Despite seemingly limited funds, the Phoenix have many strong options
On Sunday, news broke that Green Bay fired Head Basketball Coach Linc Darner after a relatively successful five-year stint. The announcement came as a shock considering Darner’s four winning seasons in five years on one of the smaller budgets in the Horizon League, particularly since there have been so few coaching changes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
An interesting aspect of this coaching search will be how much Green Bay is in line to offer its next coach. While a change to Darner’s contract technically entitled him to the remainder of the money on the deal — which ran through 2026 — a reassignment clause stands to save Green Bay a large amount of money assuming that Darner was offered another employment opportunity at the school. If Darner’s payout isn’t in the ballpark of a single year’s salary, the Phoenix might not have as much to work with for this hire.
Some coaches who would normally appear on this list seem like long shots given how everything played out. Whitewater’s Pat Miller, Parkside’s Luke Reigel and Minnesota-Crookston’s Dan Weisse all have strong track records of success as lower-level head coaches, but it’s difficult to imagine any of them being the pick at this time given they all posted losing records in 2020. Darner finished in the top four of the Horizon League in four of his five seasons. Replacing him with someone who just did worse in Division II or III than he did in Division I doesn’t seem like the right move.
Gary Grzesk, St. Norbert Head Coach — Green Bay will need to think long and hard about giving the job to anybody besides Grzesk. Grzesk is a former two-year captain at Green Bay who helped the team to three NCAA Tournaments in his career. He has thrived for over a decade as Head Coach at St. Norbert College in nearby De Pere, Wisconsin. He’s amassed a 274-86 career record in 14 seasons at the Division III level.
Grzesk has previously been a candidate twice, when the school hired Darner in 2015 and Brian Wardle in 2010. He’s an obviously strong cultural fit for the program. Despite his connections to Dick Bennett, he’s also a candidate who probably wouldn’t terrify a roster of players recruited to score 90 points per game about a complete culture shock. With elevating the program another step being the goal, Grzesk makes a lot of sense.
Saul Phillips, Northern State Head Coach — The former North Dakota State and Ohio coach began his first season at Northern State this year, and he coached the Wolves to a 26-7 records and number 17 ranking in the final NCAA Division II poll. Given the recent fall of the Horizon League, it seems safe to say that the league is more like the Summit League Phillips coached in at NDSU than the MAC while he was at Ohio, so there’s definitely reason to believe he could be an excellent hire. I’m not convinced that his Northern State team this year couldn’t have competed for a spot in the top half of the Horizon League despite having three fewer scholarships available as a Division II school.
One potential concern is that Phillips has never been an NCAA Head Coach at a school where he wasn’t replacing someone who got a promotion. The cupboard has generally been well stocked for Phillips when he took over programs, so unless he could keep Amari Davis and some of Green Bay’s other top players around the Green Bay job may present a number of difficulties that Phillips has yet to navigate as a head coach.
Jeff Gard, UW-Platteville Head Coach —
The younger brother of Wisconsin Head Coach Greg Gard and disciple of Bo Ryan, Jeff Gard has almost a decade of success at Division III powerhouse UW-Platteville. Given the whispers of Linc Darner being a bad “fit” for Green Bay’s program, hiring someone from a strong line of defensive-minded coaches makes a lot of sense.
Gard doesn’t have the gaudy record that Grzesk has, though to his credit the WIAC is a significantly more difficult conference than the Midwest Conference that St. Norbert competes in.
Gard is the first coach on this list whose connections to big name coaches in the state are impossible to get past. It’s hard to think of Greg Gard or Bo Ryan and not immediately connect them to low-paced, defensive basketball. While “fit” has been floated as a reason for the coaching change, going from a run-and-gun offense to the system of a Ryan disciple could cause a rift between Darner’s recruits and Gard as a potential head coach. With the program looking to go from good to great, losing the players that made good possible could prove problematic long-term.
Matt Lewis, UW-Oshkosh Head Coach —
Matt Lewis burst onto the scene as the interim coach at Oshkosh in 2019 when he led the Titans to a 29-3 record and a Division III National Championship. His second year didn’t go as well, but still resulted in a strong 20-9 record and a second round exit from the NCAA Tournament.
The potential downside of hiring Lewis is that you’re gambling on a coach who has two years of experience as a head coach, and therefore has yet to put together a whole roster on his own. While hiring a lower division head coach is how Green Bay got its best coach ever in Dick Bennett, it’s safe to declare Lewis that caliber of candidate right now.
Kent Dernbach, UW-La Crosse Head Coach —
Dernbach’s name has been floated on Twitter — admittedly by one user in particular — due to connections to new Green Bay Chancellor Michael Alexander. He led UW-La Crosse to its second-ever NCAA Tournament in 2019 and seemingly narrowly missed in 2020, so it seems he definitely has the Eagles headed in a great direction. But like Lewis at Oshkosh, he has yet to lead an NCAA program for long enough to prove he can build a competitive roster of his own at a lower level, much less in Division I.
With a resume that doesn’t have highs as high as Lewis’ while having a similar lack of necessary experience, Dernbach will likely remain a longshot. But as the guy who spoke Rob Jeter to Western Illinois into existence via Twitter, I respect the hustle.
With that in mind, Krabbenhoft would likely be the type of Power Conference assistant that the Phoenix could afford. The former quintessential Bo Ryan player at Wisconsin, Krabbenhoft is now an assistant for Greg Gard at his alma mater.
Joe Krabbenhoft, Wisconsin Assistant Coach — Aside from the fact that Green Bay might have more success elevating its program from good to great by avoiding the steep learning curve of a first time head coach, one reason the school might prefer a lower division head coach over a Division I assistant is that the $230,000 annual salary Linc Darner made last year would be a paycut for many power conference assistants. Even beyond highly paid assistants like new UIC Head Coach Luke Yaklich — who needed $500,000 to leave the University of Texas — recent Horizon League hires who left power conference assistant posts demanded salaries between ,$280,000 and $350,000 per year.
Which begins to address some of the biggest concerns with Krabbenhoft’s potential candidacy. Darner recruited kids who wanted to win with an offensive-focused up-tempo team. Replacing him with a guy whose college career became synonymous with victories that didn’t require either team to hit 50 points might be a hard sell for a roster that brings key players back from a third place Horizon League finisher. If that’s the case, the goal of elevating the program likely becomes a longer-term one as a first-time head coach is forced to completely reassemble the roster.
Brad Soderberg, Virginia Assistant Coach — The former Wisconsin, Saint Louis and Lindenwood Head Coach’s name has been mentioned as a potential candidate for this job seemingly mostly due to his connections to the Bennett family. Soderberg replaced Dick Bennett at Wisconsin after Bennett’s abrupt retirement in 2001, and the season definitely didn’t live up to expectations. Soderberg failed to have his interim tag
As best as I can figure, there’s some odd belief that Liberty Head Coach Ritchie McKay went through a transformation as an assistant for the younger Bennett and that Soderberg could do the same. But the more likely explanation for a guy who had 13 years as a Division I head coach suddenly having a lot of success in the Atlantic Sun than he did in the WAC, Mountain West, Pac 10, and Big South is because the modern Atlantic Sun isn’t nearly as good as those conferences. While I’ll be the first to admit that the modern Horizon League is a shell of its former self, it’s a stronger and deeper league than the Division II conference that Lindenwood plays in.
In addition to failing to maintain previous programs he’s coached, Soderberg likely brings with him the Packline defense and the potential culture shock to a promising group of returning Green Bay players.
Drew Adams, Bradley Assistant Coach — Adams’ name surfaced as a potential Horizon League Head Coach after he interviewed for the IUPUI job in March. While the position Green Bay is in right now makes a candidate with head coaching experience seem like the best option, the current Brian Wardle assistant could be a good fit for the Phoenix without branching off of either the Bennett or Ryan coaching trees and the plodding offenses that those are associated with.
Jermaine Kimbrough, Loyola Chicago Assistant Coach
Kimbrough has ample experience with the Horizon League and its territory. Prior to coaching at former Horizon League member Loyola, Kimbrough spent ten total seasons in two stints at Cleveland State under Gary Waters. Between those jobs he spent time at future member Purdue Fort Wayne.
While most of his higher level experience is out west at Mountain West schools Wyoming and Nevada; Kimbrough’s larger role at smaller schools in the area and his time working with coaches who had disproportionate success relative to program standards like Waters, Porter Moser and Eric Musselman could make him an appealing pick for the Phoenix.