Newly-hired Denver men’s basketball coach Jeff Wulbrun wasn’t shy in his first Zoom press conference. He set a serious bar for himself and for his program:
“We want to be the most improved team in the country next year.”
Wow! I’ll be honest – I didn’t expect this.
Perhaps, neither did you.
I was resigned to thinking that DU would pick some Division II coach who would try to prove over time that he was D-I material — someone who would hedge his bets, someone who would play for time.
Instead, in a bold and exciting move, DU went higher than expected and hired the 60-year old Wulbrun, Stanford University’s Associate Head Coach, in an attempt to revive a flailing DU hoops program that has fallen to the very bottom of NCAA Division I.
Mind you, putting Wulbrun’s team improvement goal into perspective, even if he wins only four games next season, he will have doubled the win total from last year’s 2-19 DU embarrassment – a 100% improvement.
DU Vice-Chancellor for Athletics Karlton Creech has appeared to combine a number of critical factors into a surprising, and what we hope will be a fantastic, hire as he comes out of a reportedly well-run three-week intensive interview process.
There is much to be excited about here. Wulbrun brings extensive Division I coaching experience in building pedigreed, well-admired Division I basketball programs like Stanford, Alabama-Birmingham, Illinois State, Virginia Tech, and Cal-Berkeley. He also brings experience with the academic realities and recruiting restrictions that go with prestigious private universities like Stanford and Denver.
“Jeff is a proven program builder with a depth of coaching experience,” Creech said in the DU press release announcing the hire. “His success at every stop along the way stands for itself, but what drew us to Jeff was his development of people. Relationships are the foundation of his recruiting and coaching, and I’m confident he is the right person to lead this program. Jeff has a clear vision of what a successful program under his leadership looks like, a vision built on the foundation of his success at five different Division I programs.”
“I want to build a [new basketball] culture here,” said Wulbrun, understanding the critical task in front of him. “We want players to invest in themselves, in each other, in our coaches, and in the University of Denver.”
But, as a DU fan, what is most exciting to me about this hire is Wulbrun’s obvious hunger to win on his own. At age 60, Wulbrun, even with all of his decades of hoops experience, is finally getting his first chance to actually run his own Division I program. He could have probably retired in comfort at Stanford, having been promoted to associate head coach in 2018-2019. But instead, he’s willing to bet on himself to move down from the Pac-12 to the Summit League in order to run his own show, his own way.
“In basketball, there are two kinds of coaches — you are either a builder or a sustainer,” said Wulbrun in the press conference. “I am a builder. I have been at a lot of places where [basketball] programs have been down and we’ve built them up…we have a roadmap…That’s my DNA. That’s who I am.”
Wulbrun’s former boss, Stanford Head Coach Jerod Haase, believes Wulbrun is ready for the challenge: “Denver Basketball will be in good hands with Jeff as the head coach,” he said. “He is incredibly prepared for this opportunity and has a vision of success that will be realized soon. While I am personally sad to see him leave, I am excited for him as he embarks on this new adventure.”
While it is true that ex-DU coach Rodney Billups was also a Pac-12 assistant when he was hired to coach the Pioneers, there is a world of difference in experience between a 33-year-old who was the third CU assistant at the time and a 60-year-old coach who is an associate head coach — and the top assistant at Stanford. In Wulbrun, there are nearly 30 more years of seasoning, experience, and judgment from five different D-I programs that can be brought to all the big decisions that must be made to rebuild the Pioneers, both on the court and off. As excited as we were to see our local passionate DU alumnus Billups take the helm of DU in 2016, our nagging fears of him being young, inexperienced, and in over his head came to be painfully realized over his five-year tenure.
Creech did not want to make the same mistake that DU made five years ago.
Kudos to Creech and his selection committee for getting this level of hire done. We had been deeply concerned that Creech’s announced salary range of $180-200k, in line with other Summit League teams, might have been a hindrance to high-level D-I coaches. That budget might have relegated the Pioneers into hiring a D-II coach, however accomplished, who would have to prove his capabilities to a higher level of athlete and a skeptical community. We’ve long believed, however, that DU is a great job and has plenty to offer a coach — a winnable league, little booster pressure, a very good facility, a great athletic department in a terrific top 80 private school in a young, spectacular city in a gorgeous part of the country.
The Denver reclamation project that Wulbrun takes on won’t be easy, though. There isn’t much talent in the cupboard on a last-place Summit League team that saw the better players on the squad streaming for the transfer portal when Billups’ contract was not renewed. The good news is there are 800+ college players in the transfer portal now and some of them might come to Denver. There are also the other traditional recruiting levers that Wulbrun has – high school athletes, international players, and juco players to fill out the Denver roster.
It starts with recruiting Colorado, according to Wulbrun:
“We have to do a great job in our own area…we’ve got to make friends with the high school coaches here.”
But he won’t be limited to Colorado, either. He’s prepared to look internationally to get DU into a winning program.
“International players love a metropolitan area [to play]…DU has 1,200 international students and alumni in 145 countries…We can tap into that. I have contacts, and we’ve done that [at Stanford].”
“We’re going to work hard,” Wulbrun said when asked about his playing philosophy on the court. “We’ll play unselfish basketball and make the best play for the team. We will have an identity. The team identity will start on the defensive end with man-to-man defense. The offense will attack in transition, attacking [the opponent’s] defense before they have a chance to set up. You’ll see player movement and ball movement.”
One of the other aspects that we really like about this hire is the many years of relationships that Wulbrun will be able to leverage in scheduling, which will be a big part of the rebuild in Denver. That’s not to expect Duke or Kansas to come to Magness Arena, but perhaps more Pac-12 teams might be persuaded to come to Denver, which could enable a higher level of engagement within the campus and community.
If he’s able to get DU winning again, it could really help DU in terms of visibility, league affiliation, and, perhaps, a future facility upgrade, now that Magness Arena is older than the players being recruited. We can see that his personality will be buoyant enough to help sell Denver basketball to an over-saturated media market where DU hoops is somewhere around team #20 after the seven local pro teams, and five other larger public D-I schools within an hour or two of Denver, and where DU basketball lives in a deep winter shadow of the hockey program in the same building.
“When our [DU] players walk across campus, we want them to be able to hold their heads high. Like DU hockey, lacrosse, and gymnastics, we want to compete for conference championships and NCAA berths.”
That’s all we ask, Jeff.
Welcome to Denver.
Puck Swami is the Internet moniker of a long-time DU fan and alumnus. He presents his views here periodically at LetsGoDU.