The last time that Rhode Island embarked on a nationwide coaching search, the program was in such dire straits that it was like a lottery team mid-tank...only without the light at the end of the tunnel of a top draft pick.
It was 2012 and URI was reeling after consecutive single-digit winning seasons. The Rams concluded their search by hiring firebrand Wagner College head coach Dan Hurley. At the time, Hurley was trying to carve out a name for himself — not an easy undertaking considering that his father is a Hall of Fame coach and his brother is an NCAA legend.
When Hurley took over in Kingston more than six-years-ago, he was suddenly faced with the unenviable task of resurrecting a moribund URI team left with a gutted roster and no NCAA Tournament appearances in nearly 20 years.
Now, thanks to Hurley, the condition of the 2018 program is lightyears ahead of the 2012 team. With three core players returning (Jeff Dowtin, Fatts Russell, and Cyril Langevine) from an NCAA Tournament team and the top-ranked mid-major recruiting class coming in, the Rams are in position to build a program that is perennially in the hunt for deep runs in March.
However, the looming question remains: What do new coach Dave Cox and athletic director Thorr Bjorn need to do to not only maintain, but elevate what Hurley spent the last half-decade building?
Promote from within to maintain continuity
There is a reason Xavier has made the tournament 12 out of the last 13 seasons, despite bigger schools occasionally poaching its coaches; the Musketeers promote from within to maintain continuity.
Perhaps Bill Koch, Providence Journal beat writer for Rhode Island basketball explains the merits of the Xavier Model — especially for the highly vulnerable Mid Major college basketball programs — most succinctly.
Sean Miller was promoted to replace Thad Matta. Chris Mack was promoted to replace Sean Miller. Travis Steele could well be promoted to replace Chris Mack.— Bill Koch (@BillKoch25) March 27, 2018
The lesson? Xavier has built a basketball program on rock-solid footing. That structure attracts quality staff, players. https://t.co/DgqhkvPtKk
Cox needs to replace himself
Cox, now head coach, will need to find an associate head coach with extensive recruiting connections as well as other skill sets such as player development, advanced scouting, video breakdown and play calling. In short, Cox should be looking for someone to do exactly what he did as associate head coach, and do it just as well.
After hiring Cox, Bjorn’s next move was to announce significant investments in the future of the program.
“I’ve said this a lot – we don’t want to build, nor have we built, a house of cards. We’ve built this on a solid foundation which is, in my opinion, so important for the long-term sustainability and growth of the program,” Bjorn said.
Bjorn has already followed through on this promise by raising the assistant coaching salary pool and giving the green light for the construction of a free-standing state-of-the-art practice facility. But URI can ill afford to rest on its laurels.
A sustained program enhancement approach is a mid-major’s life-blood in order to maintain relevance in an increasingly competitive NCAA basketball landscape.
The last time URI hired from within, the program elevated Jerry DeGregorio to replace Georgia bound Jim Harrick, with the help of a search committee that included team star and DeGregorio mentee Lamar Odom.
In rapid succession, four prospective recruits dropped URI from their prospect lists. Another was ruled ineligible, and a key reserve was lost to academics. With a decimated roster, DeGregorio’s first team struggled to a 5-25 record, the worst in school history. And as an extra punch to the gut, Odom ended up entering the NBA draft.
While this may be a cautionary tale for Bjorn, it can prove to be an outlier rather than a repeat performance. And Rhody fans passionately hope Cox will keep the Hurley Express chugging away for another six seasons.