Brian Earl: The right coach at the right time for Cornell

Princeton finished in the top three in the Ivy League eight straight seasons with Brian Earl as an assistant coach. The Tigers were the only Ivy team to do so in that span. (College Chalk Talk)

In 2010, Cornell Athletic Director Andy Noel took two weeks to hire Virginia Tech assistant coach Bill Courtney as the replacement for the enormously successful Steve Donahue. Following the Big Red’s run to the Sweet Sixteen and Donahue’s jump to Boston College, Noel selected the former Bucknell All-Patriot League player from a final group that included Wisconsin assistant coach Gary Close and then-Temple assistant and
present Colgate head coach Matt Langel.

Following Courtney’s dismissal on March 14th, Mr. Noel took much more time for his next head coaching choice. In fact, almost all the other schools on this year’s coaching carousel made their decisions much faster than the Big Red (UNLV, in fact, made two choices in this time). After five weeks, Mr. Noel announced that Princeton associate head coach Brian Earl had been hired as the 22nd head coach of the Cornell men’s basketball program.

While the process was kept rather quiet, early reports at Mid Major Madness mentioned former Steve Donahue era Cornell assistants Zach Spiker and Nat Graham, as well as former Duquesne head coach and present West Virginia assistant coach Ron Everhart. Zach Spiker was still the head coach at Army and would have required a significant buyout and salary if he, in fact, wanted to come back to Cornell. The Big Red, with a reputation of frugality in its basketball spending, did not seem likely to put that type of commitment in place.Shortly after that report word came that Spiker landed the head coaching job at Drexel.

Nat Graham had been a player at Penn under Fran Dunphy and assistant coach Steve Donahue.  After several seasons in Canada at the University of Western Ontario and the University of Toronto, he joined Donahue at Cornell for 2005-2010 and Boston College from 2010-2014.  Afterwards, he went back to Penn where he has been an assistant under Jerome Allen, and Steve Donahue.  Graham has a large amount of experience in the Ivy League and, specfically, Cornell, as well as connections in Canada.  However, his coaching experience is mostly with one coach and a system that may or may not work in a league that has changed since his last success in 2010.

Ron Everhart had experience as a head coach at Duquesne, Northeastern and McNeese
State, taking 3 teams to the NIT and 2 squads to the CBI in 18 years.  However, his lack of experience in a conference like the Ivy League may have hurt his chances.  So might a 2012 letter to the Duquesne Board of Trustees from its president stating that the coach achieved modest gains along with uneven recruiting, large student and coaching turnover, poor
performance late in games, decreased results late in the season and a lack of communication.

Several weeks after that first short list, Hoop Dirt mentioned that there were three known coaches who were interviewing on campus, along with one or two other candidates.  The named applicants were Billy Taylor, Tom Billeter and Brian Earl, as chronicled by the Cornell Daily Sun. Taylor, the Director of Operations at Iowa, was a former player and assistant at Notre Dame under John McLeod.

After three seasons as an assistant with former Penn assistant coach and Lehigh head coach Fran McCaffery at UNC-Greensboro, Taylor took over the Mountain Hawk program in 2002.  In his five years in Bethlehem, he won one league title and two Coach of the Year awards in his first two campaigns. He then left for Ball State in 2007, where he had only one winning season in six years.  According to a 2013 Sports Nation article, Taylor reportedly ran the program well in every aspect except win-loss record.  Given that the same summary
could be stated for Bill Courtney, it did not seem likely that Taylor would end up with the Cornell job.

Tom Billeter is the head coach of Augustana University in South Dakota, winner of
the 2016 NCAA Division II Championship. In 13 years at Augutana, he is 247-143 with seven tournament appearances. In five seasons at then-Division II North Dakota State (1992-97), he went 97-50 with four tournament appearances.  In addition to being an graduate assistant to Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson at Arizona from 1985-87, he worked under fellow Wildcats assistant Scott Thompson when he took over the Rice program from 1992-97. In between his Division II stops, he was an assistant at St. John’s (NY) and Texas A&M.

Billeter’s name was probably linked to Cornell through his connection with Scott Thompson,
who coached the Big Red from 1996-2000 and stayed close to Mr. Noel as a Special Assistant, following his decision to step down from coaching for health reasons.  While a very successful and experienced Division II coach, who apparently has expressed interest in moving to a Division I program and has a history of rebuilding a program,
Billeter has no direct experience with the unique academic and athletic issues
of the Ivy League  It is also not known if there was a buyout or higher salary demand, like Zach Spiker.

Looking at the above information, it was understandable why several of the unofficial
final candidates were not chosen, but there were less reasons to know why Nat
Graham or Tom Billeter did not end up in Ithaca.  No matter the variables, in the end,
Andy Noel went with Princeton’s Brian Earl, with Billeter and Taylor as runners up in the selection process.

In choosing Earl, Cornell may appear to have ended up in a place that many thought
they would be at the start of the hiring process. However, instead of simply finding someone
who could hopefully sneak the team into the future Ivy League tournaments, they found an accomplished cost effective assistant coach with a history of success at the top of the old and new Ivy League.  It is to Athletic Director Noel’s credit that he took his time to look at many different types of coaches, inside and outside the league, to make sure that his choice was correct.

In Earl, whose accomplishments can be found in IHO’s initial coverage of Cornell’s hire,
they have someone who has the experience of being a Player of the Year star in
the older Ivy League under two great mentors, Hall of Famer Pete Carril and
Bill Carmody, while competing for a Top 20 team in several NCAA Tournament
games. He also has been an integral part of the team’s success in the present deeper and more balanced Ivy League, where the staff has had to adapt the legendary Princeton style.

For Earl, who was reportedly in contention for the vacant Dartmouth job, as well as being
a finalist at Williams College in 2014 (which went to former Cornell player and
and assistant coach Kevin App), Cornell presents definite challenges. Not only has the team been sub-.500 and in the bottom division for the last six years, but it is at a school with slightly less prestige and significantly less financial aid resources. Additionally, for a school in search of a new president, following the untimely death of Elizabeth Garrett, there is no way
of knowing if there will be any additional public and or financial support for
the program.

For some Big Red fans, there is a concern that Earl will leave East Hill if/when
Mitch Henderson says goodbye to Princeton. One would think if Earl felt this was a strong possibility and he had an inside chance at the job, he would not have been searching to build a program and Andy Noel would not have chosen him. Taking the job at Cornell only to quickly leave for a rival does not seem to be something one would do to maintain an ethical reputation, as well as strong relationships, with other members of the conference. If he should
obtain success and leave after a few years for Princeton or any other school, Big Red fans will be able to find comfort in the 1999 words of a newly hired Yale coach when
interviewed by the New York Times:

“Our goal is to win the Ivy League championship next year. I think the best thing for Yale is to have a guy who doesn’t want to be here for 15 years. He should want to use this as a stepping stone, and to do that he has to get it done and that gets it done.”.

With those issues noted, Earl has the resume and reputation of being able to succeed
at Cornell.  He was greatly involved in helping Sydney Johnson resurrect a demoralized Tigers program, going from a last place 2-12 record in 2006-07 to the 12-2 co-championship and NCAA Tournament berth in 2010-11. He also has been involved in all facets of assistant and associate head coaching decisions at a program with a historic reputation for athletic discipline and excellence. In addition, Earl should be able to improve upon the 2015-16 campaign, since Bill Courtney was a solid recruiter and leaves the program with a number of outstanding players.

Matt Morgan, Robert Hatter, Darryl Smith, and JoJo Fallas can certainly put up enough points for the Big Red. The return of swingman Pat Smith can add some depth with Jordan Abdur-Ra’oof if the team needs some size at the three or speed at the four. With Jerry Ben and Josh Warren coming to Ithaca, along with the possible return of oft-injured Braxston Bunce, David Onuorah and Stone Gettings may be able to get some help for a team that was
often dominated down low.

Late in the season, it was noted that the previous coach felt that the team had
talent, but did not have an identity. At other times, it seemed like things were
out of control as the Big Red attempted to simply outgun its opponents.  With Brian Earl in place, the team and its fans should be assured that the Big Red will absolutely have structure and discipline, as it goes about creating an style and identity to match its coach.  It may have taken a long time for Cornell to find its coach, but Earl may just turn out to be the right person, at the right time, for Cornell to quickly rise to the middle of the pack and eventually be a consistent presence at the top of the Ivy League.

4 thoughts on “Brian Earl: The right coach at the right time for Cornell

  1. The first short list mentioned is not accurate. Ron Everhart and Zach Spiker were not considered regardless of any buyout provisions. The two other finalists were very strong and detail involving Billy Taylor and Ball State was compelling in mitigating the overall record. Congratulations to Brian Earl and Zach Spiker for their appointments. Thorough article – thank you.

  2. I think it is a good safe hire. Several Princeton assistants have had success when hired as head coaches. I am happy to see that Billy Taylor was considered. He is a terrific coach and would fit in very well in the ivies.

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