How big is the hole in the coaching staff following the departure of James Whitford from the University of Arizona basketball program? Think Grand Canyon here.
Whitford wasn’t just an assistant coach somewhere down the bench. He was the associate head coach, the guy sitting next to Sean Miller during games the past two years. But their relationship goes back much farther.
Miller, in his fourth year as the Arizona head coach, has relied on Whitford for the past eight years, including four when Miller was head coach at Xavier before coming to Arizona. When Miller left to take the job in Tucson, Whitford packed up and followed him into the desert.
On Saturday, the announcement came that Whitford had accepted the job as the new Ball State head coach, his first head-coaching position in two decades spent coaching at the college level. The official introduction of the Cardinals’ new coach will come Wednesday morning on the Ball State campus in Muncie, Ind.
Whitford becomes the 19th head basketball coach in Ball State history, replacing Billy Taylor, who posted back-to-back 15-15 seasons the last two years and compiled an 84-99 record in six years. Once a basketball powerhouse – the Cardinals won seven Mid-American Conference titles between 1981-2000 and made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 1990 – the Ball State program has fallen on hard times in recent years. Their last post-season appearance was back in 2002 when they were invited to play in the NIT.
And the last seven years have been really topsy-turvy. Whitford is the fourth head coach during that span.
But the Cardinals have the tools needed to win, which has made the last 11 years so frustrating. They have a strong basketball tradition and an equally enviable academic reputation. And Worthen Arena is one of the finest facilities in the conference.
One of Whitford’s greatest assets is his ability to recruit – and that will go a long way toward getting the program back on its feet again, particularly since the state of Indiana is rich in basketball talent.
And Whitford knows the neighborhood. He spent 11 years on the coaching staff at Miami (Ohio) University.
But that recruiting success is also the reason his departure from the Arizona program will have such a big impact. As the Wildcats’ recruiting coordinator, he was largely responsible for pulling in what many considered the No. 1 recruiting class in the country last year and has the current class ranked in the top five, or better.
And his former boss is the first one to concede that. “James spearheaded our recruiting efforts at Arizona and was instrumental in landing some of the nation’s best recruiting classes,” said Miller in admitting that Whitford is making a smart choice to take the Ball State job. “He is the most organized, relentless recruiter I have been around.”
Whitford leaves a program that flourished under Miller’s direction and his own tireless efforts to help re-build the program that Lute Olson had once elevated to an elite level. Arizona averaged 27 wins the past three seasons and made it to the Sweet 16 at this year’s NCAA Tournament. In 2011, the Cats advanced to the Elite Eight after posting a 30-win season and winning the Pac-12 title.
But the 41-year-old Whitford did more than just bring in top new players. He helped develop them once they got into the program as the one responsible for bringing along the post players and overseeing the defense. Derrick Williams, who was taken No. 2 overall in the 2011 NBA draft, was one of his post projects.
And his touch could be seen in the success of the team’s defensive performance. The Cats held their opponents to fewer than 64 points a game, which enabled them to outscore the other teams by an average of close to 10 points a game.
As good as Arizona was this season, they will likely be even better next year when they are able to take advantage of some seasoning on the younger players and another outstanding recruiting class that is expected to have an impact almost immediately.
So Whitford may be giving up something every college coach would love to have – a national championship ring.
But, at Ball State, he has something else worth coveting: a job as a head coach.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)