Coach Tubby Smith tires (or the fans were tired of him) of Kentucky, and he leaves a basketball program where he won a national title, multiple SEC titles, consistent national rankings and respect of his peers for the University of Minnesota’s basketball coaching job. An odd move, but probably wise for Coach Smith, as he and Kentucky were both looking for new starts and the forlorn Minnesota program was looking for a new start after being racked by NCAA rules violations and probation and before that years of struggle in the Big 10. And so begins that chain of dominoes falling that leads to the elevation of Randy Peele as the new Winthrop University men’s basketball coach, in Rock Hill, SC.

I was associated with the Winthrop basketball team for a year in the mid-90’s, so I have followed with with a bit of special attention. Here is the chain of events that began in mid March, after Kentucky was ousted in the second round of the NCAA tournament: Tubby Smith leaves for Minnesota, work-aholic Billy Gillispie leaves the Texas A&M program that he built for Kentucky, Mark Turgeon leaves perennial Missouri Vally contender, Wichita State for Texas A&M, and then nine year Winthrop head coach, Gregg Marshall, leaves his first head coaching job, Winthrop, (where he had won 7 Big South conference titles in 9 seasons and a top 25 ranking this past year) for Wichita State this past Saturday, with Randy Peele becoming the new Winthrop Eagle head men’s coach. It is fairly standard for the college basketball off-season to start with a quick chain of events where a coach leaves for a bigger job, effecting coaches all the way down the line. Since I was connected to the Winthrop program for a while, the following are a few thoughts about where the program has been and should go.

I can see why leaving is a good decision for Marshall. I thought the South Florida job he interviewed for might be better for him, by putting him in the Big East, but I can see how the Wichita State would put him in a better place for success long term. Even Winthrop’s players said they would have taken the job and don’t blame him for leaving.

He really had peaked at Winthrop, and wasn’t going to have a better season next year. So leaving now was really his last shot for moving up for the few years.

Coach Peele sounds like a good fit for Winthrop. I remember when he coached at UNC Greensboro and how aggressive his teams were. I remember being in the Winthrop Coliseum the night in ’96 when he brought his team in and ran Winthrop off the court with speed and aggressiveness, before taking UNCG to the NCAA tournament.

Long term, Winthrop us just going to have to raise the financial profile of their athletic department to compete at higher levels. The Big South is as low as it gets in Division I basketball, and the league is just going to have to push for greater financial guarantees all around, and attempt to become more than a one bid league.

Possible conference affliations that could help Winthrop in the future include the Colonial Athletic association (a good fit) or Conference USA (a real stretch at this point).

Winthrop is of course a founding member of the Big South, with long standing ties going on several decades now. There are lots of regional connections to places like Coastal Carolina, UNC Asheville and now Presbyterian; so breaking that bond will be hard.

Long run: Winthrop really needs to raise its athletic financial profile, and that may not be possible until other campus infrastructure improvements are finished. Due to its relatively recent coeducational status, and teacher’s college mission, Winthrop by nature has not had a deep pocket donor pool. That should change over the next 10 – 15 years or so as the school’s standing, which really started to improve after Ambassador Phil Lader’s leadership, should trickle down into a larger and deeper donor pool. Then the school can consider if a move to a better conference like the Colonial Athletic Association or Conference USA would work, with their greater competitive and financial pressures. The Southern Conference, one of the oldest conferences in the nation, is probably out of the question as they just expanded to include an even 12th member in Birmingham, AL, Samford University, that and Winthrop has not present plans to add the expensive sport of football.

Short run: Winthrop needs to be very appreciative of Greg Marshall for boosting the athletic program into a higher orbit, something that was really unexpected, but he has created a culture of winning – which is very, very hard to do. Also, folks need to get behind Coach Peele as quickly as possible, not letting donations drop off, etc. He’s a good coach and there is no reason why he shouldn’t keep winning as he already knows the recruiting pipeline. Winthrop basketball will not be as good next year, probably a 10 loss team, due to losing three top players, so folks need to keep that in mind. Also other sports like baseball, which is having another good year, need support. The baseball team is a hitter and two good pitchers away from being college world series contenders.

*** The above picture is the moment that Winthrop clinched its 7th Big South title in 9 seasons under Gregg Marshall this past March against the Virginia Military Institute at the Winthrop Coliseum. Winthrop later went on to defeat Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament.