Matt Bollant has the Fighting Illini tied for fourth in the Big 10. (Photo courtesy of Illinois)
Matt Bollant has the Fighting Illini tied for fourth in the Big 10. (Photo courtesy of Illinois)

Big 10 reaps the benefits of three coaching changes

February 13, 2013 - 12:43pm

At the close of every sport’s season, a game of musical chairs ensues. Coaches leave, either willingly or unwillingly, and other coaches move to occupy the vacant jobs – and those moves create new vacancies which then have to be filled.

This game goes on for several months until a significant number of teams have new coaches. When the 2012 merri-go-round ended, the Big Ten conference had three new coaches. While only two of the changes were expected, all three new coaches were faced with at least one major problem, but even so indications are that each new coach is an improvement over their predecessor. 

Let’s start at Illinois. When Jolette Law was hired in May of 2007, she spoke of winning national championships. When she was fired in March of 2012, however, she had a record of 69-93 and never led her team to the NCAA tournament. Her tenure at Illinois was marked by internal problems, epitomized by the saga of Destiny Williams. Law signed Williams, who was ranked as high as No. 7 in the nation, in her first full recruiting class. Williams was the school’s first McDonald’s All-American and the most highly decorated high school player ever signed by the Illini. She arrived on campus to much acclaim but chose to leave the program before ever stepping on the court, and in the end, Williams transferred to Baylor where she has been a key player for three seasons.

The second highest-ranking member of that class, Karisma Penn, was ranked No. 18 nationally and was an impact player immediately. Despite earning postseason all-league honors in her first three seasons, Penn was not happy during Law’s time. Prior to the 2012 season, in a statement that is an equal indictment of both player and coach, Penn acknowledged doing little more than “going through the motions” during Law’s last season.

Penn, though, was not alone in her dissatisfaction -- the entire squad looked dispirited. When their lack of energy combined with the team's overall poor fundamentals, the result was not pretty and dictated Law's termination.

The school then turned to highly successful Green Bay coach Matt Bollant to try to do what Law could not. Bollant took over a very strong Phoenix program when Kevin Borseth left to take over in Michigan after the 2007 seasons but in his five years at Green Bay, Bollant elevated the Phoenix to new highs. They made the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2011 and were ranked in the top ten in the 2011-12 season.

Bollant won at Green Bay by employing an aggressive offensive that relied heavily on three-point shooting. His teams were solid defensively and always had sound fundamentals. In short, he played a style that was diametrically opposed to Law’s system. 

There was one other significant difference between Green Bay and Illinois, although it may not be the most politically correct to discuss. At Green Bay, Bollant coached a team full of primarily white players from very small towns. His best players came from Hortonville, Francis Creek and Grafton Wisconsin. At Illinois, he inherited a team of primarily African-American players from large cities. His top Illini players come from Shaker Heights, Ohio, (a suburb of Cleveland) Chicago and Detroit. Basketball may be basketball, but culture is culture and Bollant walked into an entirely different culture at Illinois.

That said, Bollant’s early results at Illinois have been impressive.  The Illini are currently 14-9 overall and 7-4 in conference play, tied for fourth place.  Penn has become double-double machine who is a top candidate for Big 10 Player of the Year. As a team, the Illini are playing harder than they have in years. The team has clearly bought into Bollant’s system. They also appear to have much more respect for him then they did for Law. On the court, the team’s fundamentals have improved significantly, resulting in a much better offensive performance.  The 2012 team averages nine points and nine three-point attempts a game more than last season. In addition, their offense has improved significantly as the season has gone on. 

As the season winds down, the Illini are in a position to do what Law could never do: Earn an NCAA bid. They sit firmly on the NCAA bubble and can gain a bid with a strong closing surge.  Bollant, meanwhile, is a strong candidate for Coach of the Year. Many coaches have started strong and not been able to sustain it. Bollant has started strongly and he looks like one of the coaches who will be able to keep it up.

Curt Miller is beginning the rebuilding process as the new head coach of Indiana. (Photo by Mike Dickbernd)

At Indiana, the firing of Felisha Legette-Jack was a surprise although it should not have been. It was only surprising because athletic director Fred Glass extended her contract two years after the 2011-12 season. Coming as it did after a season which saw the Hoosiers go 6-24 overall and 1-15 in the conference, the extension was a real head-shaker. 

From the outside it was very difficult to see why Glass felt “a high degree of confidence in her ability to succeed here” – and eight months later, he had to eat her contract. In a rather rare display of accountability Glass then said of his decision to fire her, “In retrospective, I was wrong. However, I am not going to compound that mistake by refusing to make the decision that now needs to be made.”

Legette-Jack is, in many ways, not typical of fired coaches. She represents her school very well off the court and is a good coach on it. However, she simply could not recruit. While the Big Ten may not be listed as one of the best of the large school conferences, the teams in it are good and have good players and Legette-Jack consistently put herself in the position of competing in the Big Ten with a roster composed of players who did not belong in the league. 

The result was her termination and a very weak roster for her successor to inherit. Over the years, Curt Miller had turned his Bowling Green program into one of the top mid-majors in the nation.  In his last five seasons at Bowling Green, Miller had the fifth best winning percentage in Division I women’s basketball and took his team to the Sweet 16 in 2007.  His accomplishments resulted in him being a much sought-after coach and he spurned a number of contacts from large schools.

But when Indiana came calling, he listened and accepted their job. While he passed over schools that, on paper, seemed to be in better shape, he has been clear that he considers Indiana his “dream job” and his acceptance came easily. In fact, while he had years remaining on his contract at Bowling Green, that contract allowed him to leave anytime for specified “dream jobs” and Indiana was on that short list.

Miller’s team was based on a pick-and-roll offense and sound fundamentals. His teams always played hard, smart basketball and almost always played harder than then their opponents. While he understands the challenges he faces, he will stick with his winning formula, andf if his early results are any indication, his Hoosier teams will have the same intangibles as his Bowling Green squads did.

The Hoosiers were universally projected to finish last in the Big Ten and they will almost certainly do so, but they are much improved, especially on offense. They are scoring and shooting better, turning it over less and assisting on more baskets. They are also a better rebounding team and are holding their opponents to a lower shooting percentage. Their final record may not be much better than it was last year, but they are a much more competitive team and have pushed teams much more than they did in prior seasons -- and Miller has done this with basically seven scholarship players.

But before his on-court success can be measured, he first must succeed as a recruiter. Typically coaches hired in the spring are not able to sign top notch recruiting classes in November, but despite this, Miller’s first class was stronger than any Legette-Jack was able to bring in during her time at Indiana. Miller signed a five-player class that was ranked as high as No. 27 nationally by one service and No. 3 in the Big Ten by another. In addition, he has brought in two quality transfers that should join with the five signees to significantly raise the quality of the Hoosiers.  Curt Miller can coach -- he has proven that – and if he can build on his early recruiting success, he will succeed in his dream job.

Michigan is currently tied for fourth in the Big 10 behind behind new head coach Kim Barnes Arico (Photo by Eric Bronson)

While it should be no surprise that Illinois and Indiana have new coaches, the third opening was more of a shock. When Kevin Borseth moved from Green Bay to Michigan, he declared the Wolverine job to be his dream and he succeeded as few Michigan coaches had. He steadily improved his program and, in 2012, earned the school’s first NCAA bid.

With that team built around a strong junior class, he looked set to make another jump -- and jump he did: Right back to Green Bay.

While he said Michigan was his dream job, his actions said otherwise. Two seasons before he took the Michigan job, Borseth accepted the same job at Colorado. The morning of his hiring press conference, he changed his mind and returned to Green Bay. While he did actually start the job at Michigan, it was an open secret in Green Bay that he had told the administration that he wanted to return when Bollant left, as he inevitably would. So, shortly after Bollant was announced a head coach at Illinois, Borseth left Michigan to return to his security blanket. 

It’s not known if the Michigan administration was aware that Borseth wanted to return to Green Bay, but they moved quickly when he was gone. It took 16 days to announce the new coach, and, when they did, their choice was eye catching. Michigan targeted, and attracted, a coach with a proven record as a winner: Less than a month after leading her team to the NCAA Sweet 16 Kim Barnes Arico moved from St. John’s to Michigan.

Barnes Arico had built the St John’s program to be one of the top schools in the tough Big East conference, and she made the Sweet 16 with a team that started only one senior. She admits that she was not looking for another job and had no idea that the Sweet 16 game would be her last with the Red Storm, but Michigan came calling and she felt that she “owed it to myself” to at least go speak with them. When she went, she was impressed and she left Ann Arbor as Michigan’s new coach.  When asked why she moved to a less successful program, Barnes Arico answers simply “It’s Michigan, my God.”

Barnes Arico’s job was to build on Borseth’s work as she inherited a team with an excellent senior class and not a lot more. Borseth is a complete professional and he gave Michigan his best efforts, but one has to wonder if his ambivalence toward the school did have an effect.  With one exception, his recruiting had slipped in the past few seasons. 

Barnes Arico arrived to find a team that was stunned to lose its coach, but she won them over quickly. Key senior Jenny Ryan said that “it’s easy to buy into a philosophy that works.” She won over the recruits also and the first class she signed last November is a strong one and better than Borseth’s last few. She picked up two top 100 players and a junior college transfer who began her college career as a highly ranked North Carolina recruit. 

On the court, things did not begin well for Barnes Arico.  She lost three players to knee injuries before the season started and found herself with a short bench. But she has leaned on her seniors and her program earned its first-ever ranking earlier this season.  Currently 18-6 overall and 7-4 in the Big 10, the Wolverines are a well-coached team that plays smart basketball and look to be comfortably in the NCAA tournament and will be a team that should not be overlooked.

So far, then, the three changes have been all to the good, which only adds more interest to the 2013 version of the coaching shuffle. Which coaches will no longer patrol the sidelines next November – and more important, who will replace them?