Analyzing assistant coaching hires is really, really hard. Hard enough that I actively question the value of even attempting the task. The reasons are obvious. Each team has three assistant coaches, and what they are asked to do can vary widely and without any obvious explanation. At least football assistants come with a more specific title, so that you can attempt to analyze the performance of a position group.
Some basketball coaches are recruiting specialists. Some are defensive specialists. Some are jacks-of-all-trades. But unless guys are coaching at really prominent programs, finding out who is what is hard, if not impossible.
Mostly, this is an exercise in guesswork. How did a coach’s previous team(s) perform, and what might that say about what they might bring to the table? Let’s find out!
April Phillips, women’s basketball
If your thing is young and up-and-coming, it’s hard to do better than April Phillips. She’s only been in college coaching for six years, and has only been a DI assistant for four years. It’s been a rapid ascent up the coaching ladder, with accolades to go right alongside promotions.
Prior to her arrival at Loyola Marymount in 2015, the Lions hadn’t posted a winning record in WCC play since the 06-07 season. When Phillips left after three seasons Loyola Marymount had just posted a 19 win season with an 11-7 WCC record, and Phillips seems to be credited with much of LMU’s improved recruiting.
One year ago, Arizona WBB was coming off of a 6 win season in head coach Adia Barnes’ 2nd season in Tucson. They hired Phillips, and one year later they ended the season with 24 wins and an NCAA title.
So how much credit should Phillips be given for being an assistant coach on two different teams that experienced pretty massive turnarounds? Both teams clearly upgraded their recruiting during the period of time in which Phillips was on staff. McDonald’s All-American Cate Reese committed to play for Arizona presumably knowing that Phillips would be her primary position coach.
Phillips’ reputation as a recruiter is certainly needed badly. Thanks to graduations and transfers, Cal is down to just three players that were part of last year’s regular rotation and will obviously be replacing the best scorer and rebounder in program history. Welcome to Cal, coach Phillips, no pressure!
Andrew Francis, men’s basketball
Andrew Francis’ career is certainly simpler to summarize - nine straight years at Iowa, and 12 in a row under Fran McCaffery, which makes up the entirety of his career as a D1 assistant.
So, what can we say about those Iowa teams? Simple: They struggled to recruit, but found ways to play lights out offense anyway, but with a pretty inconsistent defense.
Recruiting-wise, the numbers are dire - in nine years, McCaffery and his staff only managed to finish in the upper half of Big-10 recruiting rankings once, and even that was peaked only at 6th in the Big-10, 31st nationally.
And yet despite recruiting rankings that suggested Iowa should be closer to Penn St. and Northwestern, the Hawkeyes have been consistently competitive in the B1G. In the last six years, Iowa’s offense has been top 50 every year and top 25 four times. That’s really impressive production that suggests that somebody on Iowa’s staff really knows how to wring excellent results out of average talent.
Is that guy Andrew Francis, or is that guy Fran McCaffery, or is it somebody else on the Iowa staff (like Sherman Dillard, a former Cal assistant under Lou Campanelli)?
Hopefully Francis was a big part of Iowa’s offensive success. Because as hard as it probably is to recruit guys to come to play at Iowa, I don’t think there’s any way you can look at Iowa’s recruiting history and come to the conclusion that Francis is an ace recruiter.
But if you want to pin your hopes that Francis can evaluate and develop recruits into well oiled offensive players, there’s enough from Iowa’s performance to give hope.
Chris Harriman, men’s basketball
If you read Harriman’s bio on the official website, you might notice that Chris Harriman is Australian! Cal is eager to play up Harriman’s international recruiting pedigree. There is some evidence in favor of the idea - Over the last four years, New Mexico had added players from Canada, Germany, and of course Australia. Nebraska recruited a player from New Zealand while Harriman was on staff, and he helped St. Louis bring in some Aussies and Kiwis as well.
The challenge is determining the impact of those recruits. While most of those international recruits were solid contributors, others were long term projects that never quite made an impact and none of them were all-conference level performers. It’s also worth noting that the best international recruits came in when Harriman was at St. Louis seven years ago.
Harriman’s team success has been a mixed bag. His time under Rick Majerus at St. Louis was a tremendous success story, gradually building a legit top 25 team that stayed at that level after Majerus left and an entirely new staff was brought in. and Harriman’s time at Nebraska saw the Cornhuskers make their first NCAA tournament in forever.
But his four years at New Mexico have coincided with the worst four year stretch for Lobos basketball in some time, and recruiting results in Albuquerque have reflected those struggles. It’s been a turbulent few years at the Pit, with an oddly-handled coaching change in the middle of Harriman’s time on staff, so it’s hard to say how much he realistically could be expected to do in those circumstances.
Trent Johnson, men’s basketball (special assistant)
My presumption is that Trent Johnson’s role as a special assistant will be specifically to help with Xs and Os in some form, whether that’s scouting, tape breakdown, or game plan development. Regardless, I mostly wanted to include it so that we can briefly recap Johnson’s career, which has been wild.
Obviously, you have to start with his first head coaching tenure at Nevada, where he built Nevada from nothing to a 25 win Sweet 16 squad. He parlayed that into four pretty solid years at Stanford, even if they weren’t quite as good as the prior Monty years. It’s worth noting that Stanford has fallen off a cliff since Johnson left, with just one tourney bid in ten years after 13 trips in 14 years.
Then Johnson posted a 27 win, NCAA season in his first go at LSU, which is pretty good considering the Tigers were a .500 team for the two previous seasons.
Count that up. Trent Johnson went to the NCAA tournament five times in six seasons with three different schools. Pretty solid.
And then, for reasons that I haven’t bothered to research, it all fell apart. Johnson had back-to-back disaster years at LSU (combined SEC record: 5-27) before a mild bounce-back that wasn’t enough to not get fired, then went 8-64 in four years of Big-12 conference play at TCU.
I’m sure he didn’t forget to coach. There must be extenuating circumstances of some kind. But I don’t know if there is a coaching career more stark. From a consistent winner at a wide variety of programs to a coach that struggles to get to 10 wins in a season, seemingly overnight.