The last time Tennessee State hired a men’s basketball coach, someone who many considered a dark horse candidate for the role got the job.
Athletics director Teresa Phillips has that in mind as she begins the search for John Cooper’s replacement.
Cooper was officially introduced as Miami-Ohio’s head coach on Monday. He spent the last three seasons rebuilding a TSU program that won nine games his first year, 14 the next and 20 this past winter — the most since 1979.
"Coming into it, I think people didn’t think Cooper would be the choice,” Phillips said. “We had a couple of guys who came into that final interview that had a lot more head coaching experience over Cooper and he came in and knocked the socks off.
"I learned from that to stay open-minded.”
After going 14-16 during the 2010-11 season, Cooper signed a five-year contract extension that didn’t include a raise. As the Tigers gained national notoriety when they knocked off Murray State — then the last undefeated team in Division I — and finished second in the Ohio Valley Conference, it became apparent to Phillips that keeping Cooper wasn’t going to be easy.
Last Sunday, Miami athletics director Brad Bates, a former associate athletics director at Vanderbilt, contacted Phillips to receive permission to talk to Cooper. Bates saw Cooper first-hand when TSU defeated Miami 68-61 in February in Oxford, Ohio (TSU will host the Redhawks this upcoming season).
On Friday morning, Cooper accepted Bates’ offer to replace legendary coach Charlie Coles.
“We weren’t wrong” Phillips said of the decision to hire Cooper. “He came in and did what we thought he could do. We wish we could have kept him longer. But he has set the stage for this being a very good job for other people. We hope to get a really good coach in to continue his work.”
At his press conference on Monday, Cooper said he was bringing assistant Sheldon Everett and director of operations Trey Meyer with him from TSU.
Current TSU assistants Rick Duckett and Travis Williams — both former collegiate head coaches — are expected to be candidates for the Tigers' head coach position.
Duckett just wrapped up his first season at TSU. He previously was head coach at Grambling State from 2008-09 but was fired one month after a player died after becoming ill at a preseason workout. Duckett also coached at Division II schools Winston-Salem State and Fayetteville State, where Cooper served as an assistant.
Williams arrived at TSU with Cooper in 2009. He spent three years as head coach of Division II Fort Valley State.
Having head coaching experience isn’t a sticking point to Phillips. Cooper, after all, hadn’t been a head coach but was attractive as the top assistant coach at an SEC school, Auburn.
David Cason fits that bill. He just finished his first year at Vanderbilt after six at Tulsa were he was the associate head coach. Cason was one of five finalists for the opening at OVC rival Eastern Illinois, which hired Moberly Area (Mo.) Community College coach Jay Spoonhour last week.
“We’re going to look at all options,” Phillips said. “I’m kind of already overwhelmed with it.”
Since Cooper’s decision on Friday, Phillips said no current players have approached her asking for a release. As of Monday afternoon, she had talked to four players who planned to stay.
The Tigers expect to have forward Robert Covington back for his senior season. A Cooper recruit, Covington led the team in scoring and rebounding and was named to the All-OVC First Team and HBCU All-American.
“They came to play for Tennessee State,” Phillips said. “[The players Phillips talked to] weren’t having any consideration of leaving. That doesn’t mean others may not feel shaky because your coach is a very important person in the life of a student-athlete.”
In addition to finding a men’s coach, Phillips is looking for a women’s coach too.
TSU alum Tracee Wells was fired last month after a 77-157 record over eight seasons. Phillips hopes to hire a coach by early next week. She plans to interview five finalists that range in experience from junior college head coach to assistant coaches at the SEC, Big 12 and OVC level.