Coaches to watch for: mid-majors

Inspired recently by a list of “coaches to watch out for” by a large media outlet, I asked one of the Division I assistant coaches I respect most to come up with a more thoughtful and in-depth list. Because while I greatly appreciate Pat Summitt, Dawn Staley and the other coaches on the media outlet’s top 10, who doesn’t already watch out for these stars?

True fans of the game will appreciate this coach’s knowledge of the national coaching scene. He chose mid-major coaches, and he wrote everything except for the “Pacific” section, which he deferred to me. Feel free to comment.

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Women’s basketball does a tremendous job of promoting its star program and coaches, but often the mid-major conferences and their coaches are often overshadowed. Here we highlight some of the bright up-and-coming coaches who do an outstanding job from mid-major leagues, which typically only get one bid to the NCAA Tournament. Here is a quick look at up to three of these coaches, in each region of the country, that women’s basketball fans and media that will want to follow this year.

This isn’t a “who’s best” or “who’s worst” list; it’s just a reminder that some of the best coaches aren’t named Tara, Geno or Pat. Each of the coaches on this list do an tremendous job with their programs, and we will all want to keep an eye on them as league play begins in December and January.

Names You’ll Want To Know: A Mid-Major Coach Watch List

NORTHEAST

Gail Streigler, Long Island (Northeast)

After a 9-20 start in her first year at LIU, Striegler re-engineered the Blackbird program with seasons of 19 and 22 wins and a trip to the NEC championship game. Coaching at a high level is old hat for a program builder like Striegler. Known as an excellent tactician at Central Florida, she lead UCF to three consecutive Atlantic Sun championships from 2003-2005 and was named Atlantic Sun Coach of the Year in both 2003 and 2005.

Courtney Banghart, Princeton (Ivy)

With back-to-back Ivy League championships and 20+ win seasons, Banghart and her Tigers are beginning to assert a strangle hold on the Ivy League. A former Ivy League player herself (Dartmouth), Banghart not only understands what it takes to be successful in the Ivy, but she’s lived it. Expect a third championship this year and at the rate Banghart has the Tigers recruiting, more to come.

Susan Robinson Fruchtl, St Francis, PA (Northeast)

The former Penn State star and assistant coach, Robinson Fruchtl with her strong Pennsylvania ties, has kept the Red Flash program rolling along. After guiding Saint Francis to its first NEC Championship game appearance in three seasons in 2008-09, Robinson Fruchtl’s squad returned back to top of the NEC last season. As long as Robinson Fruchtl is at Saint Francis, expect the Red Flash to be competitive in league and frequent trips to the NCAAs.

MIDWEST

Stephanie Glance, Illinois State (Missouri Valley)

With nearly a quarter century of experience in coaching and having worked for Pat Summitt and Kay Yow, Glance isn’t exactly a newcomer to the coaching scene. However it is only her first coaching gig and Glance is showing she’s very capable of piloting a ship herself, guiding the Redbirds to a 24-11 record in her first season in 2010-11. Having a savvy veteran who knows how to run a program from top to bottom at the controls will give Redbird fans a chance to win “The Valley” every year.

Curt Miller, Bowling Green State (Mid American)

30 win season? (31 in 2006-07) Check. Multiple conference championships? (Seven) Check. All Miller does is win in one of the most competitive mid-major leagues in the country. Upon taking the reigns of the Falcons program, Miller energized the BGSU and hasn’t looked back. Though not known by the casual fan, Bowling Green is annually considered one of the best mid-major programs in the country and we’ll include him on the “up & coming” list because he most likely mid-major coach to be a on the speed dial for a BCS AD looking to improve its women’s basketball program for a vacancy in the spring.

Matt Bollant, Wisconsin Green-Bay (Horizon)

Prior to this year, a 251–53 record and four straight post-season appearances make UWGB’s Matt Bollant is definitely one to watch. A stickler of the fundamentals game, Bollant may not have BCS level athleticism at his disposal, but his focus on intelligent play within his version of motion offense has turned UWGB into one of the toughest tournament outs each year. In addition, hiring former Idaho head coach Mike Divilbiss has not only pushed the Phoenix into being a stingy defensive team but also shows that Bollant is comfortable in his own skin and secure in his own coaching abilities by hiring another former head coach as an assistant.

SOUTHEAST

Jackie Carson, Furman (Southern)

Telegenic personality and recruiting ace Jackie Carson has Furman on the move, and quickly. After taking over a program with five straight losing seasons, in year one, Carson doubled its overall win total and upped its league victory tally from four to ten, while jumping from eleventh to fifth place in the league standings. However, the biggest area of improvement for Furman: Recruiting. Carson has notched several high profile recruits for both this year and next. And a narrow one-point loss to instate and ACC foe Clemson earlier to this season is a testament to where the program is headed.

Karl Smesko, Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun)

A sought out clinician on his unique blend of motion offense, Smesko has navigated Florida Gulf Coast from DII waters to instant success in the Atlantic Sun. The two-time and current A-Sun Coach of the Year, Smesko also has led FGCU to the 2008 D-II national title game, two A-Sun regular-season titles (including last season) and four WNIT berths. Since entering the league, the message is clear, FGCC is always among the teams to beat.

Brooks Donald Williams, McNeese State (Southland)

After a bumpy start full of injuries, Louisiana native, Donald-Williams has rebuilt the McNeese State into a Southland power. The Cowgirls were 26-7 overall record, 15-1 Southland Conference record and an undefeated home record (15-0) last season, an overall record that matched the best turnaround in NCAA history following a 7-22 overall record in 2009-10. Expect for the experienced Cowgirls to dancing again in March and a fixture in mid-major polls for years to come.

MIDSOUTH

Karen Aston, North Texas (Sunbelt)

After making the move from a successful four year run at UNC-Charlotte (86 wins in four seasons with a school-record 27 wins this last year), Aston is beginning her magic with the Mean Green. A former North Texas Assistant, Aston has already to begun to right the ship at UNT in her first year, already surpassing last year’s win total of 5 by 6 wins. Want evidence of Aston’s coaching prowess? In four seasons at Charlotte, she led them to two 20-win seasons, the 2009 Atlantic 10 tournament title, a 2011 WNIT Final Four appearance, one NCAA Tournament berth and three WNIT appearances.

Matt Daniel, Central Arkansas (Southland)

Daniel wasted no time in making the Sugar Bears relevant in its short tenure in Division I. After an initial season of 6-23, Daniels has posted records of 21-8 and 21-12. Doing more with less, UCA has beaten a SEC, Big 10 and Conference USA foe in only two short years from a 6-win season and now is a perennial threat for a Southland Conference title. The Sugar Bears have been placed in good hands with the Arkansas native who knows the state and recruits extremely well.

Kevin McMillian, UT Martin (Ohio Valley)

Three years ago, UT-Martin only managed two wins. Enter Kevin McMillian. With a revamped roster, McMillian moved UT-Martin by year two and with a team that was the youngest team in the country (Most players with only two years of Division-I experience heading into the season), to a 21-11 with a 14-4 record in the OVC. And in many cases it wasn’t even close as a dozen of UT Martin’s wins were by double-figures, including six victories by 20 or more points en route to capturing the program’s first league title. McMillian, a long time successful high school coach in Tennessee, is proof positive that he can flat out coach at any level.

MID-ATLANTIC

David Six, Hampton (Mid-Eastern Athletic)

With a last name like “Six” we ask you to consider simple math. Two years + More than 40 wins = Pretty successful way to start a career. Six has guided the Lady Pirates to two straight 20-win seasons (the first time in program Div. I history), the MEAC regular-season title and a second straight MEAC Tournament crown in his short time at the helm of the Lady Pirates program. With long ties to the Tidewater area, the former high school coach as energized a program and taken it to new heights with the best yet to come.

Stephanie Pemper, Navy (Patriot)

Pemper has overseen a massive rebuilding job at Navy. She inherited a program after an eight-year span where the program had produced one winning record, no winning seasons in Patriot League play, placed no higher than fourth in the league standings and posted just one victory its conference tournament. Pemper has guided Navy to winning marks in the Patriot in each of her first three seasons, culminating with a 2010 Patriot League title and first NCAA Tournament appearance last year. Also to consider, in addition tremendous work at Navy, Pemper coached at DIII Bowdoin, amassing an a absolutely staggering 235-48 record and a career winning percentage of 83 percent (fourth in NCAA Division III history).

Phil Stern, UMBC (America East)

Stern, the reigning America East Coach of the Year, led UMBC to a 20-12 season in his last campaign, matching the school record with 20 wins – the most in the program’s 25-year Division I era – and its 13-3 mark in league play was its best in eight seasons in the conference. What’s set Stern apart is that he adapts to his personnel; willing to install styles of play as different and diverse ranging from a Princeton/Triangle hybrid offense to an up-tempo fast break scheme of play. Don’t be fooled by this year’s 3-4 start, UMBC’s currently playing without three starters for the moment and those who’ve followed Stern know he’s one of the most adaptable coaches in the business. His willingness to fit what works, makes UMBC a difficult team to prep, a threat for the America East each crown each year and a makes Stern a mid-major coach to watch for this season.

MOUNTAIN

Erik Johnson, Denver (Sunbelt)

Johnson has done a masterful job with the Pioneer program boasting a 65% winning percentage in league play in just three years time as the headman in the Mile High City. Often considered one of the best mid-major X & O coaches, offensive creativity as a coach is where Johnson really shines. Johnson’s teams are deadly efficient, with the 2010-11 version finishing the season ranked tenth in the nation field-goal percentage and in the top 25 nationally in 3-point field goal percentage. Tack on a win over top 25 and SEC stalwart Vanderbilt last year, and it’s evident that the Pioneers are moving in the right direction.

Tricia Binford, Montana State (Big Sky)

Former WNBA player, Tricia Binford took over a program whose goal was to be in the Big Sky Conference title hunt every year. Mission accomplished. Under Binford’s leadership the Bobcats have played for the Big Sky title twice in the each of the last four seasons and have made five straight postseason appearances. In the always competitive Big Sky Conference, expect the Bobcats already with a strong 7-2 start (with losses to only BCS schools), threaten to take the leagues automatic bid in the spring.

PACIFIC

Jason Flowers, Cal State Northridge (Big West)

Jason Flowers last year stepped to the helm of a program that had lived at the bottom of the Big West Conference for the better part of 10 years. Four years ago, the Matadors won only one game all season. But Flowers came with a vision, a set of exceptional assistant coaches, and a great work ethic. He landed some major recruits, and has successfully developed the players he did have. While CSUN is still having trouble finishing games in Flowers’ second season, their improvement in every area is striking, if not stunning. So far this year, the Matadors are tied for second place in the Big West.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Karen Aston has been one of my favorite coaches for years. Glad to see she's made a great start at UNT.

    (Texas Longhorns made a big boo-boo in not promoting Karen to succeed Jody Conradt.)

  2. I'd also add the coach at Hofstra, whose name I can never get right, and Hodges at Morehead State.

    Your guy is bang-on accurate about Streigler at LIU- the only questions I have are 'can she recruit?' and 'can she win the big game?' (I was at that NEC title game they hosted against St. Francis.)

  3. Believe you neglegted Tricia Cullop, a relatively new coach to the MAC. After winning Coach of year twice, winning MAC both outright and in playoffs, she and team then proceeded to go through 6 major schools/Confences in 2011 Post-season WNIT plaoffs and won WNIT Championship. Perhaps you did not wish to note 2 coaches from same conf.,the MAC.

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