Wiedmer: Rising stars among UTC candidates

Wiedmer: Rising stars among UTC candidates

May 5th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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As almost any University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball fan will nervously attest, the Mocs have been without a men's coach for the past 46 days. The women's job has been vacant just 16 days less than that.

With new athletic director David Blackburn having interviewed several candidates for both positions over the past few days, that figures to change sometime soon. Perhaps as early as Monday for the men.

And though no hunch is certain until Blackburn makes an official announcement, don't be surprised if the new men's coach comes from the following five names:

Alabama assistant John Brannen, former Georgia head coach Dennis Felton, Miami (Fla.) assistant Eric Konkol, Michigan State associate head coach Dwayne Stephens and Virginia Commonwealth assistant Will Wade.

By any standard it is an impressive list of candidates, especially given the fact that Blackburn wasn't named UTC's AD until April 20.

And an additional candidate could still surface. But those five have been on one college bench or another for 29 total NCAA tournaments and five Final Fours. For a job that's paid less than $150,000 a year historically, that's a pretty impressive group and pretty good homework from Blackburn.

But which of those five -- or a wild-card candidate currently off the radar -- he should tab to get the Mocs back to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2009 and post a 20-win season for the first time since 2005 is less certain.

Only Felton of the five previously has been a Division I head coach, but all these men understand what it's like to work at mid-majors with thin budgets and weighty concerns.

Even Stephens, who starred at Michigan State and has spent most of his career next to the coaching icon Tom Izzo there, began working at Oakland University.

Miami's Konkol even has coached on the high school level back in the Cheese State, where he was a Division III star at Wisconsin-Eau Claire, hitting 89.7 percent of his free throws and 40 percent of his 3-point tries while leading that school to the national title game his senior year.

These guys also are smart. Brannen was a Rhodes Scholar candidate during his Marshall playing days. His road to Alabama actually began at the West Virginia school, his time as a player under Billy Donovan enough to align him later with Crimson Tide coach Anthony Grant when Grant took the VCU job.

As for Wade, he exhibited coaching skills long before he graduated from Nashville's Franklin Road Academy, where he actually excelled in golf.

"He had a coach's mentality even as a child," FRA director of communication Carleen Matthews told The City Paper two years ago. "You always knew Will was a young man who was going to go far."

All five have gone far to get to this point, to be on the edge of running their own programs, mixing and matching all they've learned from so many to forge what will become their singular styles.

Yet even as the men's search appears to be reaching its conclusion, Blackburn hasn't had the luxury of focusing on that opening alone.

To that end, expect his attention for the Lady Mocs post to center on the following five candidates: Lee University head coach Marty Rowe, Alabama-Huntsville head coach and former Covenant boss (and Florida State assistant) Roy Heintz, Florida assistant and former UTC aide Angela Crosby, UNC-Charlotte assistant Joanne Aluka-White and the wild card of all wild cards -- Marquette assistant Tyler Summitt, whose mother Pat is only the most famous women's coach ever.

Not to plug young Summitt or say he's remotely ready for this job -- though he's certainly been properly groomed for it, given his mom and his time spent with former Tennessee men's coach Bruce Pearl as a Vols walk-on -- but can you imagine the national attention the Lady Mocs would receive if he was hired?

Yet all that figures to be on hold for at least 48 hours longer than the men's opening, which looks as if it could feasibly end Monday, mostly because the school's Porky's Open fundraising golf tourney is scheduled for Tuesday at Council Fire with both Blackburn and new chancellor Steve Angle expected to be in attendance.

Just imagine how much more fun and carefree that afternoon will be if Blackburn can trot out his new men's coach before reaching the course, rather than enduring countless questions and suggestions about the position during the event if no coach has been named.

It isn't easy. Does Blackburn go with Felton, easily the most experienced of these possible finalists? Does he choose someone such as Konkol or Brannen, guys who have traveled a more circuitous path? Or does he go with Wade, who seems to be everyone's future star, a coaching wunderkind who grew up 140 miles to the northwest up I-24?

Late Saturday afternoon, while on a golf course, Stephens told our David Uchiyama that he had yet to speak to anyone from the school about the opening.

"From what I hear, it's a great job," he said. "You have to be offered a job to take a job. I haven't talked with anybody from UTC. I got one call, returned it, and I haven't heard back."

So maybe it's down to four. Or maybe there's a different fifth. But whether or not Stephens is ever interviewed, for the associate head coach of perennial national power Michigan State to say UTC is a great job is to know this program's best basketball days may still be ahead of it for both its women and its men.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com