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