11 days before Jared Benko officially starts his tenure as Georgia Southern Athletic Director he has his first major task: hiring a new men’s basketball coach. Surprising news came down Friday night that Mark Byington resigned his position and taken the head job at James Madison.
At first glance the move is a bit surprising. James Madison looks like, at best, a lateral move. James Madison has only made the NCAA Tournament five times since 1981, their most recent trip being in 2013. JMU is a football school much like Georgia Southern. However, one would think that JMU would be at a resource disadvantage playing football at the FCS level vs. Georgia Southern in FBS. But that simply isn’t the case. James Madison is opening the new 8,500 seat Atlantic Union Bank Center this Fall. In addition, Mark Byington, a Salem, Va. native, is getting a massive pay raise to coach the Dukes next season. While he made roughly $300,000 a year at Georgia Southern, his new deal will pay him upwards of $450,000 over the next six years.
On a base level, Mark Byington left Georgia Southern in better shape than when he arrived. Seven years ago, Eagle basketball was in a bad place following the NCAA sanctions that chased Jeff Price out of town and the four disastrous Charlton Young years. The program needed a stabilizing influence and they got one in the form of a young Bobby Cremins protege.
With limited resources, Byington was able to rack up four +20 wins in seven seasons, including three years in a row. At Georgia Southern, where resources are relatively scarce and what resources are available usually go to the football program, he did an admirable job. However, the most disappointing part about his tenure was that he was unable to make the NCAA tournament or even the NIT. His only postseason tournament appearance was an embarrassing 74-49 shellacking at the hands of Utah Valley in the 2017 CBI.
But at the end of the day, Mark Byington was a net positive for Georgia Southern. He is a total class act. While his departure is disappointing in many respects, there was a segment of the fanbase that was getting impatient with his inability to get over the hump. Probably smart of him to get out of dodge. Can’t really blame him for taking a pay raise to move back to his native state. Best of luck.
It goes without saying that this is a weird time to start a coaching search. How does one conduct a nationwide search during a global pandemic? This is uncharted waters for all of us, to say the least. Jared Benko will have to hit the ground running. I imagine that a lot of Skype/Zoom/Google Meet interviews will be a part of the process. Even though he’s not technically on the job, I’m sure a short list is under construction.
Who would be a good choice to take over Eagle basketball and build off of the foundation that Byington built? Ike Smith, Isaiah Crawley, Simeon Carter, and David-Lee Jones are most likely gone. But Quan Jackson, Elijah McCadden, Calvin Wishart, and David Viti will most likely be back, pending a transfer portal exodus. The right hire could take this program to the promised land. Here is what I had in mind:
Steve Forbes, ETSU – 130-43 in five seasons at the helm at ETSU. 2020 SoCon Coach of the Year. Never won less than 24 games as a head coach. Went 30-4 as Buccaneers head coach in 2019-20. Won the SoCon regular season and postseason twice (2017, 2020). Made the NCAA tournament twice (’17, ’20), one appearance in the Vegas 16 (’16), one in the CIT (’19). Assistant experience at Wichita State, Tennessee, and Texas A&M.
Mike Jones, Radford – 159-138 record at Radford since taking over in 2011. Won Big South Coach of the Year twice in ’18 and ’20. In 2018 he took the Highlanders to the tournament and beat LIU Brooklyn in the play-in game. Five +20 win seasons including three straight. One trip to the NIT (’20), two to the CBI (’14, ’15). Assistant experience at VCU, UGA, West Virginia, and Richmond. 21-11 last season, 15-3 in conference.
Matthew Driscoll, North Florida – Has coached UNF since 2009, 183-179 record with the Ospreys. Won the Atlantic Sun regular season three times and the tournament once. Three-time A-Sun Coach of the Year. One trip to the NCAAs (’15), one to the NIT (’16). Assistant experience at Baylor, Clemson, Valpo, and Wyoming. 21-12 last season, 13-3 in conference.
Wes Miller, UNC-Greensboro – 164-126 record at UNCG. Two-time SoCon Coach of the Year (’12, ’18). Won the SoCon regular season twice (’17, ’18) and the tournament once (’18). Young, only 37. Four straight +20 win seasons. One trip to the NCAAs, two to the NIT, one to the CBI.
In addition, early rumors are swirling.