The aftershocks of Thad Matta’s departure from Ohio State have worked their way down to the ranks of the Horizon League. After just one year as the head coach of the Milwaukee Panthers, LaVall Jordan is moving on to his alma mater Butler to replace Chris Holtmann, who is taking over for Matta at Ohio State.
No team wants to deal with a coaching search at anytime. But a coaching search in mid-June following an unexpected set of circumstances puts Milwaukee in a tough position.
To make matters worse, the Panthers are in the middle of a rebuild. Milwaukee finished last in the Horizon League in Jordan’s lone season. While they made an improbable run to the Horizon League championship game in March, the season was a struggle for the Panthers.
That is why Milwaukee’s next move could be critical to the foreseeable future of the program. While they struggled through a rebuilding year, momentum was on the Panthers’ side heading into the offseason.
Step one will be to find a new head coach, and fast.
Milwaukee put together a solid class of incoming recruits under Jordan’s guidance. A new head coach is needed to diffuse any second thoughts those recruits may be having. Recruiting new players this far into the offseason would be a major step back and could kill any momentum the program had going into next season.
But Milwaukee also can’t afford to make the wrong coaching choice just because a quick choice is needed, especially given how their coaching search transpired last year.
Following Jordan’s hire in April 2016, speculation arose suggesting T.J. Otzelberger had actually been told the job was his:
Following his meeting, Otzelberger was told he would be the next head basketball coach at UW-Milwaukee. The Milwaukee native was preparing to make the hiring official on Thursday.
In addition, Otzelberger was given the OK to have his wife and two young children make the drive from Iowa to Milwaukee so they could be a part of an introductory press conference.
While it isn’t entirely clear who was told what, it is evident Otzelberger was a finalist for the job.
Instead Milwaukee went with Jordan, who was regarded as a good hire. But, the fact remains that, one year later, Jordan has left Milwaukee while Otzelberger took the head coach position at South Dakota State and led the Jackrabbits to the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers need to be careful in their current coaching search to avoid any missteps that could be scrutinized as further athletic department dysfunction.
The second step for Milwaukee will be trying to avoid another player exodus similar to what occurred after the firing of Rob Jeter at the end of the 2015-16 season.
Following Jeter’s firing, Jordan Johnson, Akeem Springs, and Austin Arians transferred out of the program. All three would have been returning senior starters for a Milwaukee team coming off a 20 win season. Instead, the Panthers had no returning starters and struggled to 11 wins.
Losing any potential returners to transfer could further doom the Panthers. Even if Milwaukee makes a great hire at head coach, losing veteran players will make next season a challenge.
The Milwaukee basketball program is at a tipping point. The Horizon League tournament run of the past year could be a catalyst to speed up the rebuilding process. But the departure of Jordan has threatened to quell any momentum the program may have and left Milwaukee in a precarious situation.
The next few days and weeks will be critical to Milwaukee’s future.