When Tech athletic director Mike Bobinski announced last Friday that men’s basketball head coach Brian Gregory had coached his last game with the team, just two days after the Jackets were thumped 72-56 by San Diego State in the NIT quarterfinals, it marked the rather inevitable end of an era.
That era was defined by middling teams, fluctuating offense, and, most crucially, not a single NCAA Tournament berth. As incumbent Paul Hewitt declined, Gregory was fresh blood, a change of pace. His success at mid-major Dayton offered optimism of a return to ACC contention. His 27-61 conference record defied that hope. Unable to punch a ticket to the “Big Dance” despite an experienced roster, Gregory exhausted his goodwill on The Flats.
While many Tech fans will cheer the departure of a coach under whom the program stagnated, the question remains whether his successor will fare any better. The concern is particularly relevant with the exodus of talent the team’s new helmsman will have to overcome from day one.
The same experienced players that offered Gregory a generous last chance this season leave Tech, including Marcus Georges-Hunt, Nick Jacobs and James White. The new hire will also inherit a program that has fared poorly on the recruiting trail.
During Coach Gregory’s tenure, only four prospects ranked in the ESPN 100 signed with the Jackets. One of those players, forward Robert Carter, transferred to Maryland in 2014 and cited the Terrapins’ competitiveness as his primary reason, courtesy the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Meanwhile, conference rival Louisville has recruited 10 over the same period.
Success breeds success, and Tech’s lack of it under Gregory has had a chilling effect on recruiting. A new coach must bring with him more than a new scheme; he must also carry a new culture.
Despite these clear obstacles facing any prospective hire, there is certainly reason to believe that the Tech opening could be as appealing as any. While the Jackets may never be mentioned in the same breath as conference powerhouses like UNC and Duke, an ACC coaching position nonetheless carries with it a cachet. For young candidates like Duke Blue Devils assistant and former Oklahoma head coach Jeff Capel, Tech may also serve as a stepping stone.
Should an individual such as Capel prove himself capable of leading the Jackets to relative success in arenas and the living rooms of recruits alike, he will make a compelling case to take over at a perennial contender when an aging coach such as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski or Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim rides off into sunset.
Early rumors suggest that Capel will get an offer from the Jackets, but he is far from the only candidate in play. ESPN suggests that Boston Celtics assistant Jay Larrañaga has drawn attention from Athletic Director Bobinski early in the process.
Along with his blue-chip status amongst NBA assistants — he was tapped to coach the team in place of head coach Brad Stevens when Stevens dealt with a personal issue, courtesy of NESN — he has pedigree; his father, Jim, coaches the University of Miami’s men’s basketball team. What he lacks in collegiate experience, he makes up for in appeal, offering the perspective of a professional coach in an amateur environment.
In recent years, it has become apparent that Tech’s recruiting weakness stems from an inability to offer prospects a national spotlight in which to showcase their talent. This problem, of course, is paradoxical; without top-end talent, the Jackets will be hard-pressed to make the NCAA Tournament, and without tournament appearances, elite players will seek opportunities elsewhere, despite prior commitments.
A coach such as Larrañaga offers promise to the Jackets as the sort of individual who can change Tech’s reputation. Coaches such as Kentucky’s John Calipari have marketed their schools as preparation for the NBA. While Tech need not market itself as a haven for one-and-done stars, bringing a bonafide professional basketball coach to the table could go a long way, particularly when players like Carter understandably weigh their careers heavily.
Even analysts admit that Tech’s job search is likely in its early stages. Neither the NIT nor the NCAA Tournament have reached their conclusions yet, and the outcomes yet to hit the books may influence the administration’s thinking when interviewing a new coach. In Larrañaga and Cape, the team has already shown that it is willing to consider a diverse range of candidates, from professional assistants to former professional head coaches toiling in the shadows of rivals.
Perhaps Tech will go with a more conservative option, the coach of a budding mid-major (ironically, Gregory’s background) or a fairly low-profile candidate.
Whether the Jackets end up with Capel, Larrañaga or someone else altogether, the first year with the new coach will pose a challenge. With some luck, it will offer a Tech fanbase desperate for success an inkling of long-term hope.