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Is Ed Cooley Michigan’s Man?

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The pros and cons of hiring Providence’s head coach

NCAA Basketball: Providence at Butler Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

UPDATE: In the time since this article was published, it’s been confirmed that Ed Cooley has officially signed a new deal to remain at Providence, so this article is now more of a theoretical discussion about what Michigan can and should be looking for in their next coach, who be all accounts is probably going to be Juwan Howard.

Apparently, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel has three main candidates for the open position of head men’s basketball coach. Those three names are Luke Yaklich, current Michigan assistant and defensive guru; Juwan Howard, former Michigan player, Fab Five member, and well-regarded NBA assistant; and Ed Cooley, current head coach at Providence.

Cooley was one of the twenty names on my list of current college coaches that Michigan might be looking at. And since Cooley has been a college head coach since 2006, he’s much more of a known quantity than the other two. I dove into some of the numbers, and I put a list together of the pros and cons of hiring Ed Cooley.

Pro: Cooley Is A Total Mensch Who Is Clean As A Whistle

So this isn’t numbers-based, but I thought I’d lead off with it since it’s the first thing most people in the know mention about Coach Cooley. He is a great guy who runs a squeaky clean program. In the Big Ten, at Michigan especially, that matters. There’s a reason Rick Pitino is still coaching in Greece, despite how many job openings had fans lobbying for his hire. Integrity is important, particularly since the fallout from the FBI probe may not be done yet.

Con: Cooley Has A Losing Record In Big East Conference Games

Ed Cooley has been at Providence since 2011 and has gone 71-73 in Big East play during that time. I always say that a coach’s record in conference play is the best determinant of how good they really are; the NCAA Tournament is a crapshoot with a small sample size, and non-conference schedules are not all created equal. In theory, a conference is full of peer schools. Against his peers in the Big East, Ed Cooley is only average.

Pro: A Big East Record Close To .500 Is Still Better Than Previous Providence Coaches

Apart from one Final Four run under Rick Pitino in 1987, the Friars have hardly been a Big East power. In the 25 years between the Final Four and Cooley’s hiring, the Friars had a winning conference record only 5 times. Cooley has five in eight years.

The Friars have never won a regular season conference championship, and they only have two Big East Tournament titles. One of those came under Ed Cooley.

Cooley also took the Friars to five straight NCAA Tournaments, which had never happened before.

Con: He’s An East Coast Guy, Not A Midwest Guy

Cooley’s resume includes head coaching positions at Providence and Fairfield. He was an assistant at Stonehill, Rhode Island, and Boston College. Those are all East Coast schools.

His best player ever is Kris Dunn, from Connecticut. Other top recruits include Ben Bentil (Delaware), Rodney Bullock (Virginia), and Alpha Diallo (New York).

Pro: All Four Of The Above Statements Also Applied To The 2006 Version of John Beilein

When John Beilein was hired, there was no reason to expect that he was going to take Michigan to two national championship games. He was a guy from upstate New York who did a little bit more at West Virginia than anyone else had been able to do. He wasn’t a sexy (and in fact people wanted him fired after his third year at Michigan), and he had no Wolverine ties whatsoever.

Pro/Con: Ed Cooley Is Not A Swing For The Fences Kind Of Hire

I see this as both a pro and a con. On the one hand, pretty much any school who made two or more national championship games in the past ten years (with the possible exception of UCONN) would go after a bigger name than Cooley if they suddenly found themselves without a coach. Michigan settling for Ed Cooley sends a signal that they aren’t knocking on the door of the blue-blood club anytime soon.

On the other hand, you don’t always hit a home run when you swing for the fences. Juwan Howard could absolutely kill it at Michigan, but he might also flop as hard as some other alum-with-NBA-assistant-experience hires. How did Eddie Jordan and Chris Mullin work out?

In some ways, it’s a sign of Michigan’s confidence in their own program to make a hire like Cooley. There’s a decent analogy to football. Wisconsin football isn’t a blue-blood, but they’ve had consistent success, albeit for a slightly longer period than Michigan basketball. Paul Chryst didn’t exactly set the world on fire at Pitt, but Pitt isn’t Wisconsin, and Providence isn’t Michigan. Barry Alvarez determined that Wisconsin had enough structural advantages as a football program that they didn’t need to make a pizzazz hire. Does Michigan have similar structural advantages in basketball? I’m not sure. But pizzazz can be a sign of weakness as often as it is a sign of strength.

Conclusion

In a perfect world, Michigan would be able to go out and hire somebody like Dana Altman, who is both high floor and high ceiling. For whatever reason, be it timing or the perception of their program, they aren’t going to be able to go out and do that. So it’s a question of what seems to be a low-ceiling-high-floor option in Cooley and a high-ceiling-low-floor option in Howard. That might be a little unfair to Cooley. As we’ve seen, the last hire that Michigan made looked a lot like Ed Cooley on paper, and John Beilein ended up having a pretty darn high ceiling.

If, as reported, the Michigan search is down to three candidates—Yaklich, Howard, and Cooley—I think that Cooley is probably the right choice of those three.