Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Kenny Brooks at Virginia Tech? With Wolff gone, we speculate

We're not going to spend a lot of time analyzing the firing of Dennis Wolff. Simply put, Virginia Tech's former athletic director, the late Jim Weaver, gambled that a head coach with no experience in women's basketball could resurrect a dormant program. After five years, current Tech AD Whit Babcock decided that gamble wasn't paying off.

The question now is, who's next? Given Tech's resources and position in the glamorous ACC, there should be plenty of strong options.

Of course, this was also true the last time Tech had an opening. One of the things that annoyed many about the Hokies' last "coaching search" is there really wasn't much of a search at all. Weaver more or less went with Wolff, a former longtime Boston University men's basketball coach who at the time was Tech's men's basketball director of operations, on a gut instinct. In fact, Weaver actually talked Wolff into it. This is one of the reasons we were never too hard on Wolff as Tech struggled. The way we look at it, Wolff's boss insisted he take a promotion, so Wolff took it and did the best he could.

We trust Babcock will shop around much more extensively. Given his home run hire of men's basketball coach Buzz Williams and the smooth transition from Frank Beamer to Justin Fuente in football, all indications are Babcock knows exactly how these things should be done.
Kenny Brooks

Much speculation is centering on James Madison coach Kenny Brooks, and it's easy to see why.

Brooks has done a masterful job of developing a perennial Top-40 RPI program and just led the Dukes to their third straight NCAA tournament appearance. Furthermore, this past season featured arguably Brooks' best coaching job. The 2015-16 season would have been a rebuilding year for most - the Dukes graduated a WNBA draft pick center (Lady Okafor) and a 1,000-point, four-year starting forward (Toia Giggetts), then lost conference player-of-the-year Precious Hall to a season-ending injury. Instead, Brooks guided the Dukes to a 27-6 mark and third straight CAA tournament title. Of the six losses, five were to NCAA tournament teams. Three of those squads (UCLA, Baylor, DePaul) are still alive.

Adding fuel to the Brooks-to-Tech talk is the fact that Babcock himself is a JMU grad. In fact, Tech's AD was playing baseball for the Dukes at the same time Brooks was performing for Lefty Driesell's JMU basketball squads in the early 1990s. This doesn't mean Brooks will get the job. But clearly, no one is going to have to clue Babcock in on what's been going on in Harrisonburg the past few years.

What remains to be seen is, if approached, will Brooks actually leave JMU? Not only has the 47-year-old Brooks spent his entire adult life in Harrisonburg, but he also grew up about 35 miles away in Waynesboro. Furthermore, the program reflects Brooks' deep identification with the community. All of his assistants are JMU grads, and local players (Kirby Burkholder, Nikki Newman, Muff Mickens) have played large roles in the recent successes. One of Brooks' daughters, Kendyl, is part of his incoming recruiting class.

But while it seems as though Brooks could be happy at JMU for the next 20 years, we wonder if the changing landscape of Division I women's basketball will force him to at least consider it. A lot of the legislation in the sport in particular and college athletics in general (cost-of-attendance stipends) has had the effect of widening the gap between the Power-5 conference schools and everyone else. Brooks' ability as a coach is unquestioned. But in the current women's basketball climate, how much further can he take a non-Power 5 conference school?

Again, we're not saying Brooks is Tech's man. There are many viable options, and we're confident a shrewd operator like Babcock has proven to be will consider all of them before making his move. But the state of Virginia definitely has one women's basketball head-coaching opening. A lot of thought, on both sides, will likely go into determining whether we have two.

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