When April rolls around, well after the nets have been cut and the brackets busted, the college basketball coaching carousel will start greasing its gears. And when that time comes, the carousel should be making stops in the Summit League sooner rather than later.
From Fort Wayne to Brookings to Fargo to Denver, a wave of young coaching talent has begun to make its name in the Summit League. Since 2014, seven of the current members have hired first-time head coaches. And some of early results are promising.
In his first year as a college basketball head coach, T.J. Otzelberger took South Dakota State to the NCAA Tournament. After spending time on Fred Hoiberg’s staff at Iowa State, Otzelberger unleashed the league’s best offense with Mike Daum as the focal point. At just 40 years old, Otzelberger could be a star in the making. He brings back a talented roster that should be the Summit League favorites, and another NCAA Tournament birth might have his days in Brookings limited.
If it weren’t for Otzelberger, South Dakota head coach Craig Smith could stake his claim as the top name in the Mount Rushmore State. With Smith at the helm, the Coyotes won a program-record tying 22 games last year en route to their first regular season title since making the transition to Division I. Smith’s coaching style is up-tempo, and he’s already begun to make waves on the transfer. Watching the two South Dakota teams battle for state supremacy should be a treat.
Just north at North Dakota State, Dave Richman has worked his way up from graduate assistant to making the NCAA Tournament in his first year as head coach. One of the two coaches in the league under 40, Richman has already amassed two 20-win seasons. On top of that, the Bison have finished at least .500 in Summit League play in all three of Richman’s seasons, including two seasons in double digits. Richman has done nothing to disrupt the model of consistency established in Fargo, and is a safe bet to be in contention year in and year out.
The only coach younger than Richman is Denver’s Rodney Billups. At just 34 years old, Billups is one of the youngest coaches in all of college basketball. In his first year at his alma mater, he inherited a roster full of players from the previous regime and managed a .500 record in Summit League play. With a reputation as a players coach that wants to play up-tempo, Billups has some key traits that work well in recruiting. It’ll be up to him to take advantage of those as he molds the program to his liking.
Lastly, Jon Coffman has turned Fort Wayne into one of the nation’s premier offensive units. With two 20-win seasons under his belt already, as well as an upset over in-state powerhouse Indiana, Coffman has sights on the next step. As one of the five programs in the Summit League to never make the NCAA Tournament, Coffman’s energy and passion leads one to believe that Fort Wayne could become the next one to break out of that group.
As is the case with many mid-major programs, coaches come and go. With the influx of coaching talent in the Summit League, it’s almost a given that some programs are going to fall victim to that.
But no matter if these coaches move on to greener pastures or stay put and build their own programs, there’s no denying that this young crop of head coaches is among the best in the country.