Following JMU men’s basketball’s departure from the 2020 CAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, JMU Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne confirmed that Louis Rowe won’t return as head coach of the Dukes. Now, a nationwide search has begun, and the next face of the program will be chosen.
Whoever is given keys to the program will be presented with intricacies that few mid-major programs deal with. The coach will lead the team into the new Atlantic Union Bank Center while coaching a program that hasn’t reached 15 wins in four years and hasn’t won the CAA Tournament since 2013.
With the search underway, here are six potential coaches JMU could target for its men’s basketball head coach vacancy.
Pat Kelsey, Winthrop head coach
This would be the ideal hire for the Dukes. Kelsey served as an assistant for Wake Forest from 2004-09 before returning to his hometown of Cincinnati to be the associate head coach at Xavier University alongside current Louisville head coach Chris Mack. Kelsey stayed with the Musketeers from 2009-12 before being hired by Winthrop.
Over the course of his eight seasons with the Eagles, he’s finished outside of the top three once — in his first season — and has won the conference regular season title three times. He’s won the Big South Tournament twice: in 2017 and 2020.
No other Big South team has more wins than Kelsey during his time at Winthrop, as he’s built a record of 162-93. He’s routinely linked with job openings of high mid-majors and was even reported to be on JMU’s shortlist in 2016 when former head coach Matt Brady was fired. It’s unclear how far negotiations progressed between Kelsey and JMU or if there was any serious contact.
With the program needing a rebuild, Kelsey would bring much needed experience and could be a big enough name to draw in better recruits. However, Kelsey has turned down many opportunities to climb the college basketball ranks, so JMU might be forced to either offer a deal he can’t turn down or turn its attention to other targets.
Another note for Kelsey is that he accepted the same job at the University of Massachusetts in 2017, but backed out of the deal 35 minutes before his introductory news conference, saying it wasn’t the right situation for him and his family. This shows Kelsey won’t take just any offer, even if it means advancing his career.
Mike Jones, Radford head coach
Staying in the Big South, Jones has built Radford into a consistent contender for the conference title. After serving as an assistant for schools like West Virginia, Georgia and VCU, he was given his first head coaching gig for the Highlanders in 2011.
After a 6-26 (2-16 Big South) start in his first season, Radford saw improvement. The Highlanders went 13-19 (7-9 Big South) in 2012-13, but two consecutive 20-win seasons proved Jones had the team trending in the right direction.
The next two seasons didn’t meet expectations, but in 2017-18, Jones finally reached the NCAA Tournament after winning the Big South Tournament in buzzer-beating fashion. Since then, he’s won two straight Big South regular-season championships, defeating multiple Power-5 teams along the way.
With Jones coaching in Virginia for the majority of his career, his recruiting presence makes him another solid candidate. But, he could hesitate to join an in-state rival, especially when he’s spent nine seasons with the Highlanders.
Kevin Sutton, Rhode Island assistant coach
Sutton played basketball at JMU from 1983-86 and served as an assistant for former head coach John Thurston. He then bounced around at prominent high schools, including a head coaching stint at Montverde Academy from 2004-11. While there, Sutton earned a 186-33 record and helped produce 55 Division-I athletes. Once he left Montverde, Sutton was an assistant for George Washington, Georgetown, Pittsburgh and Rhode Island, where he’s currently on staff.
JMU would be Sutton’s first head coaching attempt, which could be why he wouldn’t be hired. When Rowe was hired in 2016, it was his first head coach job as well. The Dukes might be hesitant to follow that same road, despite Sutton building an impressive resume at the high school level and garnering more experience as an assistant.
Being a former player helps his case, but Rowe was a former player himself. Sutton may see his name emerge depending on how negotiations pan out with other coaches.
Matt Figger, Austin Peay head coach
Figger earned a name for himself while at South Carolina, where he was an assistant for the Gamecocks’ Final Four run in 2017. He was hired by Austin Peay in 2017 and has since made the Governors into a tough team in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Austin Peay hadn’t won 20 games in a season since 2010-11, but Figger accomplished that in his second season, going 22-11 (13-5 OVC). This season, the Governors went 21-11 (14-4 OVC) and finished third.
Figger’s job isn’t favorable, considering he has to compete with perennial NCAA Tournament outfits Belmont and Murray State. But, he’s made Austin Peay into a team that contends for the conference title, and he elevated the program to a higher level.
JMU would present Figger with the chance to coach in a conference that isn’t headlined by two storied programs. The parity in the CAA is closer than the OVC, clearing the path for Figger to earn his first bid to the NCAA Tournament as a head coach.
While his lack of experience in Virginia could cause concern for his ability to recruit in-state players, his current roster at Austin Peay shows he can go anywhere and sell the school to a player. The Governors have players from eight different states, including players from Brazil and Venezuela.
Bob Richey, Furman head coach
What Richey has done in his three seasons leading Furman is impressive. He was an assistant at Charleston Southern for five years before joining the Paladins, where he was an assistant from 2011-17. In 2017, former head coach Niko Medved left for the same job at Drake, and Richey was named interim head coach. Shortly after, the interim tag was lifted, giving Richey his first shot as head coach.
In his first three seasons, Furman went 23-10 (13-5 Southern), 25-8 (13-5 Southern) and 15-6 (15-3 Southern). In his second season, the Paladins began the season 10-0 and featured a win over then-defending national champion Villanova. This earned them a ranking in the AP Top-25 Poll for the first time in school history.
At 36 years old, Richey has promise for the future, but he could have his sights set on a potential Power-5 job in the imminent future.
Russell Turner, UC Irvine head coach
Turner has been the head man at the University of California at Irvine since 2010 and hasn’t had a losing season since 2011-12. Since then, he’s gone 184-100 (.648 win percentage) and has gotten the Anteaters to the NCAA Tournament twice. One of those appearances included an upset win over No. 4-seeded Kansas State.
Despite making his trade on the west coast, Turner is a Roanoke, Virginia, native and attended Hampden-Sydney College. He played there from 1988-92 and served as an assistant from 1993-94. He bounced around coaching staffs at Wake Forest and Stanford before becoming an assistant for the Golden State Warriors.
Turner might be a stretch, as he’s built a formidable program at UC Irvine, but a potential homecoming could draw interest.
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.