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Grading the Mountain West coaching hires - SJSU nabs program-building Tim Miles

Tim Miles
Tim Miles will take on the challenge of making a winner out of San Jose State. (Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)

The Mountain West has four head-coaching openings this offseason after New Mexico and San Jose State fired their coaches at the end of the year and UNLV and Utah State lost their coaches to Power 5 jobs. As those positions are filled, we will grade the new hires. Today, we take a look at San Jose State hiring Tim Miles.

San Jose State

The move: Tim Miles replaces Jean Prioleau, who was fired after three seasons (20-93 overall, 8-62 MW)

The grade: A- —My first thought when hearing Miles was SJSU's new head coach was, "Tim Miles must really like pain." Miles has taken on a number of reclamation projects during his coaching career, none as big as SJSU. This marks Miles' six head-coaching job, including stints at Mayville State (an NAIA school), Southwest Minnesota State (a Division II school), North Dakota State (which he transitioned from Division II to Division I), Colorado State (which went 0-16 in MW play in his first season) and Nebraska (one of the Big Ten's toughest jobs; had 13 straight non-winning conference seasons prior to Miles being hired). There appears to be no rebuild Miles won't take on. And boy, oh, boy is SJSU a reclamation project. The Spartans have had only one winning season in the last 27 years (and that was a 17-16 campaign in 2010-11). It has one NCAA Tournament berth in the last 40 years. And since moving to the MW in 2013, the Spartans are 52-183 overall and 20-122 in conference play. Good luck, Coach Miles! Miles is a proven program builder, although it's worth nothing he had only had four above-.500 conference records in his combined 12 seasons at Colorado State and Nebraska where he went a combined 80-126 in league play. I attribute that mostly to situations he inherited. Bottom line is Miles is a good coach who is a perfect fit for SJSU as somebody who is used to digging his program out of the basement, creating enthusiasm in the fan base (something the Spartans sorely need) and has experience in the MW, where Miles coached for five seasons, lifting Colorado State from 0-16 in conference play in season one to the NCAA Tournament in season five before leaving for Nebraska. This doesn't mean SJSU is going to win big under Miles. That's a gargantuan task. But Miles has as good a chance as anybody SJSU could have hired to turn this thing around.

Utah State

The move: Ryan Odom replaces Craig Smith, who left for Utah after three seasons (74-24 overall, 42-13 MW)

The grade: B+ — I keep a file on my desktop of coaching candidates for Nevada just in case the Wolf Pack's coach unexpectedly leaves for another job. On that list is Odom, with the summation saying: "Geographically, this makes no sense. The furthest West Odom has held a job is Lenoir-Rhyne in Hickory, N.C. And we’re talking nine different jobs he's held. He’s basically stuck on the eastern seaboard his whole career. So you’d be right to question the fit given his lack of history west of the Eastern time zone. But Odom, the son of three-time ACC coach of the year Dave Odom, has done an excellent job at UMBC, including an upset of No. 1 seed Virginia as a 16 seed in the 2018 Big Dance." So there's risk associated since Odom doesn't have experience west of the Mississippi, although I feel like that's less important during this transfer-laden era. Teams are not built through grabbing high school recruits in close geographical range. Odom is an excellent coach who went 97-60 overall and 50-28 at UMBC, including the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history. His team earned a share of the America East Conference regular-season championship this season but was upset in the conference tournament semifinals. He was due for a jump in conference and should do well at Utah State, a place that has a strong history of winning (at least until they get to the NCAA Tournament). All three of the MW's coaching hires this offseason are sons of former Division I head coaches, so it pays to be the son of a good coach. Odom has carved out his own path and seemed desisted for a Power 5 job after the 2018 NCAA Tournament. If he can adjust to the geographical change, which is a legitimate question, this could be a home run hire who will continue Utah State down the path of being one of the MW's top programs.

UNLV

The move: Kevin Kruger replaces T.J. Otzelberger, who left for Iowa State after two seasons (29-30 overall, 20-16 MW)

The grade: C- — UNLV athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois has a type when hiring coaches. Of the seven head-coaching hires she's made for the Rebels, five are first-time head coaches, including both men who lead her revenue-sport programs (Marcus Arroyo in football and now Kevin Kruger in basketball). UNLV said a "national search for Otzelberger's replacement will commence immediately" following his departure, but Kruger was hired less than 72 hours later, so I'm not sure how exhaustive that search was. This is one of the Mountain West's best jobs (No. 2 in my rankings), so the Rebels could have wooed some high-level candidates with the buyout money Otzelberger had to fork over. UNLV is in need of a quick turnaround given its increasingly apathetic fan base, its lack of success the last decade (last postseason appearance was 2013) and new-found competition for fans with the Golden Knights (NHL) and Raiders (NFL) invading town. Kruger's name is familiar for the UNLV fan base because he was the starting point guard on the Rebels' 2007 Sweet 16 team; is the son of Lon Kruger, who took took the Rebels to four NCAA tournaments in seven seasons at UNLV; and was an assistant under Otzelberger the last two seasons. Kruger has an amazing reputation as a person, but nobody truly knows how the younger Kruger will do as a head coach because he's never done it before. It's a swing-for-the-fences hire with a lot of risk, and UNLV shouldn't be taking a lot of risk with its most important program. The 37-year-old Kruger will have to learn on the job and should have a better chance than most keeping the Rebels' roster and committed recruits in place considering he was on staff the last two seasons. It's a super fun story — Kruger telling his dad he got the job was goosebumps worthy — and it'd be awesome if everything works out well, but there were surer bets out there to turn UNLV into the top-of-the-MW, Top-25-caliber program it believes it is.

New Mexico

The move: Richard Pitino replaces Dr. Paul Weir, who was fired after four seasons (58-63 overall, 28-43 MW)

The grade: B- — I like this hire, but I don't love it. Pitino had an eight-year run with Minnesota, where he was fired Monday before getting another job less than 24 hours later. With the Gophers, Pitino went 141-123 overall, but he was 54-96 in Big Ten play with two NCAA Tournament berths (he went 1-2 in the Big Dance). Minnesota posted a .500 or better record in conference play just once in Pitino's eight seasons. He finished top six in the Big Ten only one time despite routinely landing top-50 national recruiting classes. Obviously, the Mountain West is not the Big Ten, but would Pitino get such a nice landing spot with a different name? That's worth contemplating. It's also worth pointing out Minnesota had just one winning Big Ten season in the last 16 years, that coming up Pitino, so it's not like this was a thriving program, although the Gophers averaged 21 wins with three NCAA Tournament berths in six seasons under his predecessor, Tubby Smith. Pitino did win the 2014 NIT and was Big Ten coach of the year in 2017. He was at Florida International for one season, 2012-13, and went 18-14 overall and 11-9 in the Sun Belt, the program's best season this century. So there's been some success. And he'll inherit one of the MW's best jobs at New Mexico (third best by my estimation). The runner-up for the position was Tim Miles, who has a long history of rebuilding programs. Miles went 52-76 in seven seasons in the Big Ten at Nebraska, a worse job than Minnesota, and had experience in the MW as Colorado State's coach for five seasons where he built an NCAA Tournament team. I would have gone with Miles, but Pitino is beloved by his players, has a great reputation running a clean program and is honest and forthright with the fans and media. He, however,, inherits a job with a lot of fan expectations at a place that hasn't won much outside of the Steve Alford era the last couple of decides. In its MW era, New Mexico is 107-134 in conference outside of the Alford era plus one season (he left Craig Neal with a killer team in 2013-14). Can Pitino bring back the success Alford had? I doubt it, but he will make the Lobos more competitive.

Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter at @ByChrisMurray.

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