By Jesse Keipp
With the help of a search firm, University of Tulsa Athletic Director Derrick Gragg and President Steadman Upham labored for two weeks to find a new coach after previous men’s basketball coach Danny Manning departed for Wake Forest on April 4.
After a laundry list of candidates, including Mercer’s Bob Hoffman and Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew, Gragg and Upham swiftly decided on the University of Missouri’s Frank Haith, penning him to a seven-year contract, worth roughly $1.3 million per year. After initial contact on Thursday, TU officially announced Frank Haith as its 30th men’s basketball head coach.
On the surface, it appears that a lowly mid-major program robbed the powerful SEC of one of its coaches. However, many Missouri fans and pundits have rejoiced over Haith’s departure.
After his initial weekend of press conferences and radio appearances as Tulsa’s head coach, Mizzou fans were quick to point out his comical gaffes. Nothing evidenced the rapidity of Haith’s hire more than his apparent lack of awareness of the University of Tulsa. During his first press conference, Haith lauded Tulsa’s move to “the Atlantic,” while Tulsa, of course, will be joining the American Athletic Conference.
Haith flattered the Tulsa fanbase with the bold claim that, “It had to take a place like [Tulsa] to leave Missouri.” However, to even the most delusioned Hurricane fans, the compliment sounded too good to believe.
Given Haith’s checkered past, to say that fans view the hiring as controversial is an understatement. Haith was convicted and punished by the NCAA for paying $10,000 to a booster while head coach at the University of Miami, an institution not exactly known for the integrity of its athletic department.
Nonetheless, Haith checked out with Gragg, a former director of compliance and operations at the University of Missouri, and Upham, a former NCAA board member who oversaw Haith’s Miami incident. If any two collegiate administrators could vindicate Haith and justify a career resurrection, Gragg and Upham would be among the two most qualified.
Haith compiled a 76–28 record during his three-year tenure at Mizzou, including two NCAA Tourney appearances and one NIT appearance. While Haith never carried the Tigers deep into the Big Dance as his predecessor, Mike Anderson, did, Haith perpetuated a high level of success in Columbia.
Mizzou fans may soon suffer according to the old adage, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Despite all the disapproval, Haith boasted a resume with three consecutive postseason appearances.
Despite Haith’s promise, there are nonetheless legitimate reasons for hesitation. Though Haith’s violations cleared with Stead and Gragg, they still happened. After recently having an athletic director fired for gambling on collegiate games, Tulsa’s fairly clean history can’t use another blemish.
Having reached the postseason three years straight, Haith choked faster than Bartolo Colon at an all-you-can-eat buffet. After winning AP Coach of the Year in 2012, Haith’s Tigers compiled a 30-win season, then lost in the first round to Norfolk State. After earning another shot in 2013, Haith’s squad fell to Colorado State in its first matchup. This year, Haith earned a decent 22–11 record, but was relegated to the NIT, losing to Southern Miss in the second round.
Notably, Haith’s record worsened with each year, a downward trend that everyone hopes is a fluke. The declining record could suggest that Haith couldn’t win with his own players, instead living off the scraps that Anderson left behind. However, Haith’s greatest strength may be his recruiting.
After his first two years at Mizzou, Haith couldn’t crack Rivals.com’s top 30 recruiting classes. Yet, for 2014, Haith reeled in the nation’s 27th best recruiting class, including two top-100 recruits. Haith’s successful shift in recruiting could bode well in the future, perhaps drawing national talents into Tulsa.
Haith’s future is like a mystery bag of Jelly Beans, you could eat poop or you could Dr. Pepper. You won’t know for certain until Haith’s Tulsa squad takes the floor In the fall. Nonetheless, the hire—and salary—represent an official end to complacency in Tulsa athletics. As evidenced by Gragg’s demand for a former head coach, the school will no longer settle for no-name assistants, bargain coaches or prolonged mediocrity. The Doug Wojcik era couldn’t seem further away. And the Frank Haith era couldn’t appear much more exciting.