2017 Coaching Hires

2017 Coaching Hires

This is one of those "one question mailbag" posts. It wasn't submitted as a mailbag question – it was a text on Saturday evening from a former Illini football player asking about Underwood compared to other coaching hires – but the more I dug into the numbers, the more I wanted this to become an article.

(Do you like how I snuck "former Illini football player" in there? I'm going to leave it at that and not tell you who the text was from just to build some level of Robert mystique that doesn't really exist.)

Here's the text:

My research began with some simple head-to-head analysis. What was Underwood's record against Chris Holtmann? What about Cuonzo Martin? Juwan Howard we know (8-0), but that was a different coaching cycle. What about other coaches hired around the same time?

That research became this article the moment I started looking at every coach hired in the 2017 coaching window. Head-to-head, as suggested in the text, didn't really tell the story as much as "how has every coaching hire during that cycle performed in the last seven years?" The story: some coaches might have had decent seasons, but really only one built a program.

Yes, only one. That's why I shifted this question into a mailbag article about the 2017 hires. Let's just get to the numbers.

Restricting this to coaches hired at the six high-major conferences (Power Five plus the Big East), here's the list of schools who were looking for a head coach during the 2017 window:

NC State
Ohio State
Oklahoma State

Maybe the best way to do this is to just go through the 11 coaching hires and list out the KenPom rankings for each season. I'll need rankings of teams beyond the top-25 to do this, and I feel like KenPom is a better way to go about it than using NET rankings. So here's each coaching hire that cycle and their yearly KenPom:


Hire: LaVall Jordan (Michigan assistant coach)
Replaced: Chris Holtmann, who took the Ohio State job
KenPom year-by-year: 20, 72, 25, 120, 121, fired.

-> Jordan took over a solid program, but by his fourth season, he was The Guy Who Killed This 15 Year Run Of Great Basketball At Butler. After two awful seasons in 2021 and 2022, he was fired.


Hire: Wyking Jones (Cal assistant promoted to head coach)
Replaced: Cuonzo Martin, who took the Missouri job
KenPom year-by-year: 244, 241, fired.

-> This one was barely a blip on the radar. You have to feel for Jones. The roster completely turned over. And Cal was in a financial crisis at the time, so he knew he was the "just promote one of the assistants until we get this figured out" hire. Really difficult to build something with very little administrative support.


Hire: Patrick Ewing (Charlotte Hornets assistant coach)
Replaced: John Thompson III, who was fired
KenPom year-by-year: 94, 100, 67, 63, 175, 219, fired.

-> Two mediocre seasons in year there and four helped him keep his job. But he never had a team above KenPom #63. And by the time he was fired, he left absolutely nothing. Ed Cooley has a massive rebuilding project (and he's building it around Jayden Epps).


Hire: Brad Underwood (Oklahoma State head coach)
Replaced: John Groce, who was fired
KenPom year-by-year: 102, 84, 30, 4, 20, 35, 12

-> Looking at this list of KenPom numbers for the last seven years, I hope you understand why I took such a hard stance against the negative side of our fanbase over the last 12 months. Last season simply showed us that a down year was #35 in KenPom (oh how awful!), yet Illini Twitter one year ago today was acting as if any of these other coaches listed here had been hired. If we ever lose perspective like that again, I'm probably going to be insufferable.


Hire: Archie Miller (Dayton head coach)
Replaced: Tom Crean, who was fired
KenPom year-by-year: 71, 52, 34, 50, fired.

-> This was my choice for Illini head coach in March of 2017. Dayton's loss as a 7-seed (to 10-seed Wichita State) gave us the opportunity to slide in there and hire him immediately. Instead, Whitman ignored me and instead slid down to Stillwater to hire a different coach after his first round Tournament exit. Thank God.


Hire: Will Wade (VCU head coach)
Replaced: Johnny Jones, who was fired
KenPom year-by-year: 66, 19, 37, 24, 21, fired.

-> On this list, this is the only other coaching hire that was "successful." And I put it in quotes because Wade was fired. He was, unfortunately for him (but fortunately for us), caught on tape talking about how he made a "strong-ass offer" for a high school player. That investigation (which uncovered other things) led to his firing. He's now repairing his reputation at McNeese State and we'll hear from him again just like we heard from Kelvin Sampson and Bruce Pearl after they were fired for similar, uh, issues.


Hire: Cuonzo Martin (Cal head coach)
Replaced: Kim Anderson, who was fired
KenPom year-by-year: 40, 68, 97, 54, 47, 137, fired.

-> Cuonzo looked like a great hire after year one. Kim Anderson had been one of the worst coaching hires in Division I basketball history (27-68, including 8-46 in the SEC, over three seasons), so Cuonzo took over a roster with absolutely nothing and built it back very quickly, going to the NCAA Tournament his first season. But two losing seasons followed, and even though he got on the right side of the bubble in 2021, his 12-21 season in 2022 spelled the end.

NC State

Hire: Kevin Keatts (UNC-Wilmington head coach)
Replaced: Mark Gottfried, who was fired
KenPom year-by-year: 46, 41, 50, 71, 128, 52, 76

-> I've often compared the NC State fanbase to the Illini fanbase (and they have two titles to their name). In the ACC, they're the fanbase the speaks up at the slightest slight, wanting to remind everyone that they, too, are a power program in college basketball. Which means that the Keatts era has to drive them insane. Just good enough to not get fired, but over seven seasons, never once a team in the top-40 of KenPom. 18-13'd to death.

Ohio State

Hire: Chris Holtmann (Butler head coach)
Replaced: Thad Matta, who stepped down due to health issues
KenPom year-by-year: 16, 44, 8, 11, 31, 49, 69th when fired on 2/14.

-> It's amazing how quickly it fell apart. He took over a well-stocked roster from Matta and won immediately. And in 2020 and 2021 he had top-10 teams. But then 5-15 in the Big Ten last year and 4-10 this year when he was fired, having not won a road game in something like 14 months. Feels like he will resurface somewhere with a strong mid-major team.

Oklahoma State

Hire: Mike Boynton (Oklahoma State assistant coach)
Replaced: Brad Underwood, who, well, you know.
KenPom year-by-year: 59, 83, 53, 33, 34, 46, 102

-> This feels similar to NC State. You couldn't fire him after finishing KenPom 33, 34, and 46 in three consecutive years from 2021 to 2023. But if that's the ceiling, then this year's #102 is an excavation exercise attempting to find the floor.


Hire: Mike Hopkins (Syracuse assistant coach)
Replaced: Lorenzo Romar, who was fired.
KenPom year-by-year: 98, 48, 54, 129, 110, 107, 58

-> God's honest truth: I didn't know Mike Hopkins was still at Washington. The last three seasons they were 5-21, 17-15, and 16-16. I know they won the Pac 12 in his second season back in 2018-19, but how long can he continue to survive off of that? 16-14 this season so... not much longer? Could he even win seven Big Ten games next season?

OK, there we have them all. Eleven coaching hires. Seven already fired. And of the four coaches who still have their job, Hopkins is 16-14 and on the hot seat, Boynton is 12-17 and on the hot seat, and Keatts is 17-12 and on the hot seat (but might be able to keep his job if he beats Duke tonight?).

The 11th coach on that list? He has a team that will be ranked 11th or 12th when the new poll comes out in a few hours. In the 2020's they've won 13, 16, 15, 11, and 13 (with two games to go) conference games. Every single AD on the list above would have given half their salary to hire Brad Underwood.

My answer to a question that wasn't asked: Underwood, compared to the other coaching hires during the March 2017 hiring cycle, is probably the only coach to get an A. Will Wade got an incomplete in the class, Boynton and Keatts are holding on to C-minuses, and everyone else either got a D or an F. There were a couple solid hires in smaller conferences (like San Diego State promoting Brian Dutcher), but there really was only one good high major coaching hire that cycle.

The coach who resurrected Illinois Basketball.