Another thrilling opening weekend to the NCAA tournament has passed, once again, without the SMU Mustangs.
Despite being right in the heart of a recruiting hotbed in Dallas, SMU once again stumbled through both a Downy-soft non-conference schedule and a far from daunting Conference-USA slate. The team eked out wins against Florida Gulf Coast University and Georgia Southern and lost to the mighty Tigers of Jackson State (7-24 despite playing in the SWAC). By any measure, the season was an overwhelming disappointment, and Matt Doherty earned his involuntary exit.
Now the search begins for a new coach. Steve Orsini did a nice job using boosters' deep pockets to lure June Jones to the school's football program, so there's some reason for optimism on the Hilltop. But do they know what to look for? Their track record indicates they do. Some of their current targets indicate otherwise.
In 2004, the school went with Jimmy Tubbs, a coach with connections to the DISD from his time coaching at Kimball High. The thinking was that he'd be able to attract the sort of top tier talent in the area that generally wound up at higher profile schools. But while he had some success in the recruiting realm, he never got the opportunity to see the revitalization effort through.
Tubbs was never the school's first choice and he was fired amidst some very troubling, very suspicious circumstances (according to some on the team, the illegal benefits he was fired for allegedly providing were a meal and some laundry detergent). After his firing, the NCAA decided no action was necessary and the rift between the Dallas basketball community and SMU grew.
After Tubbs' ouster, the school turned to Matt Doherty, the man who managed to turn North Carolina into an ACC doormat. He had the name, the pedigree and was desperate for a chance to prove himself. Though he turned in a Top 25 recruiting class, he simply couldn't get the job done on the floor. His devotion to a restrictive offense held back whatever talent he had, and it's hard to imagine the team responded well to his constant tantrums and berating ways. Unlike Tubbs, Doherty got six long years to turn things around, even after trotting out 10-20 and 9-21 outfits in consecutive years.
To turn the corner, SMU has to lock down it's backyard. The road to relevance starts with the talent that's readily available in South Dallas. However, the perception of a school located in the middle of Highland Park in the rest of the city is well captured in this comment on dallasnews.com: "SMU really has no connection to Dallas Period! They are content to sit on their own little island waiting to star in their own movie version of 'The Help!'"
Deserved or not, that's what the school's next coach will have to overcome if SMU has any chance of becoming relevant in college basketball.
It's not impossible, as Mike Dement showed at times during his 14-year stretch on the Hilltop. Armed with a coaching staff that included Tubbs, Dement was able to land Jeryl Sasser (the No. 2 prospect in the state) from Kimball and Willie Davis from Lincoln. Two years later, Quinton Ross (Kimball) came as well. Sasser and Ross went on to the NBA while Davis had a long career overseas. Since then, the talent just hasn't been there.
As it stands now, the Mustangs have a Division III player running the point, a mis-used Top 100 recruit and a few other pieces that might qualify as Division I talent. At a certain point, talent is the name of the game in college basketball and SMU needs someone who can recruit local products like Le'Bryan Nash and Perry Jones III, someone who can get the support of both the Highland Park boosters and the DISD coaches. Someone like Rod Strickland.
The ex-NBA star is working in an administrative role with Kentucky for John Calipari (read: recruiting). Strickland's career would command the respect of recruits and give SMU instant credibility. If he follows his mentor's model of building a program, he could turn SMU into Dallas' Memphis -- a hometown team built up on local prospects. Beyond that, he's a hire that could get the boosters excited, especially with the team moving into the Big East.
Unfortunately, he also has 4 DUI's and no head coaching experience. While his track record as a player indicates he knows the game inside and out, it's an easy thing for Steve Orsini to point to as a reason for not hiring him should the boosters object to his penchant for going hard in the car. The boosters could overlook the DUIs easily in the name of winning ... if the most recent one wasn't less than two years ago.
Instead of thinking outside the box, the school has been rumored to be looking at UTA's Scott Cross, UTSA's Brooks Thompson and Indiana State's Greg Lansing. Cross has had two good seasons surrounded by four very pedestrian ones in a weak conference. Thompson is 4 games over .500 over six years in the same conference. Lansing has posted decent results in his two years as a head coach but has exactly zero connection to the area.
A far more intriguing name is Marquette assistant Tony Benford, currently helping Buzz Williams reach the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season. He isn't the splash that Strickland would be, but he's also not the MADD lightning "Rod" (get it) Strickland is. More importantly, he kills it in recruiting. In 2007, he helped Nebraska -- yes, Nebraska -- land a consensus top-25 recruiting class ranked as high as #5 by some evaluators. If Benford can bring kids to Lincoln, I can't imagine it would be much more difficult to convince them to stay home. Of the candidates the school is actually considering, the former Texas Tech standout is far and away their best option.
While I'd love to see SMU make a bold move and go after Strickland, the DUIs are pretty unacceptable from the leader of a Division I program. But a vanilla hire won't excite anyone -- not the students, not the city, not recruits. If one of their first three candidates gets the job, the fracture between the city and the school will only grow deeper, and the team's talent level will continue to reside in an abyss.
Realistically, Benford is the best option they will consider. He can sell the boosters on his recruiting resume and still have pull with prospects whose place he's been in before. However, given SMU's history of mediocrity in basketball, another uninspired hire with little chance of recruiting in South Dallas is probably more likely.