If you follow Stu Whitney on twitter (of if you’ve paid attention to what I’ve been saying since Dave Boots retired in the fall) you know by now that Tom Billeter is apparently a finalist for the head coaching job at USD.
This is not a surprise.
I suspect there might be some USD fans who would be underwhelmed by Billeter because he’s a “D2 coach” (you know, the same thing Scott Nagy, Aaron Johnston, Boots and Tim Miles, among others, once were), and I know with certainty that Augie hoops fans are pretty much going into full-on panic mode at the prospect of seeing the architect of the Vikings basketball renaissance leave. The fact that he’d be going to a former NCC rival would, for some, just make the pill even tougher to swallow.
But I’m going to go out on a pretty sturdy limb here. If Billeter ends up landing the Coyote job, it’s going to be a good move. For both schools.
I’ll start with why he’s a good fit for USD, because it’s an easier sell.
* People forget how bad the Vikings were when Billeter took over. They hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1989, or even been an NCC contender since that time, never finishing more than two games over .500 from ‘89 to Billeter’s arrival in 2003-04.
Rather than try to make the Vikings instantly competitive with transfers, as many expected, he gutted the program and started over.
They went 6-21 in his first year. 8-20 in his second. Then 12-16. Then 16-12. And then in 2007-08, they finally made the NCAA tournament, going 22-9. They were still in the NCC then. So was USD, entering the season ranked near the top of the national polls.
The Vikings swept the season series from the Coyotes and finished ahead of them in the standings.
Since then, the Vikings have been regular contenders, going 21-10, 24-7, 18-9, 17-11 and 22-9 before faltering this year under the weight of injuries and defections (they finished 16-14).
The Vikings made four of five NCAA tournaments before this year, and frankly, they were, in my opinion, unfairly left out in 2010-11.
* Billeter already recruits Division I players. Cody Schilling, Cam McCaffrey, Drae Murray, Dan Jansen and Zach Huisken all had Division I offers. Some of them had offers from SDSU and USD. He’s been able to compete with those schools for recruits without even being at their level. It’s fair to assume he’ll be able to do even better when selling a D1 experience.
* USD is in a somewhat similar place to where Augie was when Billeter took over.
No, they’re not a doormat by any means, but they are in transition. Still looking to improve facilities, fan experience, etc. Billeter had a major role in improving those things at Augustana.
When Billeter came to Augie, it was not an attractive job. If he leaves now, the Vikings job will be very highly sought-after.
That’s what Tom has a chance to do at USD. Take a job some might see as less than attractive and make it so.
* He has Division I experience. A lot of it.
He’s been an assistant at Arizona, Rice, St. John’s and Texas A&M. Those aren’t mid-majors.
And he wasn’t just a tag-along. I spoke to Lute Olsen this fall, and I pushed the legendary coach pretty hard on just what kind of role Tom had with the Wildcats, and Olsen made it clear he demanded a lot of him, even as a young GA.
Anyone who knows Tom knows he’s a name-dropper, but in fairness to him, he really does know a lot of dudes. He’s been everywhere. He took the St. John’s job because he wanted to develop connections on the East Coast, the one place where he had none.
From Arizona to Texas to North Dakota to New York, the guy’s been around.
* He’s hungry.
I know this might be hard for Augie fans to hear, but I’m pretty sure Tom really wants this. He’s been working toward a Division I job his whole life. He’s put in the work. I think it means a lot to him to be a part of that world.
I wouldn’t say that Tom looks at what SDSU has been doing in recent years with jealousy, necessarily, but I know he believes that if given the chance he could do the same thing. If USD (or someone else) eventually gives him that chance, I’d be surprised if he didn’t succeed.
As for why Tom’s departure might not be so devastating for the Vikings:
* The Vikings aren’t ready to go Division I.
I’m pretty sure that if Billeter remains at Augustana, he will continue to push for them to make the transition to Division I, and while I admit to not being as privy to all the goings at Augie as the people who work there, I don’t think they’re ready at this time.
I felt like USF made the move from NAIA to Division II too soon, and while the first few years of their transition have had lots of highlights, the overall returns have been mixed.
The stakes are a lot higher making the jump from Division II to Division I, and I feel like if the Vikings did make the move, they’d be doing it for the wrong reasons. Namely, because they want to be with SDSU and USD.
That’s not the right reason to go.
When USD made the move, it was time. They looked at their options and realized they had more in common with the low-to-mid D1s than they did with the schools in the NSIC.
I’m not convinced at this time that the Vikings have more in common with SDSU or UNO or Oral Roberts or whoever than they do with Concordia-St. Paul or Mary or Winona State.
If Billeter is gone, I suspect that would mean much less of a ‘We need to go D1’ push within the program. I could definitely be wrong about that, and whoever becomes the new AD will probably have a say in that eventually, but it’s my hunch.
If I’m right, it might be a good thing for Augie to feel less pressure to keep up with SDSU/USD so they can focus on other things, like improving football attendance, making the move to the Arena work, getting the volleyball and wrestling teams back to national prominence and coming up with a solution for track facilities.
* The Augustana men’s basketball job is now a very attractive job.
Since Tom took over, the Vikings have added a practice gym, secured a new home court that I think is going to be more well-received than people think, and developed a winning tradition.
They’re in a conference that is strong, particularly in basketball. The Vikings are fully-funded and finally added a second-full time assistant before this season. Augie would offer a very good salary.
If Tom leaves, there will be no shortage of very strong candidates.
Assistant Jeff Trumbauer might be a candidate, but he might also go with Tom to Vermillion.
If he doesn’t, the Vikings would not just hand him the job. He’d have to interview, and he’d have competition.
It’s possible that some of the best head coaches in Division II would apply, along with some D1 assistants.
There would be coaches within the NSIC that would apply. Maybe not Mike Leaf or Matt Margenthaler, but well, maybe. Sioux Falls is arguably the best city in the league from a total package standpoint.
* Notoriety doesn’t hurt.
It isn’t a bad thing if an Augie coach, be it Billeter or someone else, uses their job at Augie as a stepping stone to a higher level. For some reason, a lot of Augie folks tend to think that all of their coaches should view Augustana as a final destination, and anyone who doesn’t is considered disloyal or whatever. That’s dumb and arrogant.
People at SMSU are proud to claim Tim Miles. NDSU fans are proud of Bob Babich. Kalen DeBoer is a legend at USF.
If Billeter goes to USD and takes the Coyotes to the NCAA tournament, that’s a feather in the cap of the Vikings. It’s a recruiting chip. It’s free advertising. It’s brag-worthy. There are literally no negatives associated with something like that happening.
* Sometimes new blood is a good thing.
I’m not suggesting that things have gotten stale under Billeter, but he has been there for 10 years now. One reason I think he’s interested in the USD job is that it would energize him. Not that he’s going through the motions at Augie — he isn’t, and I think even if USD offers him the job it’s going to be tougher than people think for him to take it because of the potential of the current Viking roster — but because new challenges always give competitive people a shot in the arm.
The same could happen with the Vikings. Again, Tom would be leaving the program in great shape. A new coach with new ideas and new contacts might be just what the program needs to take the next step.