Citadel is 6-21, St. Francis Brooklyn 12-16 and Army 16-13 — it might be up to Fischer and the Tribe if any of the four are to breakthrough this year.
League leader Hofstra is likely the main problem, and good luck using the regular season as a guide, should the two meet in the conference tournament. William & Mary won by 27 at Hofstra, and lost to the Pride by 23 at home. But if the Tribe pulls it off, that’ll beg a question about Fischer. Can a former Edward Jones financial planner go from rookie coach to his school’s Hall of Fame in one season?
Carmen Maciariello, Siena
He was the assistant in charge of the Siena defense last season. So what’s behind the Saints’ charge to a share of the lead in the MAAC — when they had been picked to finished sixth? An improved offense, of course. Siena was 333rd in the nation last season in scoring offense, but has upped its average by eight points a game and is now 128th in the country and first in the league. Three Saints are among the top nine scorers in the MAAC.
They’ve been on a roll, winning nine of their last 10, and location is no longer all that matters. Until they won at Iona in late January, they were unbeaten at home, winless on the road. Now they’re 3-10 away, but still perfect at their place, and trailing only 5:42 of the 240 minutes in their past six home games.
Maciariello is a Siena alum who is the program’s third head coach in three seasons. After his college years, he picked up an Italian citizenship to play pro ball in Italy. Now he wants to be a citizen of the NCAA Tournament. St. Peter’s and Monmouth at the main threats.
Two other rookies to mention, as they try to make their coaching careers go as well as their playing once did:
Todd Golden has San Francisco at 18-11 and managed to lead Gonzaga twice at halftime by eight and nine points, before losing by four and 17. The Dons also played Arizona State to four points. In his point guard days at Saint Mary’s, Golden was second in the nation in assist-turnover ratio.
Bryan Mullins is 16-14 at Southern Illinois, where the Salukis were picked to finish last in the Missouri Valley. They made a run at the lead before dropping four of their past five. Southern Illinois lost its leading scorer for the season six games in, but still has 10 league victories, the most ever for an MVC team picked to finish last. Mullins was already a local legend when he took the job; a two-time MVC defensive player of the year for the Salukis, and a 4.0 student with a degree in finance.
Not every first-year coach is having so much fun, since many took over programs in distress. As of Thursday, 12 of the 24 either had 20 defeats or were but one away. The road can have many turns. Ask the guy who used to teach addition to second graders.