Quick hire belies national interest in TSU basketball job

Tuesday, August 7, 2012 at 9:01pm

The email reached the inbox of Tennessee State athletic director Teresa Phillips at 7:25 a.m.

On Friday, April 13, Butler coach Brad Stevens wrote to Phillips to recommend his assistant Terry Johnson for the vacant TSU men’s basketball coach position. Phillips wrote back, informing Stevens that TSU assistant Travis Williams would be announced as the Tigers’ next coach later that day.

While Stevens was disappointed for Johnson, he respected Phillips’ decision.

“I truly appreciate those leaders that understand the great role that continuity and promoting from within can have in sustained success,” Stevens wrote. “I’m sure thankful that my boss did five years ago.”

Hiring from within worked for Butler. The jury is still out on whether it will for TSU.

When John Cooper left on April 6 and took the same job at Miami-Ohio, he left TSU in great shape. The Tigers just had their first 20-win season since 1979; they snapped Murray State’s 23-game winning streak and handed the nation’s last undefeated team its first loss; they reached the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament title game and made a postseason tournament for the first time since 1995.

National attention was the highest it had been in recent memory, and TSU could have hired from the outside in an attempt to capitalize on that buzz. Instead, the Tigers chose to stay in-house and hired 39-year-old Williams, who had spent all three seasons with Cooper at TSU.

“We felt like we had a very good candidate who had been part of the resurgence of the basketball program,” Phillips said last week. “If you really look around most enterprises, if you’re being successful, one of the first choices that a proven manager would do is consider someone internally, and that’s what we did.”

Even so, a recent public records request by The City Paper unveiled interested candidates from across the nation.

Hours after Cooper’s departure hit the news, interest came flooding in. Former TSU assistants Scott Monarch and Joe Esposito, now on staff at Marquette and Minnesota, respectively, sent résumés. So did Lipscomb assistant Pete Froedden and Middle Tennessee State assistant Win Case. Even former Vanderbilt coach Jan van Breda Kolff showed interest.

Former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith suggested his son, Orlando “G.G.” Smith, an assistant coach at Loyola University Maryland. Florida State assistant Corey Williams, who played for the Chicago Bulls and has an NBA Championship ring, applied. Headhunters tried to sell their clients, who varied from former Kentucky forward Walter McCarty to assistants at Michigan State and Xavier to up-and-coming Mississippi Valley State coach Sean Woods — now the head coach at OVC rival Morehead State.

“This is not an easy job, not an easy decision, so it is always tough,” Phillips said. “There are a lot of quality men out there looking for head coaching opportunities, some of them desperately looking. … So you can always look back and wonder this and that. That’s what leadership is, though. You make decisions.”

Along with Williams, assistant Rick Duckett also received serious consideration. He was at TSU for just the 2011-12 season, but had nine years of experience as a head coach. After getting passed up, Duckett rejoined Cooper as Miami-Ohio’s associate head coach.

Phillips, who also was searching for a women’s basketball coach at the same time, decided not to hire national search firm Fogler Enterprises, run by former Vanderbilt coach Eddie Fogler. But she did heed advice from Fogler, who assisted TSU in the hiring of Cooper, a former player under Fogler at Wichita State. Phillips also had “a lot of” phone conversations with potential candidates and their agents in that short one-week span.

According to Phillips, there weren’t any monetary restraints preventing a national search. However, a look at the salary database of employees in the Tennessee Board of Regents shows paying the big bucks to bring in a top-tier Division I assistant was an issue for TSU. Last year, Williams made $66,950. He’ll make almost double that with his new contract of $130,000 but is still one of the lowest-paid head coaches in the OVC. Only Jacksonville State’s James Green — with a salary of $103,000 — will make less.

By comparison, Cooper was making $195,700 at TSU. After taking Murray State to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in his first year, Steve Prohm was given a raise to increase his base salary to $270,000. But with the addition of Belmont to the OVC, Rick Byrd is easily the highest paid coach in the league. A recent Form 990 filed by Belmont showed Byrd made $728,667 during 2010-11.

“Oftentimes it is better to hire somebody that understands the limitations and restraints of the program because they’ve lived it day to day,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “There are a lot of SEC assistant coaches making more than [Williams]. It gets back to do you want a guy who comes in and big-times us and asks for all sorts of upgrades to the program that financially Tennessee State is not willing to make? Or do we want somebody that has been in house, that helped Coach Cooper build it, who understands this is a golden opportunity for him?

“For Travis Williams, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a head coach.”

In an email to an alum who was upset about Cooper’s leaving, Phillips wrote: “What we lack at TSU is overall administrative understanding of the role, importance and value of men’s basketball. There must be an understanding that goes beyond the AD and the athletics department. Then, we also need booster support financially. That is missing.”

An interview request with interim president Portia Shields was declined.

On Tuesday, Phillips said she caught a glimpse of Williams running a summer practice. He’s been a head coach before — leading a professional team in China and heading up a Division II program in Georgia. He was also an assistant at his alma mater Georgia State under legendary coach Lefty Driesell.

Williams had recruited almost all of the current players and received their support in a closed-door meeting with Phillips days before he was hired. She said not one player threatened to transfer if Williams wasn’t the next coach.

“This is not my first rodeo, so that was not going to be an influence that would make us risk the future of the program over a student-athlete or two saying they weren’t going to stay,” Phillips said. “I think if they had been vehemently against Coach Williams that would have been a very negative form and it would have been difficult to put him in the position. …

“In the end, you’ve got to do it on the floor. You got to start showing results, and that will answer all questions, won’t it?”