The Billups Experiment Is Over at DU

The steady descent of the Denver men’s basketball program into the nation’s worst Division I team has finally forced the end of Rodney Billups’ tenure as DU head coach, as the University did not extend Billups’ expiring five-year contract, which was confirmed in a DU statement on March 1.

We are thankful for Rodney’s service and dedication to the program and its student-athletes,” DU Athletic Director Karlton Creech said. “We wish him and his family the best in his future endeavors.”

Billups finished his tenure 48-94 in five seasons at his alma mater, including 23-53 in Summit League play. Denver was 31-29 in Billups’ first two seasons, earning the third seed in his second season at the 2018 Summit League Championship. Denver beat No. 6 Oral Roberts in the Summit League Quarterfinal that season for Denver’s only postseason win in Billups’ time with the Crimson and Gold. DU finished ninth and failed to qualify for the Summit League Tournament in two of the last three seasons.

A national search for a replacement is underway.

The Billups experiment, which started with so much pride, fanfare and optimism five years ago as the young DU alumnus and former CU assistant coach with no head coaching experience took the helm of the DU program in 2016. DU’s hope was that Billups would capitalize on his years of recruiting experience at a Power 5 school, and build on his family name as the brother of the best player ever produced in Colorado (former CU and NBA star Chauncey Billups) to make DU basketball relevant in his home city again.

Additionally, Billups was only the third Black head coaching hire in DU men’s basketball history (after Floyd Theard in the 1980s and Ben Jobe in the 1970s), so there was some additional hopes placed on him for improving DU’s reputation in the Black community – a key link in a sport where about 56% of players in the NCAA Division I are Black.

In fact, the Pioneers became progressively worse in each of Billups’ five seasons as coach record-wise, finishing this 2020-2021 season with only one NCAA Division I victory (2-19 overall, 1-13 Summit League), a last-place Summit league finish, and a RPI ranking of 347, dead last in the country among those programs deciding to play basketball this Covid-affected season.

The last two seasons have even seen the team playing in Hamilton Gym instead of Magness Arena as the interest level (coupled with Covid-19, to be fair) dwindled and the results continued to get worse on the court.

But it wasn’t always this awful.

Billups was named head coach at on March 14, 2016 under the gold-topped spire of the the Ritchie Center’s Williams Tower, three days after former DU coach Joe Scott, who won a league title and had taken DU to the second round of the NIT in 2013, was fired, for failing to meet DU’s goal of  making the NCAA tournament, something that has never happened in DU’s Division I history, which makes up the majority of program’s years since 1904.

Using coach Scott’s Princeton-style recruits in a new up-tempo running system, DU had a winning 16-14 record in Billups’ debut season, finishing fourth in the Summit, led by emerging big man Daniel Amigo, who had been benched under Scott. Billups followed up that season with an even-better a third-place league finish the following season, although the overall record dropped to 15-15.

Still, optimism followed the program as Billups’s running-style recruits now had begun to arrive in 2018-2019. Also arriving that year were a pair of experienced transfers from higher level programs that were expected to give DU the talent infusion it needed to make the step into an elite program in the Summit — Ronnie Harrell, a top 100 recruit  from Creighton and Tory Stewart-Miller, a big center from the University of Colorado. Instead, the chemistry was damaged and the team never jelled – proving to be a major setback, as DU finished only 8-22, and 9th place in the Summit League. The transfers in and out went from a trickle to a steady stream, and DU never really recovered.

To make things worse, the free fall continued in his fourth season in 2019-20, as DU slipped to 7-24 which  forced out his assistant coaches, Ricardo Patton and Steve Snell, before totally bottoming-out this season with a final last place finish with only the single D-I victory over North Dakota.

As a player, Billups captained the Pioneers from 2002 to 2005. After college, he played professionally with BK Riga in Latvia and Kuovot in Finland before turning his attention to coaching, working his way up the ladder to become an assistant coach at Colorado from 2012-2016.

Here at LetsGoDU, we are sad.

We all wanted so badly for it to work for Rodney.

Photo: John Leyba/The Denver Post

18 thoughts on “The Billups Experiment Is Over at DU”

  1. LGDU coverage of this is far, far superior to anything put out by “professional” news outlets in Denver, which reprinted a news release. This is the place to come for real coverage of DU sports, thanks. Bumpy year all around, but great coverage.

  2. Thanks Chase. Special thanks to Puck Swami for his piece on the Billups era. Now, it is wait and see who DU selects as a replacement.

  3. The important thing for DU is to get a coach who head been a head coach before. Not every D-I assistant is cut out to be a head coach.

  4. I wish Rodney well. Sorry it did not work out. Does anyone have faith in Kreech to succeed in this immense challenge ahead? He just seems a little plain vanilla, and I expect a boring hire with the hope of mediocrity some day. That is the state of the program, I guess. I’d like to hear Swami’s thoughts on Kreech…is he a good AD, and will he be up for this challenge? He just seemed like an unexciting hire for AD (some guy from Maine whose wife loves to golf) who had the privilege of stepping into Pegs great legacy (except for the Billups hire, of course.)

    1. Creech is in way over his head. Horrible leader. His wife lives her life in her blue jeans. Probably doesn’t own a dress. DU deserves better.

  5. I would scour the D2, D3 and maybe NAIA or JUCO ranks for a highly successful, established coach (ie, a little older) who can relate to today’s player. A candidate who has paid his dues and is excited and grateful for the opportunity at a higher level. Having ties to Colorado would help but not necessary.
    At the mid-major level, a young rising star coach will bolt the moment we reach the Promise Land. At this level it’s all about player development, X’s & O’s, in-game strategy and establishing a program identity. It is not about recruiting. Everyone gets the same interchangeable 2/3 star player.
    We need someone who can flat out coach, regardless of level.

  6. I thought Creech was a safe hire then, and he is now. If he comes off to you as plain vanilla, he’d probably be the first to tell you that he really likes it that way, because for him, he wants the players and coaches to shine – it’s not about him. He comes from the modern school of putting in people in positions to be successful, getting them what they need and then getting out of their way. There is a lot to be said for this kind of servant leadership style in today’s world, but the downside is that making big splashes is just not really his thing, but sometimes, you may have to make a splash…

    Now, he’s got perhaps his biggest coach selection challenge of his career in front of him and realistically, he’s had more than year to plan for it. In this world of Covid, he may not have as much money as he would like to hire his new hoops coach. So he might either have to find some donors or sponsor money willing to help out with the hire, or he’s likely going to have to do it on the cheap. That’s where he’ll need to be special – behind the scenes. The good news he doesn’t have to pay anyone for not coaching, as DU did with Joe Scott. He’s going to get a lot of calls in the coming weeks and I hope he’s got a “kitchen cabinet” of people he trusts to sort through the leads and the applications and follow-up on the promising ones.

    If I were Creech I would call the best basketball coach in world, who happens to be a DU alum by the name of Gregg Popovich, and I’d see what he thinks, and more importantly, who he knows…

    After Rodney didn’t work out, I can’t see Creech hiring another D-I assistant unless that coach has already been a a successful head coach somewhere else. It’s just too risky to entrust the program to an untested assistant, as they did with Rodney, who appeared to be in over his head.

    The best thing about the Denver job right now is that it’s a rebuild from the very bottom, with a good school, in a nice major market city, with TV exposure but almost no media pressure or booster pressure breathing down your neck. You’ll get time to build that program and the budget will be good enough to be a decent mid major, especially if you get get to 4,000 or more fans per game, when you can generate profit, and perhaps get to the point where you could build a 4K basketball only facility that DU needs to compete better in the Summit.

    This is a good job for a someone who has been to the dance before, knows how to win the right way and who can build a program that will be successful enough to compete in the Summit League.

  7. Yeah Puck, well said all around. Love the Popovich suggestion.
    Also, just saw the news item scrolled on ESPN.

  8. Today DU’s administration and AD Creech stepped up and did the right thing by finally letting Billups go. Kinda a no brainer with a 2-19 season but nonetheless someone at DU had to step up and drop the axe. I wish DU hoops the best going forward as they search for their new leader. I echo the suggestions of others who recommend hiring a coach who has previous “head coaching” experience. There is no substitute for having several years under one’s belt knowing how to make substitutions, call time outs, and lead the team in the locker room.

    I and several bloggers have been highly critical of Creech and the Athletic Department for the past two years because of their failure to act. Well, they’ve finally acted and made the move which needed to occur. For that I give them credit. Creech stepped up today and publicly announced that the Billups era is over. Good on you Creech – it’s time to give you credit where credit is do. Nice work, way to step up, glad the nightmare is over.

    As for Puck, nothing but respect. As always, you’ve provided excellent coverage, unique insight and strong allegiance to DU and its athletes. I’ve disagreed with you strongly on some things (especially Billups remaining as coach) but I’ve I always respected your opinion. Thanks for supporting and running this forum Puck.

  9. First off, I feel sad. Sad for the program, sad for the players, and sad for Rodney. It’s a sad end to a dismal period of men’s hoops. I’m not even close to being as well-connected to the University and the athletic department as others, particularly others who follow this blog, but when Rodney was first hired, I don’t know of anyone who wasn’t excited. The stars seemed aligned to usher in a new and exciting era. I know I was stoked. But for a myriad of reasons, it never worked. A tenure that started with so much promise ended in a grease fire the size of Texas.

    I wish Rodney well. I’m sure he’s as disappointed as anyone. I’m sure it was a valuable learning experience for him, and if he wants to continue coaching, I hope he lands on his feet somewhere else. As another poster pointed out, not everyone is cut out to be a head coach. I’m not saying Rodney is or isn’t, but a lot of coaches are not wired to be head coaches. It’s a very different animal than being an assistant.

    I’ll respectfully disagree with DUNJ. It is about recruiting. And it’s about recruiting guys in our own backyard to start. There’s enough talent–I’ve seen guys at Wyoming and UNC and other schools and continually wondered why DU didn’t land these players. If you can’t recruit, at least at a respectable level, you’re doomed. DU’s roster needs talent.

  10. Hi, Omaha guy here. I hope Denver takes a look at Phil Beckner. Current Boise State assistant and former assistant at Nebraska and Weber State.

  11. With all respect, Omaha guy, I don’t think DU should eve consider a former assistant. This program needs an overhaul and someone who has been an top executive, a head coach. DU basketball is a hot mess and I’d welcome a veteran head coach just to get us back to a near .500 team before dreaming of more.

  12. I don’t know…….while I like the idea of getting someone with experience, someone proven, someone who has led a team to the dance, someone Pop might know, I have a hard time seeing that scenario play out. I could be wrong, and have been many times (as my wife knows), but I just don’t see it. The bottom line is who is really going to want this job? Sure, DU is a great school with a rich history in a great city. Beyond that, what is there? The program is in shambles, the roster is largely devoid of D-I talent, there’s not much tradition or historical milestones to draw upon, the Summit League isn’t exactly glamorous, there’s literally no fan base to speak of anymore, and what kind of $ will DU be able to offer a new coach? Probably won’t be an overly lucrative deal. I hate to be Debbie Downer here, but again, realistically, who is going to be attracted to this job?

    I keep going back to the following when I envision candidates for this job: someone who is young and hungry and charismatic. Someone who wants to build something from the ground up and make a name for himself. Someone who has tons of energy and is hell-bent on recruiting Colorado, pounding the pavement, and persuading kids to stay here and be part of building something special. Finally, someone who believes that by succeeding at DU, the door will open to bigger and better things.

  13. While there are certainly D-II and D-III and NAIA coaches who would jump at the chance for a D-I job for a cheap salary, I don’t know that I would go that route for DU, as succeeding at the D-I is a different kettle of fish.

    I would rather DU ound a someone who has actually built a D-I program and taken that team to the big show, even if it costs more to do hire, especially if said coach did it with a program that has some academic standards.

    There must be some experienced guys out there who deserve a second shot a building a program.

    DU has a lot to offer the right person- amazing school, amazing location, decent facilities. winning athletic department, no buy games, a top tier budget among Summit League schools and little media or booster pressure and a chance to create a basketball culture. It’s not Gonzaga or Kansas, but it’s a pretty good gig. All you need to do is win, graduate kids and produce good student athletes.

  14. We would all love a candidate who has brought a team to the tournament and has demonstrated the ability to recruit. If that candidate is not available, then get someone who can coach. Roster talent at this level is an absolute excuse—every team in the Summit, Big Sky, WAC, Big West et al, is reeling in 2/3 star recruits. The difference in talent is razor thin.
    Therefore we need to get someone who can really coach regardless of level. Reality is, from NBA down to Rec ball only a select few can really truly coach. We all know it when we see it. Go find that diamond wherever that person may be. As has been documented above, DU has plenty to offer outside of being able to write the biggest check.

  15. Albany’s coach is available, he did exactly what swami asked, took them from recently D1 program at rock bottom to many conference championships (in a better conference) and went to the dance and won a game

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