Heir to the Throne: Top 5 Head Coach Candidates
By: Alex Dittmar
With the surprising news of Jamie Dixon bolting Pittsburgh for a job at his alma mater TCU, Athletic Director Scott Barnes has begun the search for a new head basketball coach here at Pitt. Barnes said that he hopes to make it a quick search, so fans certainly hope for a quick decision. But who should be the new man in charge? The immediate answer on many people’s mind was Arizona head coach Sean Miller, a Pitt alum who was a point guard for the team from 1987-1992. However he has since dispelled the rumors, deciding (and correctly so) that Arizona was the better job and there was no reason for him to leave. So now Barnes must look elsewhere, and here are the five names that should be at the top of his list.
Current Job – Xavier Head Coach
Age – 46
While not quite as unattainable as Sean Miller, this would be a tough sell. Currently at Xavier, his alma mater by the way, Mack has been incredibly successful at a school that had very little tournament experience. He missed the Tournament only once since taking over in 2009, and went to three Sweet 16s in the process. Mack actually learned from Sean Miller as an assistant at Xavier before taking over the big job, and adopted a similar defensive philosophy called Pack Line man, leaving one man to pressure the ball and the others to fill the lanes and limit penetration. His presence would immediately improve a Panthers defense, which uncharacteristically faltered at times in this past season, and bring back a true old-school Big East style team that could set itself apart from the rest of the ACC. Pitt’s biggest draw for Mack is its ACC presence, giving him access to improved facilities and more money. While unlikely, it is more likely than Sean Miller ever was and would be a slam dunk hire for Pitt.
Current Job – Dayton Head Coach
Age – 37
Sean may not be interested, but could the Panthers get his little brother? Archie is currently the head man at Dayton, which you could argue is one of the most desirable non-Power 5 jobs in the country with the passionate fans they have and the team’s recent success. Over the last 3 years, the Flyers have won at least 25 games and made it all the way to the Elite Eight back in 2014. Miller, only 37, has done some incredible things to build this program, but after a first round exit in the Tournament this year at the hands of Syracuse, I’m sure Miller wonders how much more he could accomplish in the A-10. If he were going to move on from Dayton, I would expect him to want a top-level job, which may not be Pitt. However he has geographic ties to the Pittsburgh area and the Pitt job certainly constitutes an upgrade in conference and exposure. With his young age, he could bring energy and a new way of thinking to a Pitt squad that has been short on both over the last few seasons.
Current Job – Seton Hall Head Coach
Age – 40
This represents likely the best recruiter of the bunch, something Barnes has stressed as particularly important. Currently the coach at Seton Hall, Willard has brought in high-level talent to the Hall, including five-star guard Isaiah Whitehead. For as great as Jamie Dixon was as a coach, after the switch to the ACC he struggled immensely on the recruiting trail, so Willard could change that narrative for the Panthers. Willard is a Pitt alum, so he has the local connection, and was a former assistant under Rick Pitino, a man who has found a lot of success in the ACC. He is coming off a 25-9 season with the Pirates, who drew a 6-seed in the Tournament. This was by far his most successful season with the Hall; in fact it was his only NCAA Tournament appearance in six seasons, the biggest question mark with this hire. A 152-138 career record isn’t inspiring, but with more institutional support monetarily at Pitt he could recruit such impressive talent that he could make Pitt a top destination for recruits for years to come. With Barnes’ insistence on recruiting being a top priority, I would say Willard is my favorite to land the job at this moment.
Current Job – Wichita State Head Coach
Age – 53
Marshall is the oldest candidate on this list, but with that comes an incredible amount of experience. We all know about the amazing things Marshall has accomplished at Wichita State, turning around a team that went 11-20 his first season to a Final Four team just five years later, especially impressive considering how small the program is. He has taken them to five consecutive Tournaments, winning at least one game in all but the first appearance. If he can create a perennial power in the Missouri Valley Conference, imagine what he could do in the ACC? The timing might be right with Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, his two stars that went through the Final Four run with him in 2013, both graduating. Honestly the biggest thing in the way for Pitt is they may not be a big enough job for Marshall, as he could likely command almost any high profile job he wants, and can wait because he already has the 10th highest salary in the nation. Still, he has to be contacted because he is too good a coach to pass up.
Current Job – UNC Wilmington Head Coach
Age – 43
The second former Rick Pitino assistant on this list, Keatts is currently the coach at UNC Wilmington taking them to the Tournament in just his second year this past season as head coach of the Seahawks. And it wasn’t just a case of being happy to be there either. His squad pushed Duke to the limit, coming close to pulling off a big upset in the First Round. Keatts is known to be a good recruiter going back to his time on the Louisville staff, which gives him ACC region recruiting connections that could be big for Pitt. The biggest problem with Keatts is his lack of experience, with only two years as a head coach under his belt. A transition to Pitt would be a lot for him to handle, but it would also be an exciting hire that could set the direction of the program for years to come