ST. LOUIS–University of Missouri Athletic Director Desiree Reed Francois has reportedly made the most consequential personnel decision of her career as an administrator with her move to fire Cuonzo Martin as men’s basketball coach. It won’t stand atop the list for long, since her choice for his replacement will likely move into that spot soon.
Despite her previous ties to Martin’s hiring at Tennessee, and her own son’s desire to walk on to play for him next year, Reed-Francois decided that five years were enough and that a change needed to be made if the second-leading generator of revenue for the athletic department was going to be more successful moving forward.
Will she see the lesson Jim Sterk learned the hard way? When Sterk fired football coach Barry Odom, Curators were unimpressed with his perceived lack of vision and with a pool of candidates that lacked a wow factor. That word leaked out. Sterk was forced to pivot and later landed Eli Drinkwitz. The leak seemed to set in motion the timeline of his own departure.
So where does Reed-Francois go in her search?
Alignment. It’s a phrase ingrained in Reed-Francois’s lexicon since her days at Tennessee. Alignment up and down, from University leadership to coaches. So it makes sense for her to at least check on the availability of two people she’s already vetted in that regard.
T.J Otzelberger (Iowa State)–Reed-Francois hired Otzelberger from South Dakota State after she fired Marvin Menzies at UNLV after the 2018-2019 season. Otzelberger went an unimpressive 29-30 in two coronavirus impacted seasons in charge of the Running Rebels, before he went to Iowa State after last season. As Head Coach, he’s quickly turned around the program where he’s already spent nine seasons during two previous stints as an assistant. It isn’t his alma mater, but professionally speaking, it is home. Would he want to leave after just one season, where he appears to have a team that will make the NCAA tournament when the field is announced Sunday?
Kevin Kruger (UNLV)–Reed-Francois then promoted Kruger, who had been an Otzelberger assistant for two years, to replace him. Prior to that, he spent three seasons as an assistant to his father Lon Kruger at Oklahoma, who he also played for at UNLV as a graduate transfer. He only has one year of head coaching experience under his belt, but has demonstrated an ability already to recruit in the transfer portal era. Kruger could have other options too, especially if his other alma mater, Arizona State, ended up with a vacancy..
Kim English (George Mason)–The former MU standout was a rising star as an assistant coach at Tulsa, Colorado and Tennessee before he assumed his first head coaching opportunity at George Mason this past season. His team upset power conference teams Maryland and Georgia. Despite just a single season as head coach, English, 33, has more power conference experience as an assistant than Kruger, and is seen as a great developer of talent, which was one of the critiques of the Martin era. The question isn’t so much ‘is English ready’. He’ll be a power conference head coach sooner than later. The question is if the resources will be there to match the expectations that come with being an alum in charge of the program. Fair or not, this will be compared to the Kim Anderson experiment.
Matt McMahon (Murray State)—How good of a coach is Matt McMahon without a generational talent like Ja Morant? It feels like he’s answered that question, leading the Racers to a 28-2 regular season record in the Ohio Valley Conference this season and winning the conference championship.
Mike White (Florida)- The coach of the Gators since 2015, is he happy in Gainesville and is Gainesville happy with him? Rumors are swirling that despite more than 142 wins in seven seasons, this could be heading toward a divorce, with one of the potential landing spots being his alma mater at Ole Miss. Of this group of candidates, White would bring the most NCAA tournament success, having reached the Elite 8 in 2017. His brother, Brian, now the AD at FAU, is a former MU athletic department aide who was the administrator in charge of basketball at Missouri until 2018.
The SEC is traditionally not a conference over the last 25 years where you find assistants getting their first crack at the head coaching chair. Excluding interim coaches, and Vanderbilt, which hired Jerry Stackhouse in 2019 after he was an NBA assistant coach, the last conference school to hire a college assistant as head coach wasn’t even in the conference yet, when Missouri hired Quin Snyder to replace Norm Stewart in 1999.
Of course, times are changing. If assistants can land top jobs at places like North Carolina, Duke and Arizona, then why not at a school like Missouri? It would just be harder to imagine Reed-Francois going into this process, at this time, expecting that kind of result. Whatever she decides, it will be the most significant personnel decision of her career.