On Your Marc: 3/29/16

Donlon didn’t get the same change

By Marc Katz

Here are a few of the people Wright State has interviewed over the last 19 years to be the Raiders’ men’s basketball coach: Brian Gregory, Gregg Marshall, Sean Miller, Mick Cronin, Tom Crean, Jamie Dixon and Bruce Weber.

Oh, yeah, you’d all take one of those guys now. Any one of them, even Gregory, who at one point coached cross-town Dayton to mixed reviews but, let’s face it, was a winning coach.

Sure, you know them now. You just didn’t know much about them when they interviewed for WSU’s position. All were turned down by the Raiders—or vise versa—first in favor of Ed Schilling, then Paul Biancardi.

So you see how difficult this game is, especially when you’re Wright State and want to go where the team has hardly ever stepped sneakered foot.

Oh, there’s that long-ago Division II championship, but in 1987, when WSU walked into Division I, Wright State fans have mostly watched other teams in the NCAA tournament.

Coach Billy Donlon was fired recently with a 109-94 record in six years, no NCAA smears and most of his players graduated. His team has made the Horizon League tournament final three of the last four years, losing that automatic NCAA bid each time.

WSU Athletics Director Bob Grant wants to win some of those games—now. He wants his team to be ranked among the top 100 in the nation, as it was during the four years Brad Brownell coached here. He wants to be in the NCAA like Brownell was—once in four seasons—but Donlon hasn’t been there in six.

He wants another coach to be that guy, in what has become a changed landscape. Butler, which became the pride of the Horizon League, left for the Big East three years ago, downgrading the HL so much that teams such as WSU had to look elsewhere for quality games, and would never be able to find them at home. Hence, games at Kentucky and Ohio State and Xavier, and instant losses.

I’m not happy with the change, but I understand.

Donlon was mentoring to his players, helpful to the media, engaging with the fans and you never left a game wondering why his team made a string of awful mistakes at the end.

Certainly Donlon was a media favorite, which eliminates most bad press, but he was popular with colleagues as well, evidenced by a number of coaches speaking out in his defense when he was let go.

Not every fired coach gets that kind of backing.

On the other side, Bob Grant has a lofty list of goals and they haven’t been reached.

Wright State’s RPI ranking during Brownell’s four years ranged from 73-93. Donlon’s best end-of-season ranking was 124. WSU tried to mimic Butler’s impressive success by hiring from within after Donlon was mentored by Brownell to seamlessly take over the program. Donlon was the fifth coach since Ralph Underhill who was unceremoniously let go 19 years ago, and Grant was at least a little part in hiring every one of them, only one of whom came close to achieving the success Grant is chasing.

Underhill coached mainly in WSU’s Division II era—winning one national championship—but being caught up in a shoplifting incident that thrust his loyal assistant, Jim Brown, into an impossible job.

Brown was interim coach for one 7-20 season, and the hunt was on.

I was covering Ohio State basketball then, and was asked by my newspaper to interview Crean, a Michigan State assistant, who was a finalist for the WSU job. I went early to St. John Arena, catching Crean as he was walking in with his team, then, as now, directed by Tom Izzo.

I could not have been more impressed. It was not a good place or the right time to do that kind of interview—and likely would not be repeated in this era—but Crean could not have been more gracious. Years later, he remembered the incident and told me he really wanted that WSU
job and was sorry he didn’t get it.

He did okay. Crean was hired two years later to coach Marquette and now is coaching Indiana, which has been making a nice run in the current NCAAs.

Meanwhile, Wright State hired Ed Schilling, who played at nearby Miami and was an assistant coach with John Calipari, first at UMass, then with the New Jersey Nets.

Schilling went 75-93 in six years with the Raiders, including 10-18 his last season.

The Biancardi years followed, bogged down by an Ohio State recruiting scandal from when Biancardi was an assistant there. He was forced to negotiate his way out of WSU, and coaching.

Through a fluke, just like this one, Brownell became available when he had a falling out with his athletics director. Wright State lured him here, elevating the program immediately. It is Grant’s feeling Donlon hasn’t kept the program there.

I used to think the difference between the big football/basketball schools and the smaller ones was the smaller schools would give a coach more time to develop a program.

That’s not the case any more, at least for Donlon.

Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at katzcopsnsports.com. Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at MarcKatz@daytoncitypaper.com.

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Marc Katz
Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at KatzCopsNSports.com. Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at MarcKatz@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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