NEW ORLEANS – Troy Dannen should be so lucky.
Dannen, Tulane’s director of athletics, is set to make his second major hire. He’s searching for a men’s basketball coach after firing Ed Conroy.
Perhaps Dannen should make the trek from Uptown to Gentilly to talk to his counterpart at Dillard Univesity – KiKi Baker Barnes.
Bleu Devil basketball fortunes were very unfortunate.
Nine consecutive losing seasons. The latest, 2014-15, was an ugly 5-25 campaign. Barnes fired highly-respected coach Bernard Griffith and the search was on for his successor.
Surprisingly, there were over 200 applications for the job. Times are hard and people need work. This job, however, was real work. It looked like an impossible task in a coaching cemetary.
“I was looking for a very strong recruiter,” says Barnes. “I tell my coaches all the time, ‘you can’t win without players.'”
Of course, the next criteria was the ability to do something with those players.
Few imagined the answer would be a semi-retired basketball coach in his 60’s. One whose resume arrived on the last day of the hiring process.
Mike Newell has experienced success, managing 320 wins at West Alabama, Arkansas-Monticello, Lamar and Arkansas-Little Rock. His resume includes seven NCAA/NIT appearances and seven 20-win seasons.
Newell’s 1986 Arkansas Little Rock club, a 14 seed, pulled off one of the great upsets in NCAA Tournament history by knocking off 3rd seeded Notre Dame 90-83,
Barnes had high expectations with the hiring of Newell, however, she admits those expectations have been exceeded beyond her wildest dreams.
“Where we are now, I expected in year two or three but not year one,” says the president of the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference.
“Frankly, I thought we’d finish in the middle of the conference, make some noise and let people know Dillard was back. But to win the conference championship?”
Where the Bleu Devils are now is the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City, the school’s first trip to the nationals since 2003. They earned their place there by winning the GCAC Tournament and an automatic bid to one of the oldest collegiate basketball tournaments in the country.
Dillard faces Hope International of California in the first round March 17.
Perspective is in order.
Dillard finished with a 21-10 record. That’s a victory increase of 16 games from the previous season.
In fact, the Bleu Devils had won 21 games total during the previous five seasons. They cracked the NAIA Top 25 National Poll for the first time since 2003-2004.
How did they do it? Well, the AD said she was looking for a recruiter.
One player, junior Houston Chatman of Houma, Louisiana, is the only member of the squad from the 2014-2015 roster retained by Newell.
Demetric Austin from Washington, D. C. was the biggest recruiting catch.
Named GCAC First Team All Conference and Newcomer of the Year, Austin is a 6-7, 225 pound bruiser who can also spot up outside and hit an occasional three-pointer. The junior averages 20 points and nine rebounds a game.
Point guard Dennis Hightower, another junior from Chicago, was an All GCAC Second Team selection knocking down 12 a game and six assists.
Dillard also can boast of the league’s Freshman of the Year, Montrey Thomas out of Byrd High in Shreveport.
But the key acquisition was the coach. Obviously, Newell met that second qualification – he knew what to do with the talent assembled.
The working relationship between Barnes and Newell is a bit of role reversal. Back in 2000, Newell, at the time athletics director at LSU-Shreveport, gave a young, enthusiastic coach named Kiki Baker her first head coaching job.
Barnes says it had nothing to do with Mike Newell’s getting his current position because they hadn’t talked in years.
“At his interview he knocked it out of the park. It was an example of why he’s such a good coach. Coach Newell just connects with people, Barnes explained. “Everybody likes Coach, the students, the staff, he’s just a great person.”
Everybody also likes a winner. And landing on the right side of the scoreboard means a return by alumni groups.
February’s Bleu Devil Classic saw a notable increase in alumni participation. The 2001 Men’s Basketball Team used it as an opportunity to reunite for the first time. The Dillard Alumni Chapter in Memphis traveled down river in force, and for those who could not make the trip from The River City, a “watch party” was held via computer of the team’s first win over arch-rival Xavier at home since 2001.
Kiki Baker Barnes says the pride felt by the alumni is important.
“That’s what winning does,” Barnes beams. “People want to be associated with a winner and they were waiting for us to be good so they could be proud and be able to tell everyone how wonderful Dillard University is.”
Everyone should get used to Dillard Bleu Devil hoops success. This year’s team returns in-tact next season. There are no seniors on the roster.