There are two less teams and four new coaches this season in Big 12 men's basketball. That means four of the ten head coaches in the league are new this year, but none of the four is actually a newcomer to the conference.
Oklahoma's Lon Kruger and Billy Gillespie, the new main man at Texas Tech, previously served as head coaches at Kansas State and Texas A&M, respectively. Frank Haith, the new coach at Missouri, and A&M's Billy Kennedy also have former ties to the conference when it was both the Big Eight and the Big 12.
When Missouri hired Haith to replace the departed Mike Anderson, who left to take the head job at Arkansas, there was a huge public backlash criticizing MU officials for making a questionable hire for a program on the uprise. Haith had not been in Columbia a week or two before allegations surfaced associating him with recruiting violations being investigated by the NCAA at Miami.
What uproar there was, however, quickly dissipated in the wake of Missouri's impressive 9-0 start to the season. Currently the Tigers are one of two teams in the Big 12 and one of only nine teams in major college basketball that remain undefeated.
Haith, 46, was an assistant coach at Texas A&M in the early 1990s, when the Aggies were members of the Southwest Conference, and again in 1996-97 at the beginning of the Big 12. Haith also served as an assistant for three years under Rick Barnes at Texas from 2001-04. Before being hired for the Missouri coaching job, Haith was the head coach at the University of Miami for the past seven seasons. It was his first time as a head coach after 19 seasons as an assistant. While at Miami, he led the Hurricanes to an overall record of 129-101 (.561).
Texas A&M's Kennedy seemed to pick off right where previous coach Mark Turgeon left off, with the Aggies off to an 8-1 start to the 2011-12 season.
Kennedy, 47, spent 12 years as a college assistant before getting his first opportunity as a head coach at Centenary (Shreveport, La.) in 1997. He spent one season (1990-91) at Texas A&M as an assistant. For the past five years, he was the head coach at Murray State, leading them to consecutive Ohio Valley Conference championships. Kennedy takes over for the departed Mark Turgeon, who is the new head coach at Maryland.
Texas A&M was coming off a disastrous 0-16 season in the Big 12 in 2003-04, when Gillespie was hired away from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to turn around the Aggies basketball fortunes. A&M went 8-8 in the conference in Gillespie's first year and compiled an overall record of 70-26 in his three full seasons in College Station, including NCAA Tournament appearances in 2006 and 2007.
Gillespie left Texas A&M after the 2007 season to take the coaching reins at Kentucky, one of the grand dames of college basketball. He only survived two seasons at Kentucky, however. Now 52, Gillespie had been out of college basketball for two seasons before accepting the position at Texas Tech. His Red Raiders' team has a record of 4-4 through games of Wednesday.
"I'm the seventh longest-tenured coach in the league," Gillespie quipped in a Sporting News interview after being the first of the four new Big 12 coaches to be hired after the 2010-11 season. His overall record as a college head coach coming into this season was an impressive 140-85.
OU pursued Kruger, who has the most college head-coaching experience of the four new coaches, after being spurned by their primary coaching candidate, 39-year-old Buzz Williams, who is in his fourth season at Marquette. Kruger, 59, actually turned down Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione on two separate occasions, explaining that he was content at UNLV (Las Vegas) and not interested in leaving to come to Oklahoma. Castiglione refused to take "no" for an answer, however, and he finally succeeded in persuading Kruger to take the leap and move back closer to his home and basketball roots. It's amazing what a seven-year, $16-million contract can do.
Kruger, who grew up in Silver Lake, Kan., was an All-Big Eight player for Jack Hartman at Kansas State from 1971-74 and was the head coach at his alma mater for four seasons beginning in 1986. In his 29 years as a head coach, his teams, which include stints at Pan-American, Florida, Illinois and UNLV, in addition to Kansas State, have made 13 NCAA Tournament appearances (his 1987-88 Kansas State team made it to the Elite Eight). Kruger's combined record at Kansas State was 81-46 and 34-22 in the conference. Kruger also was a head coach in the NBA, for three years with the Atlanta Hawks (2000-2003).
In Kruger, Oklahoma got a veteran head coach who has been a winner everywhere he has played and coached at the college level. He takes over for Jeff Capel, whose teams were just 9-23 in Big 12 games the last two years after going 30-6 and all the way to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2009 behind National Player of the Year Blake Griffin, before losing to eventual national champion North Carolina.
Oklahoma already is reaping the benefits of having Kruger on board. The Sooners have won seven of their first eight games and are playing more as a team and with higher confidence than they have in several seasons.
The Sooners' new head coach was asked at Big 12 Media Days in October about the challenge of getting OU basketball back to where it would like to be: "The challenge is big in every program to get to where you want to be," Kruger said. "We haven't won the last couple of years. Just three years ago they were playing in a game to go to the Final Four. So it's not really that far removed.
"We've had great tradition, great coaches. Players have gone through the University of Oklahoma, and our guys understand that," he said. "And they understand that there's a lot of pride and they're responsible for doing whatever we can as a group to regain that and get back to that level."
Combined, the four new Big 12 coaches bring 52 seasons of Division I head-coaching experience. Kruger, Gillespie, Kennedy and Haith bring the new coaching hires in men's basketball to 29 in the 16 years of the Big 12 Conference.
So far this season, their teams have run up a combined record of 28-6 against nonconference opponents.
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