From New Year’s Day to season’s end, Virginia Tech’s basketball team went 1-17. During one particularly grim stretch, the Hokies lost four consecutive games by at least 20 points, each to an unranked opponent. A third straight last-place ACC finish was a given and cost coach James Johnson his job.
Bringing hope to such depths is difficult, but new big whistle Buzz Williams, only a month on the job, has managed. How that glimmer translates to next season’s record is anyone’s guess — not surprisingly, the history is mixed for ACC coaches who succeeded fired predecessors.
Before signing with Williams and Marquette last fall, shooting guard Ahmed Hill of Augusta Ga., weighed offers from national-caliber programs such as Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, Texas, Connecticut and Villanova.
That both are Virginia Tech-bound after visiting campus last weekend speaks to Williams’ salesmanship and the relationships he and assistant coach Isaac Chew, who accompanied Williams from Milwaukee to Blacksburg, forged with the young men.
Hill and Pierce figure to significantly upgrade a Hokies’ roster, even with the departure of promising freshman center Trevor Thompson, who transferred to Ohio State and former recruit T.J. Lang, who requested and received his release after Johnson’s firing.
Also, news broke Monday on Twitter that freshman forward Maurice Kirby, who redshirted this past season, is transferring to a Kansas junior college.
Transfers, releases and changes of heart are part and parcel of the scores of coaching changes that strike college basketball and football each year. Affected athletes absolutely should reassess, and coaches on the move absolutely need to mine their contacts from previous jobs.
When Tech hired Seth Greenberg from South Florida in 2003, one of his first moves was to court unsigned guard Zabian Dowdell, whom he had recruited for the Bulls. Dowdell signed with the Hokies and as a senior in 2007 made first-team All-ACC and led them to the NCAA tournament.
Virginia tight end Jake McGee committed to Richmond in 2009, but when Spiders coach Mike London left for U.Va., prior to signing day in early 2010, McGee reversed course and headed to Charlottesville.
Appalachian State released guard Devonte Graham from his letter-of-intent after firing coach Jason Capel, and Graham now is considering the likes of Kansas, North Carolina State and Virginia. Similarly, the Cavaliers await word from wing Marial Shayok, who visited Virginia before signing with Marquette and Williams.
Contrast the start of the Williams Era at Tech with Johnson’s stumble from the gate in 2012. Not that Johnson was to blame, but freshman forward Dorian Finney-Smith’s transfer to Florida and recruit Montrezl Harrell’s defection to Louisville portended the program’s rapid decline. When Harrell in 2013 and Finney-Smith in ’14 became key players on Final Four teams, their departures became even more painful.
Virginia Tech has never reached a Final Four, and Williams has never coached in one. But two seasons ago Williams had Marquette on the brink before an East Regional final loss to then-Big East rival Syracuse.
Williams’ five NCAA bids in six years with the Golden Eagles would jazz most any fan base. For a Tech program that’s been to two NCAAs in the last 25 seasons, that twice in the last 15 years hired a career assistant (Ricky Stokes and Johnson) to lead the program, Williams’ credentials are rare air.
In an ACC that includes perennials Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Louisville and Pittsburgh, plus emerging Virginia, Williams’ challenge is, to be kind, considerable. Indeed, of the 15 coaches who took over ACC programs from deposed colleagues from 1990-2013, I’m not sure any faced longer odds.
Seven of those 15 — Gary Williams (Maryland 1990), Les Robinson (North Carolina State ’91), Herb Sendek (N.C. State ’97), Roy Williams (North Carolina 2004), Frank Haith (Miami ’05), Steve Donahue (Boston College ’11) and Mark Gottfried (N.C. State ’12) — posted winning records in their debut seasons. But only Robinson, Donahue and Gottfried were above .500 in league play.
Six of the 15 — Robinson, Donahue, Johnson, Virginia’s Pete Gillen and Dave Leitao and Wake Forest’s Jeff Bzdelik — eventually were excused.
Proven at previous jobs, Gary Williams (Boston College, Ohio State) and Roy Williams (Kansas) were perfect hires for their respective alma maters, Maryland and UNC, and each subsequently earned induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Also from that group of 15: With two NCAA appearances in the last three seasons and 2014 ACC regular-season and tournament titles, Tony Bennett has Virginia better positioned than at any time in the last 20 years. Sendek, Oliver Purnell at Clemson and Leonard Hamilton at Florida State proved sage choices, with each reaching at least three consecutive NCAA tournaments.
Buzz Williams took Marquette to five straight NCAAs. The Hokies’ longest streak is two, 1979 and ’80, 1985 and ’86.
“A sleeping giant,” Williams proclaimed of Tech at his introductory presser.
His first month in Blacksburg is the smallest imaginable step toward making that rhetoric something approaching reality.
Here’s a look at how the aforementioned 15 ACC coaches who took over for fired colleagues fared in their first seasons:
Year School Overall ACC Postseason
Gary Williams 1990 MD 19-14 6-8 NIT (1-1)
Les Robinson 1991 NCSU 20-11 8-6 NCAA (1-1)
Herb Sendek 1997 NCSU 17-15 4-12 NIT (1-1)
Pete Gillen 1999 U.Va. 14-16 4-12 NA
L. Hamilton 2003 FSU 14-15 4-12 NA
Oliver Purnell 2004 CU 10-18 3-13 NA
Roy Williams 2004 UNC 19-11 8-8 NCAA (1-1)
Frank Haith 2005 UM 16-13 7-9 NIT (0-1)
Dave Leitao 2006 U.Va. 15-15 7-9 NIT (0-1)
Tony Bennett 2010 U.Va. 15-16 5-11 NA
Steve Donahue 2011 BC 21-13 9-7 NIT (1-1)
Jeff Bzdelik 2011 WF 8-24 1-15 NA
Brian Gregory 2012 GT 11-20 4-12 NA
Mark Gottfried 2012 NCSU 24-13 9-7 NCAA (2-1)
James Johnson 2013 VT 13-19 4-14 NA
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