At long last, Florida A&M found its new coach last week in Oregon assistant director of basketball operations Robert McCullum.
McCullum is well-traveled, having been the head coach at Western Michigan (2000-2003) and South Florida (2003-2007). He was 84-121 over those seven years, including a 10-54 conference mark at USF over two seasons apiece in both CUSA and the Big East. The rest of his resume reads like an NIT bracket, having spent time as an assistant at Samford, South Alabama, Florida, Southern Illinois, Kansas State, UCF, Illinois and San Francisco.
FAMU Athletic Director Milton Overton Jr. was open about the situation McCullum is walking into.
“I’m very transparent with candidates. I do not give a rosy picture. I tell them exactly what it is. I want to know if you really want to be here. Do we recruit you? Yes. But it’s more important to make sure folks know what they’re getting into so that I know they’re a fit. If you think it’s peaches and cream, and you come in and it’s not and you have to roll up your sleeves and then you’re knocking on my door every five minutes, I didn’t do my job in vetting you.”
Overton Jr. isn’t being dramatic.
The Rattlers haven’t had a winning conference record in nine seasons, and finished 345th (out of 351) in the final KenPom ranking last season. They’ve also not posted an adjusted offensive efficiency within the top-300 in the past ten years.
So if there’s reason for optimism with the hire, it’s that McCullum has something that few MEAC coaches do not: mid- and high-major head coaching experience. That time at Western Michigan and USF is a rarity in this league. The only other coach with similar experience is Morgan State’s Todd Bozeman, and that comes with a thick asterisk.
Bozeman coached Cal for three seasons in the mid-90s, but his route to the MEAC was different. He was hit with an eight-year show cause penalty after the then-33 year old rising star got caught up in a scandal involving point guard Jelani Gardner during the 1995-96 season. Here’s a recap from Bleacher Report:
His success at Berkeley was immediate. He took the Bears to the Sweet 16 in 1993, the year that he was named interim coach. However, as quickly as he ascended, Bozeman also made a steady plummet. Wanting to stoke the flames of his early success, he did everything to make sure he was pulling in elite talent. The Chicago Tribune’s Stephen Nidetz reported that In order to secure Jelani Gardner, a top point guard, Bozeman paid “Gardner’s family $15,000 each year he played for the Bears."
After 10 years as an NBA assistant or scout, Bozeman got back into the college game with the Bears in 2006. It’s been a good marriage, as he’s finished with a winning league record in eight of his 11 seasons and gotten to two NCAA Tournaments.
Will McCullum’s experience at those levels and under that pressure make him similarly successful? It might, but there are plenty of ways to crack a nut.
LeVelle Moton has only been a Division I coach (assistant or otherwise) at North Carolina Central. He’s turned the Eagles into a power, and has gotten higher-level interest in recent seasons. Similarly, Robert Jones has never known a Division I coaching home other than Norfolk State. That hasn’t stopped him from leading the Spartans to a 47-17 league mark over his four seasons as head coach.
So, McCullum’s resume won’t automatically shoot the Rattlers up the standings.
If anything, it could be his recruiting history in Florida that works best for him. And it could also work the other way around, as it might be tough to transition to a job with smaller resources than his previous head coaching stops.
But if FAMU is going to make dramatic turn around, it has at least taken a road less traveled in the MEAC. We’ll see where it leads.