Worst Horizon League coaching hires since 2000

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Jeff Goodman recently wrote an article detailing the 20 worst hires in college basketball in the 21st Century (it’s everywhere, so we’re not linking it), which featured a lot of the usual suspects but barely scratched the surface as far as mid-majors were concerned. For Horizon League fans, you likely saw plenty of glaring omissions, as we’ve undoubtedly experienced our fair share of clunkers over the decades.

So, in the spirit of Goodman’s original piece, here’s a list of some of the coaches in the Horizon League that really went nowhere, for one reason or another.

1. Will Ryan, Green Bay (2020-2023): This whole saga began with the inexplicable firing of Linc Darner, who only had one losing season in his five years on the Phoenix bench and included an NCAA Tournament appearance, one CBI bid, and a CIT run that led them to the championship game the year before his ouster.

Enter Ryan, the son of coaching legend Bo Ryan, whose previous head coaching experience was a single middling campaign at Wheeling. He cashed that in and proceeded to turn in a 15-61 record at the helm of Green Bay, squandering the talent on his bench and nearly erasing decades of Phoenix history to boot. After one of the ugliest losses in recent Green Bay history (and that’s saying something!) against Robert Morris, Ryan was booted.

What really puts Ryan at the top of this list is what preceded him and what has transpired since, with Sundance Wicks taking over and, as if on cue, rising the Phoenix from the ashes of his predecessor’s inability to win.

2. Bacari Alexander, Detroit Mercy (2016-2018): It seemed like a good idea at the time, replacing Ray McCallum with a former Titan player who had worked his way up the Michigan bench, right?

Wrong.

Alexander’s tenure, which resulted in a putrid 16-47 record, was more memorable for off-the-court mysteries, such as his seven-game absence and accusations of a vulgar tirade to a player (which led to a lawsuit that was later dismissed), than anything else. To make matters worse, his legacy carried over into the Mike Davis era, where academic issues rendered the 2019-2020 Detroit Mercy ineligible for post-season play. Alexander spent three seasons as an assistant at Denver before getting out of coaching altogether.

3. Dennis Felton, Cleveland State (2017-2019): A head-scratching hire from the start, Felton’s tenure with the Vikings was mostly notable for two reasons: their surprise appearance in the finals of the Horizon League Tournament in 2018 and their inability to even make the conference tourney the year after.

It didn’t get any better after that, as Felton, who has amassed a dismal 22-44 record with CSU, found himself trying to explain why half his roster entered the transfer portal throughout the month of June. He didn’t have a good answer and was fired. Cleveland State subsequently hired Dennis Gates, and you know the rest of the story.

Let’s not feel too bad for Felton here. Since Cleveland State, he’s remained in the coaching ranks, taking assistant jobs at Fordham, and George Mason, subsequently following his boss at GMU, Kim English, to Providence when he took the head coaching job there. There’s also the $695,000 he did eventually get from CSU.

4. Mike Garland, Cleveland State (2003-2006): There are great assistant coaches that are best staying where they are. Garland, a longtime part of Tom Izzo’s bench at Michigan State, falls into that category. You couldn’t blame him for taking up CSU on the offer to move to the top spot.

You can blame him, though, for what happened in his three seasons at the helm, which started with a 4-25 campaign that featured the longest losing streak (23 games) in conference history. His efforts to recruit never translated to success on the court, resulting in a 23-60 record and his ultimate dismissal (or resignation, depending on who you ask).

In the end, Garland eventually returned to Izzo’s bench, where he excelled once again in an assistant’s role with the Spartans, staying until he retired in 2022 as a beloved member of the Michigan State family.

5. Jerry Slocum, Youngstown State (2006-2017): Like so many of these clunker hires, it seemed like a good idea at the time for YSU to hire Slocum, who built a long and successful resume in Division II and prior to that, the NAIA. As we’ve seen across the college basketball landscape, though, the streets are lined with coaches who were good with in the lower divisions that couldn’t carry that over in Division I.

To Slocum’s credit, in spite of only having two winning seasons and only finishing in the top half of the Horizon League standings twice, that apparently was good enough for him to stay as the Penguins head honcho for 12 seasons before retiring. It took multiple seasons for his successor, Jerrod Calhoun, to shake Youngstown State out of the atrophy that set in during the Slocum era.

6. Pat Baldwin, Sr., Milwaukee (2018-2022): On the surface, it seemed like Baldwin never had a chance in the first four seasons of his tenure, despite having multiple weapons at his disposal the entire time, as well as a Horizon League Tournament shocker to Wright State in 2021.

The final straw came in the 2021-22 season, when the promise of a major turnaround led by five-star recruit and eventual NBA draft pick Pat Baldwin, Jr., who chose to play for his dad. The younger Baldwin’s injury issues, however, put the kibosh on that whole plan, and the Panthers stayed at the depths of the conference standings. So, it was no surprise that Milwaukee moved on from the elder Baldwin and proceeded to hire Bart Lundy, who turned around and won 20 games.

7. Paul Biancardi, Wright State (2003-2006): There was a time when Biancardi wasn’t a stalwart on the ESPN airwaves. Once upon a time, Biancardi was an up-and-coming Big Ten assistant that was on everyone’s list as a head coaching candidate. Wright State took him up on the offer, and in the three seasons that followed, amassed a meh 42-44 record, although he was named Horizon League Coach of the Year in 2004.

While having a mediocre record isn’t something to make this a bad hire, the NCAA sanctions that got slapped on Biancardi, compliments of his ties to an illegal $6,000 transaction to an Ohio State recruit in 1999, does make it one, even though in the current NIL era, this probably would have never happened. Because he was replaced by Brad Brownell, who won 20+ games every season he was coach and led the Raiders to an NCAA Tournament, there hasn’t been much speculation as to what would have happened if Biancardi hadn’t been sanctioned. But it’s clear that all parties involved are in much better situations.

8. Byron Rimm, IUPUI (2019-2021): It’s probably not entirely fair to have Rimm on this list, considering that he was classified as an interim head coach the entire time, taking over for the fired Jason Gardner in 2019. At the same time, to only amass a 15-35 record while having a core of Elyjah Goss, Marcus Burk and Jaylen Minnett is pretty astounding. He’s back as an assistant now, joining the Houston Christian staff in 2021.

9. Jim Whitesell, Loyola-Chicago (2004-2011): Since Whitesell’s entire time with Loyola was while the Ramblers were a part of the Horizon League, he certainly qualifies. After a pair of seasons in which Loyola looked primed to make the leap back into the upper echelons of the Horizon League, Whitesell’s subsequent teams feel off the proverbial cliff, finished no better than seventh in his final four campaigns.

The kicker is that nearly a decade later, Whitesell got a second shot at head coaching, this time replacing Nate Oats at Buffalo. Things didn’t get any better for him after one 20-win season, and he was also fired from this gig in 2023.

10. Steve McClain, UIC (2015-2020): McClain joins Whitesell as a coach of a former Horizon League school whose entire tenure was while the team was in the conference. While his inaugural season was a 5-25 nightmare, his following seasons were decidedly better, making a run in the 2018 CIT during this time.

However, a third-place finish in that CIT year of 2017-18 was the best that UIC could muster under McClain, even with one of the best backcourts in the conference throughout his time there. Another mediocre finish in 2019-20 proved to be his undoing and was fired. Since then, he moved into and assistant role, first with Georgia, then with Texas, where he’s currently on staff.

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