Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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Sports column

March 18, 2014

Column: A couple of suggestions for Hokies' coaching job

— Can basketball be successful at Virginia Tech?

With the right leadership and the ability to recruit and then retain that talent, perhaps the Hokies can at least achieve some measure of success.

It won’t be easy in the ACC, which has picked up Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, with Louisville added to the mix next season. Add such tradition-rich programs as Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, N.C. State and even Wake Forest, and competing on the hardwood with those squads won’t be easy.

Yet, it’s not impossible.

Athletic directors build their legacies on coaching hires, and Whit Babcock’s first big decision at Virginia Tech is crucial if the Hokies don’t want to continue their downward plummet.

Babcock made the decision to fire James Johnson on Monday after a disastrous campaign that saw the Hokies go 9-22, finish last in the ACC, and win one game in the 2014 calendar year. Most of the fans in games I attended were disguised as empty seats.

That can’t continue. Even Seth Greenberg — who former athletic director Jim Weaver fired two years ago to make room for Johnson — had a program that won games, but just never seemed to do enough to get off the NCAA bubble.

In fact, Greenberg even made the comment that the bubble should be named the “Greenberg” for all the times the Hokies were stuck there.

With Johnson now gone, there will be plenty of speculation over who the candidates will be. I have two choices that I believe could help turn around the program at Virginia Tech.

The first one might be a reach, but if you overlook the baggage, he would be a steal. The other choice is a native Virginian who has his squad in the NCAA Tournament for the third year in the last five.

Bruce Pearl and Mike Young.

Now most college basketball fans know who Pearl is. He was hired to replace Buzz Peterson at Tennessee in 2005, and led the Volunteers — who are overshadowed by its football team and the Lady Vols in Knoxville — to a No. 1 ranking in 2008, and an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAAs two years later.

Basketball at Virginia Tech is also overshadowed by football, but has no such trouble with its women’s hoops program. It is still possible to be competitive in both major sports.

Pearl is a free spirit. Pearl was known to wear a large “V” on his bare chest and sit with students to spell out “VOLS” during Lady Vols games. Pearl was visible in the community, absolutely loved Tennessee, and it showed in his persona.

Of course, there is also the ‘little’ matter of an NCAA investigation that not only led to the Volunteers firing Pearl, but he is also under a three-year ‘show cause’ penalty, which means he can’t have contact with recruits until August prior to the 2014-15 season.

That could eliminate Pearl from consideration since the Hokies need a coach who can get on campus soon, and hit the recruiting trail hard.

Good players make good coaches, and good players will come to Virginia Tech, but will they stay there? This year’s team was devoid of much high-level talent, although point guard Devin Wilson did prove to be a recruiting prize for Johnson. They just need a lot more around him.

Just two of the players who were originally Hokies but left for other destinations are Dorian Finney-Smith and Montrezl Harrell. Finney-Smith, Florida’s sixth man, transferred after one year when Greenberg was dismissed. Harrell, who changed his mind after committing to Virginia Tech, and wound up winning a national championship last March at Louisville.

Pearl can definitely bring in that kind of talent, and he has a great relationship with his players. Maybe too good, as evidenced by what happened at Tennessee.

As for Young, most novice fans may not know him, but he can coach. He was a very heady point guard at Emory & Henry, who was later an assistant there under the late Bob Johnson.

Young has been a resounding success at Wofford since taking over the Terriers, which didn’t move to NCAA Division I from Division II until 1998 when they joined the Southern Conference.

You can watch Young’s team in action on Thursday when Wofford plays Michigan in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

It wouldn’t be the first time a talented coach from Virginia became a success elsewhere. There are actually numerous instances, but one in the news this season is Gregg Marshall, a Roanoke product, who had success at Winthrop in the Big South, and is now the head coach at undefeated Wichita State.

Why not give Young a chance? He has been part of the Wofford program for 25 years, and head coach since 2002. He had led the Terriers to three NCAA and one CIT tournament appearances in the last five years. He has recruiting good players and who can play ball and also do the work in the classroom.

It’s not easy winning at the small school Southern Conference that has been dominated in recent years by Davidson, but the Terriers have their share of big wins, including an upset of Virginia Tech in his first season in 2003, and the Terriers’ only loss to Ohio State in their last NCAA Tournament appearance by four points.

He is also known for graduating his players, which any program would like. In fact, according to Wofford’s bio of Young on its website, every player that has used up his eligibility there under Young has earned his degree.

I was there when Pearl was hired to replace Peterson all those years ago. In fact, I even came across my interviews from that press conference a year or so ago.

Honestly, folks were upset with the hire. I listened to sports talk shows, and there are a bunch in Knoxville, and they wanted Bob Knight and other big names, but Pearl did nothing for them.

I wrote a column for the Bristol paper a few days later telling Tennessee fans the right choice had been made. That definitely proved true, other than the NCAA issues, which probably wouldn’t have been a offense that called for a firing except he lied about it to the NCAA — and the NCAA, much like the IRS, doesn’t take kindly to being lied to.

Now, I might be way off here and folks won’t like the choice, but why not give an in-state product with plenty of experience a chance.

Admittedly, Young probably wouldn’t remember me after all these years, but I have always followed his progress, and he has done quite well.

Now there is a chance he won’t want to leave Wofford, but why not make that call.

He could be the answer. One is a Pearl, the other could be a hidden gem.

*****

Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at bwoodson@bdtonline.com.

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