Pulling NCAA upset can change trajectory of coach’s career


INDIANAPOLIS — Dunk City’s thrilling NCAA Tournament run as a No. 15 seed in 2013 gave a rocket-boost to Andy Enfield’s coaching career that landed him at USC after just two seasons with Florida Gulf Coast.

When 15th-seeded Hampton shocked Iowa State in 2001, the image of Steve Merfeld celebrating — arms and legs extended, lifted off the floor by one of his players — became one of the lasting images of March Madness. Merfeld’s time at Hampton lasted one more season before he jumped to a bigger job.

In 2016, Kermit Davis led 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee to an upset of No. 2 seed Michigan State in his 14th season with the Blue Raiders. Two seasons later, Davis jumped from Conference USA to the Southeastern Conference and became coach at Mississippi.

A bracket-busting NCAA Tournament victory can change the trajectory of a coach’s career. With a 75-72 overtime stunner of second-seeded Ohio State on Friday, Oral Roberts coach Paul Mills’ stock likely went soaring.

Oral Roberts became just the ninth No. 15 seed to beat a No. 2 since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

“Once the buzzer went off, it’s more a feeling of relief, probably, than anything else,” Mills said.

Four of the last five coaches to win in the NCAA Tournament with a No. 15 seed jumped to another job in a bigger conference within three seasons of their big win.

Mills, a former Baylor assistant under Scott Drew, is in his fourth season at Oral Roberts. The Golden Eagles have made steady improvement during his tenure, reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.

But their first tournament victory since 1974 made Oral Roberts and its 48-year-old coach the biggest story in sports for at least a day.

“Paul Mills to many of us was an outstanding coach four hours ago,” ESPN analyst and former college coach Fran Fraschilla said. “But the fact that he’s knocked off Ohio State the way Oral Roberts did has given him great currency.

“A win like this validates Paul Mills not only with the general public, but it validates him with his peers. It validates him with basketball fans and it validates him, unfortunately for Oral Roberts, with the next AD thinking of hiring a guy like Paul.”

Mills wasn’t the only former Baylor assistant to Drew to make a mark on the first day of the first round: No. 13 seed North Texas and fourth-year coach Grant McCasland also beat a Big Ten power in overtime, knocking off fourth-seeded Purdue.

“It does open up an unbelievable amount of opportunity because it’s instant equity, a win like that and an upset like that in the NCAA Tournament,” former Nebraska coach Tim Miles said.

Merfeld had Hampton back in the tourney as Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champs the season after that memorable win against Iowa State. The next year, he landed at Evansville in the Missouri Valley, but it never quite clicked there and he was let go after five losing seasons.

In 2012, two No. 15s advanced out of the first round. Lehigh stunned Duke with future NBA star C.J. McCollum and Norfolk State bounced Missouri.

Anthony Evans spent one more season as Norfolk State coach in the MEAC before becoming head coach at Florida International in Conference USA. Five losing seasons later, he was out. Lehigh coach Brett Reed stayed put and just finished his 14th season at the school.

No coach has parlayed an unexpected star turn in March into a meteoric rise like Enfield. Florida Gulf Coast’s “Dunk City” team in 2013 became the first 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16.

After just 69 games as a college head coach, Enfield went from making $157,000 per year in the Atlantic Sun Conference to a Pac-12 job with an annual salary of well over $1 million.

“It’s a lot easier to hire a hot name out of the NCAA Tournament and if he doesn’t work out the athletic director can always say, ‘Look, we thought we were hiring a superstar based on what he did at X school,’” Fraschilla said.

The Trojans are in the NCAA Tournament this season for the third time in eight seasons under Enfield, a No. 6 seed facing Drake on Saturday afternoon.

Davis was the antithesis of Enfield, an established, veteran coach with a long track record of success — just not in the NCAA. Then his Middle Tennessee team beat mighty Michigan State as a 15 seed.

“Rightly or wrongly, the emphasis is on the NCAA tournament,” Miles said. “It’s almost like the guy’s an overnight sensation and it only took him 15 years to get their. But that’s just the way it is.”

Fraschilla led Manhattan College to a 13-over-4 upset of Oklahoma in 1995. Two years later, he took the St. John’s job and then went to New Mexico, but never won another NCAA Tournament game.

Whether Friday’s upset turns out to be the peak of Mills’ coaching career or the first of many March moments, he might never top the feeling of leading Oral Roberts past Ohio State.

“It will be one of the greatest days of his career no matter what happens from here,” Fraschilla said. “He can go to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 25 years and he’ll remember this day forever because of what it means to him, his team, his school and his family.”

Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at https://westwoodonepodcasts.com/pods/ap-top-25-college-football-podcast/

More AP college basketball coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and updated bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket

No posts to display