Swapping Coaches Doesn't Always Work
Meanwhile, the perfect coach was waiting out there, doing great things at a mid-major program. He even had some pretty deep roots in Big Ten hoops.
Exit Davis, enter Steve Alford. The very personification of Big Ten basketball, Alford had just led a school then known as Southwest Missouri State into the Sweet 16. If he could do that at a mid-major, what could he do with a Big Ten program? Iowa fans were eager to find out.
Now, keep in mind as you read what follows that one of the big reasons Davis got dumped was because he couldn't get the Hawkeyes past the second round of the tournament. He never lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and the Hawks missed the postseason only twice in his thirteen years. Still, it was clear that Iowa needed somebody to take the program to the next level.
Alford turned out not to be that person. The Hawks went 14-16 in his first year (2000) and only made the tournament in 2001 because they ripped off four straight improbable wins in the conference championship. They won their first-round game but lost in the second round. But hey, they proved they were scrappy and could play with anybody. Great things had to be just around the corner.
Four seasons later (2005), Iowa finally made it to the dance again. They lost in the first round. The next year Iowa played well enough throughout the season and in the conference tourney to earn a No. 3 seed.
They lost in the first round.
Off the court, the relationship between Alford and Iowa fans would best be described as "tense." Hawk fans thought him to be a little too aloof for their liking. Tournament victories cover for a multitude of character flaws, but after six seasons, Alford had won only one tournament game. Forget always losing in the second round; now, Iowa couldn't even get to the second round.
Rumors swirled after a totally "meh" 2006-2007 season, until Alford shocked everybody by leaving Iowa for New Mexico, a place where he'd never be second fiddle to the football coach. But that was okay with Iowa fans. After all, there was a perfect coach out there at a mid-major. Exit Alford, enter Todd Lickliter.
Lickliter had taken over for Thad Matta at Butler. Matta had taken over at Ohio State after a stint at Xavier and made the Buckeyes good again. Lickliter used Matta's system and seemed to run it better than Matta had. How could this hire be anything less than wonderful?
Three seasons later, he still hasn't had a winning season. Oh, sure, this season isn't over yet, but Iowa has already lost 14 games. Forget losing in the first round; now, the Hawks would just like to make it to a tournament. Any tournament.
Yep, switching coaches to get deeper in the postseason worked out beautifully for Iowa. Given that Alford hasn't taken New Mexico to the tourney yet (though he seems a lock to do so this season), it's hard to think of who this move actually worked out for. There is one guy, though.
You see, Tom Davis didn't stay retired for long. In 2003 he took over as the coach at Drake University in Des Moines. Drake is a school well-known in Iowa but a bit obscure outside of it. They have a history in hoops. The Bulldogs, under coach Maury John, had made it to the Final Four in 1969 and followed that up with two consecutive Elite Eight appearances.
That was already a distant memory when Dr. Tom took over. Drake hadn't had a winning season in almost two decades. It took him three years but he finally gave them a winning season. After 2007, he retired and handed the Bulldogs over to his son, Keno Davis. That turned out to be a wise decision.
in the 2007-2008 season, the younger Davis led Drake to its best record ever, 28-5. Sure, they lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but that was fine. They had their fine young coach, so the future looked bright. Until Keno Davis jumped ship to Providence right after the tournament, that is. He would be the one guy who came out of this mess unscathed.
So let's review. Because Dr. Tom Davis couldn't get past the second round of the tournament, Iowa let him go, which led to the following:
1. Iowa has gone from a perennial part of the round of 32 to a team that hasn't made the tourney since 2006 and doesn't seem like a threat to do so any time soon.
2. Steve Alford, the can't-miss coach, hasn't been back to the Sweet 16 in a decade. Todd Lickliter, the second can't-miss coach, hasn't even posted a winning season at Iowa.
3. Dr. Tom Davis brought Drake back from the dead, but stepped aside the minute he had real success.
4. Keno Davis took over for his father and took Drake to places it had never been, but stepped aside the minute he had real success.
That is quite the chain of wreckage.
Let this be a cautionary tale to all disgruntled fan bases and all ambitious mid-major coaches everywhere. The grass may be greener on the other side, but unless you're coming off a winless season, "up" isn't the only way you can go from where you're at.