Best Horizon League hires since 2000

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Since we’ve already put out a list of the worst Horizon League hires since 2000, it was only appropriate that we compile a list of some of the best hires that the conference has had in recent memory. Unlike our list of the worst hires, we’ve included some coaches that are still currently with us.

1. Brad Stevens, Butler (2007-2013): It seems like almost a lifetime ago that Stevens, who quit his corporate job at Eli Lilly to pursue a college coaching career, was tabbed by Butler athletic director (and former coach) Barry Collier to replace Todd Lickliter. Spending nearly all but his last season in the Horizon League, Stevens dominated the league in both the regular season and conference tournament in 2008, 2010 and 2011.

The Bulldogs were a Gordon Hayward last-second heave away from winning the national championship in 2010, an appearance that marked one of the only times in the modern history of the NCAA Tournament that a team played in its own city (Indianapolis). They followed that up with another national championship appearance against Connecticut, with the Huskies prevailing in this contest.

Butler would subsequently move to the A-10 in 2012 and Stevens with them. After a single season in the league, the Bulldogs would head to the Big East and Stevens was, to everyone’s surprise, picked to coach the Boston Celtics, where he’s now the president of basketball operations. Ironically, Hayward, a lottery pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, would once again play for Stevens as a Celtic from 2017 to 2020.

2. Todd Lickliter, Butler (2001-2007): The Butler Way is strong on this list, much to the chagrin, in all likelihood, of Horizon League fans who wish that wasn’t the case. But after Thad Matta initially left to coach Ohio State after one season with the Bulldogs (hence why he’s not on this list), it was Lickliter, who was an assistant under Matta and Collier before him. His initial campaign, while winning 26 games and regular season conference crown, was only good enough for an NIT bid, as Butler fell in the Horizon League tourney.

The Bulldogs didn’t falter in 2002-03 and made it to the Sweet Sixteen. A subsequent NCAA tournament bid and Sweet Sixteen appearance happened again for Lickliter and his crew in 2007. Afterwards, Lickliter answered the call of the Big Ten, taking the head coaching job at Iowa. His tenure with the Hawkeyes was less-than-stellar, but somehow better than the disaster that awaited him at Evansville, where he was unable to clean up the mess left by Walter McCarty and ended up being ousted in 2022.

3. Bryce Drew, Valparaiso (2012-2016): When Homer Drew retired for the second time, it was essentially a repeat of the first retirement. The elder Drew stepped down, and one of his sons took over. First, it was Scott who assumed the role at Valpo before taking a job at Baylor that, at the time, looked like an impossible reclamation project. Then, when it was really time for Homer to retire, his other son Bryce, the hero of the 1998 NCAA Tournament, was there to take the mantle.

Spending his entire tenure with the then-Crusaders in the Horizon League, Bryce Drew led Valpo to post-season bids every year he was there, including a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances, courtesy of Horizon League Tournament victories in 2013 and 2015. He’s now finding similar success at Grand Canyon, where he’s already taken the Antelopes to a pair of NCAA tourneys and has them tearing up the WAC so far this season.

4. Bruce Pearl, Milwaukee (2001-2005): You didn’t think we were going to forget that Pearl started at Milwaukee, did you?

Of course not.

Before becoming a household name in the SEC, Pearl took over for Bo Ryan, who moved on to make Wisconsin a national juggernaut. Naturally, Pearl kept Milwaukee rolling, appearing in the NCAAs twice, with the latter bid resulting in the Panthers making the Sweet Sixteen on the strength of wins against Alabama and Boston College at an arena Milwaukee has always been familiar with, Cleveland State’s Wolstein Center.

These days, you can catch Pearl at Auburn, where he landed after sitting out of coaching for three years as a result of a show-cause penalty he was given during his tenure with Tennessee. He hasn’t lost a step, consistently having the Tigers as one of the teams to be both in the SEC and nationally.

5. John Brannen, Northern Kentucky (2015-2019): Few coaches can take a team that just started in Division I and get them into the NCAA Tournament within the second year of being eligible. But that’s exactly what Brannen did with the Norse. Fresh off an assistant coaching stint with Alabama, where he served as interim head coach during the NIT, Brannen rolled up his sleeves and got to work with Northern Kentucky.

His first year coincided with NKU’s inaugural season in the Horizon League as a Division I school eligible for the post-season. While the first year was rough on the Norse, the second was entirely different, rolling through league foes en route to the school’s first D1 NCAA bid. Northern Kentucky repeated this feat again in 2019, winning both the regular season and tournament titles that time around. After a brief stint as the head coach of Cincinnati, Brannen now serves as a special assistant at Dayton for Anthony Grant, his old boss when he was at Alabama.

6. Brad Brownell, Wright State (2006-2010): Had not been for NCAA sanctions, this job would likely have not been open (and Paul Biancardi wouldn’t have landed on our worst hires list). Brownell, a native of Evansville, jumped at the chance to return to the Midwest after creating a strong program at UNC-Wilmington. His first year in charge of the Raiders was a good one, winning the regular season crown and conference tournament title.

In his four seasons, Brownell compiled an 84-45 record. In 2010, he was tabbed to take the head coaching job at Clemson, where he’s been ever since, making three NCAA Tournament appearances with the Tigers.

7. Scott Nagy, Wright State (2016-Present): If you have a chance to get a winning coach and a top-notch recruiter from the Summit League, you pull the trigger. And that’s what Wright State did with Nagy, who was a force to be reckoned with as the head coach of South Dakota State, when it replaced Billy Donlon in 2016.

By his second season with the Raiders, Nagy handsomely repaid Wright State for their faith, taking the team to the NCAA Tournament. He followed that up with three regular season conference titles and another trip back to the NCAAs in 2022. And let’s not forget that since he’s arrived, Nagy has always found a way to get a big man capable of giving league foes headaches (ex. Loudon Love, Grant Basile, Brandon Noel, etc.).

8. Darrin Horn, Northern Kentucky (2019-Present): Taking over for a successful coach like John Brannen was a hard act to follow, but Horn, who had head coaching stops at Western Kentucky and South Carolina, was up to the challenge. He immediately continued Brannen’s winning ways, leading the Norse to a conference tournament crown in 2020, which would have translated to an NCAA Tournament bid if not for COVID.

Northern Kentucky hasn’t stayed out of the NCAAs for long, securing the auto bid with a Horizon League Tournament win over Cleveland State in 2023. And in every year in the Horn, the Norse have been a constant threat to take all comers in the league.

9. Rob Jeter, Milwaukee (2005-2016): The Bo Ryan coaching tree branched out in all sorts of directions before and after he coached at Milwaukee. It includes great coaches (Greg Gard, Tony Bennett) and…Will Ryan. It also includes Jeter, who not only served as a Ryan assistant at both Milwaukee and Madison but was also a player for Ryan at Wisconsin-Platteville.

So, when Milwaukee searched for someone to replace Pearl, who had taken the Tennessee job, Jeter was the choice. Under his tutelage, the Panthers won two regular-season titles and made it to the NCAA Tournament twice; in 2006 and 2014. With 184 wins, Jeter is also the all-time winningest coach in Milwaukee history. His time with the Panthers was cut short in 2016, despite once again winning 20 games. He returned to the head-coaching seat in 2020 with Western Illinois and is currently in charge at Southern Utah.

10. Gary Waters, Cleveland State (2006-2017): In 2006, Cleveland State, which hadn’t seen any success since the days of Kevin Mackey, were desperate for a coach that could turn the Vikings around. And for Waters, this was the perfect opportunity after his stint with Rutgers to show that he could be just that person.

By 2009, the Vikings bested regular season champion and host Butler in the Horizon League Tournament finals to garner the NCAA autobid. The last couple of years for Waters were rough, though, as the changing climate in college basketball, specifically the transfer portal, put CSU in the crosshairs. He retired in 2017 as the winningest coach in Cleveland State history.

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