For die-hard Denver Pioneer fans, this week has been excruciating. Our sub-.500 hockey team did not get a bid to the NCAA Tournament and it’s also frustrating to watch basketball’s March Madness as Oral Roberts from the Summit League defeats both Ohio State and Florida, North Texas bounces Purdue and little Loyola-Chicago defeats #1 seed Illinois. It is all so distant – and disappointing. In one example, hockey, you have confidence that they will get back to the NCAA tournament soon. As for DU basketball, the answer feels more like never, especially to a long-suffering fan base.
The reality is that the search for a new DU basketball head coach will be the biggest coaching hire that Vice-Chancellor for Athletics, Karlton Creech, is likely to make at DU since David Carle was hired as hockey coach when Jim Montgomery left for the Dallas Stars. Sure, DU is a hockey-centric school and Denver has become strong at a number of other sports. However, basketball remains an untapped profit center and the greatest potential brand builder for a school that could really use both.
No team in Crimson and Gold has fallen further than men’s basketball, which finished as worst in the country among Division I teams playing this season, at RPI number 347, where the only programs with a lower ranking chose not to play this year. This overall slippage makes it more difficult to look at men’s basketball as an outlier. In fact, Denver’s past success in so many other sports has largely insulated the DU Athletic Administration from taking too much heat for the horrible men’s basketball results over the last few years.
However, many of the (relatively few) Denver basketball fans have come to the end of their ropes, or worse, they have already checked out altogether. And the excuses for having such a poor hoops team are wearing thin when Summit League schools located in the prairies of Tulsa, Okla. and the more barren plains of Fargo, N.D. and Brookings, S.D., have won basketball conference titles over the past ten seasons. Even DU athletes in other sports raise their eyebrows when talking about the ongoing lack of performance of their men’s basketball peers. This performance gap is outright embarrassing – for them, and for us as DU fans.
The bottom line is someone has to take ownership of the floundering hoops program and that task falls on the shoulders of Creech (and his search committee), who before Denver and his last job at the University of Maine, spent 13 years combined working in fundraising and administration in the basketball-mad North Carolina State and University of North Carolina athletic departments. So, clearly, he must understand in a very fundamental way, what a strong basketball program can do for an athletic department, for a university’s national profile, and for alumni relations.
Coming up on three years at the athletic helm at DU, Creech has performed well. He has gained plaudits for tweaking the structure of the department to align, support, and show loyalty to his existing coaches and staffers. He also provided much-needed continuity from the amazing results of the Peg Bradley-Doppes administration, shored-up needed finances during these terribly uncertain Covid times, and has also landed some key sponsorships over the last year with the Centura Health and New Balance deals for the athletic department. Perhaps at no time has the athletic department needed a strong administration more than during the COVID-19 pandemic when Creech and his staff and university leaders have kept Denver athletics humming along.
He also made the David Carle hockey hire three years ago that we all strongly supported here at LetsGoDU.
But now is a chance for Creech to display his hoops chops with a bold outside coaching hire. Although he is wearing some financial handcuffs and has no young hotshot assistant coach (like Carle) down the hall to elevate into the job, this should not be an easy decision or simply a local backyard slam dunk.
Said Creech on his initial hiring to the Denver Post, “My role early is going to be learning how we got to where we are and make sure I don’t mess that up in any way,” he said. “Then it’s about creating the next challenge. At a place like the University of Denver, we can be whatever we envision ourselves to be. We’ve just got to establish what’s next and go get it.”
Well, here we are now, and there is no bigger challenge at the DU athletic department than fixing the raging dumpster fire in the basketball program, where the program has bottomed out nationally, the coaches are all gone, and the three best players on the team are now reportedly in the transfer portal.
Shortly, we will all get a chance to see where the DU basketball program will be as both a ‘next challenge’ and as a priority for an athletic department that frankly has limited funds, average-to-middling institutional support, and a largely poor basketball tradition. The ultimate measure of Creech’s hoops head coach hire will be about wins and losses – regardless of what any of us think of the initial hire. No doubt, DU fans will accept any new coach if that coach can generate wins. However, if this is a hire of local convenience and lacks vision, follow-through, and high-level support…and if the losing persists, the repercussions will reach well beyond the basketball court.
We’ve said it many times: a good basketball program can provide much-needed gate revenue, increased national visibility, and provide DU with conference affiliation flexibility. With a great city and school to sell, DU should be able to achieve success in the Summit League without 5-star recruits and a nationally-renowned head coach. But at the same time, DU must be willing to look at the widest possible pool of available talent.
A coaching search that is not truly national, lacks creativity, and is just ‘safe’ is likely to fail in changing the endemic culture of losing basketball. Should Denver’s other sports backslide during non-COVID times, the heat on the Denver men’s basketball program will only continue to be turned up. Unlike the rest of the department, DU’s head basketball coaching job does not require merely a tweak here and there. It needs bold, dynamic leadership — an entire make-over – and a whole new culture change. And that change should extend to fans who should demand and expect better, too.
We’ve heard from Hoops Dirt that Creech may be looking here in Colorado at successful D-2 programs. According to their report, Pryor Orser, the head coach of the Colorado School of Mines, is a prime hiring option. Orser would certainly know the Colorado recruiting market for talent and would certainly fit within DU’s budget limitations. And such a hire could, in theory, turn out well. That’s certainly the safest and the easiest route for Creech.
But honestly, we’re hoping for more than just choosing the safe, local D-2 coaching route, especially if more attractive options are available. A national coaching search shouldn’t just end up in the backyard. It should shake the national coaching tree to produce a visionary coach. Winning here is doable in the Summit, with a lot to sell. Find your coach first, and sell that coach on DU as a platform.
We hope Creech understands the need for a bold and experienced coach who can inspire, who can sell our program around the country, who can attract (and develop) a higher level of talent for Denver. Ideally, it should be someone who knows D-I basketball, and hopefully, someone who has won at the D-I level as a head coach or an obvious up-and-coming D2 rock-star coach seen widely as a can’t miss D-I level coach.
Tom Petty once sang that “The waiting is the hardest part”. But even worse than waiting is making the wrong decision. The most important thing is getting it right.
Either way, Karlton Creech will be judged on how he does with this hire. It’s a chance to add to his obvious administrative skills and accomplishments to transform a moribund basketball program in need of serious resuscitation into a winning program that our fans should be proud to support.
Photo: Meg Minard, Stadium Journey