Brian Earl’s departure from Cornell leaves the men’s basketball program in uncertainty

Brian Earl moved on from Cornell after going 96-103 (46-52 Ivy) in eight years as coach of the Big Red. (Cornell Athletics)

Brian Earl is no longer the coach of Cornell men’s basketball.

Just days after guiding the Big Red to their first NIT bid, Earl resigned to take the head coaching job at William & Mary. It seemingly came out of left field after Cornell finished 22-8 in its third consecutive winning season under him. After all, Earl’s never coached or played outside the Ivy League.

“I’ll always be grateful to Cornell for providing me my first opportunity to be a Division I head coach,” Earl said in a university release on Saturday. “From the commitment and unselfishness of my student-athletes to the dedication and sacrifices made by my staff, I’m thankful for all the memories I’ll take with me, both personally and professionally. I appreciate the partnership of our administration, and I am proud of what we have built at Cornell.”

“Coach Earl did a fantastic job establishing a winning culture while being a wonderful representative of Cornell University in general and Big Red athletics in particular,” Cornell athletic director Nicki Moore said. “I believe him to be one of the top coaches in the country, and we were fortunate to have him shepherd the program the past eight years, including navigating the COVID pandemic. We wish Brian and his family the best of luck in accepting this new challenge, and know he’ll always be a part of our Big Red family.”

Arguably, the William & Mary job is less attractive. The Tribe have never made the NCAA Tournament and have won just 35 games over the last four seasons. Surely, a pay raise may have enhanced Earl’s decision, but William & Mary hasn’t had the success of Cornell in what’s statistically a weaker conference (Coastal Athletic Association).

Since taking the job at Cornell in 2016, Earl has nearly flipped records. Going 8-21 in his first season, he improved to 15-16 in year three – the program’s last with 2,000-point scorer Matt Morgan. In 2019-20, the Big Red went just 7-20, losing a string of close games in nonconference play followed by a pair of dreadful stretches in Ivy play.

After a year off due to the pandemic, Earl introduced an uptempo version of the Princeton offense. He enhanced the pace of Cornell toward the top 20 in the country with at times the quickest average possession time among 362 programs. Going 15-11 in 2021-22, he added two more wins in 2022-23 before recording his best season this year.

With seven seniors, including three starters, the timing must’ve seen right for Earl to leave.

But that creates obvious uncertainty in Ithaca.

Will what Earl built last? Will parts of the coaching staff stay? Will the players stay?

In this landscape of college basketball, it’s all a giant unknown.

Nazir Williams, a rising senior, is an early candidate for Ivy Player of the Year if he stays. Guy Ragland Jr. has helped anchor the offense off the bench since he was a freshman, and he has one more year. AK Okereke and Cooper Noard had breakout sophomore campaigns, and Jacob Beccles and Jake Fiegen showed lots of promise as freshmen.

Maybe they’ll stay — but Cornell must get the hire right.

The first choice could be in-house. Jon Jaques, who helped lead Cornell to the Sweet 16 as a player in 2010, has coached the Big Red since 2013. He worked under Bill Courtney and assisted with the transition to Earl after Courtney got fired following a 10-18 campaign in 2016. Earl then promoted him from assistant to associate head coach in 2022.

With his familiarity and coaching in three systems at Cornell — one under Courtney and two under year — maybe he’ll be the long-term option. He’s currently serving as the interim head coach. It’d certainly be the popular move.

But in the past, Cornell has gone external. One of the reasons it chose Earl in the first place was because of his familiarity with the Ivy League, having played and coached at Princeton.

With Cornell’s resurgence since the pandemic, the university can’t afford to make the wrong hire. Princeton and Yale have dominated the Ivy the last three years and the Big Red have been the only team to hang with them. Until Friday, the program had been in one of its best spots yet.

Now, Cornell has to reset and pivot. It’ll be hard to replace Earl — but they have to nail this one.

3 thoughts on “Brian Earl’s departure from Cornell leaves the men’s basketball program in uncertainty”

  1. Two factors stand out to me with Brian Earl’s decision to leave Cornell.

    (1) Look at Kyle Smith’s career path. Left Columbia for San Francisco in 2016. After three solid but unspectacular seasons, jumped to Washington State. He’s now at Stanford, soon to be competing in the ACC. By the way, Smith’s successor at San Francisco, Todd Golden, also jumped to a high-major program, Florida. Also after three solid but (mostly) unspectacular seasons. Point being, Earl’s move to William & Mary might seem like a lateral. It’s not. He’s closer to a high-major coaching position than he was a week ago.

    (2) Look at Kentucky. After their first-round loss to Oakland, they all but admitted it was a mistake to continue building their roster around youth. In today’s college game, it helps to have more age and experience. William & Mary can recruit graduate transfers. Ivy League schools cannot. The landscape is shifting. Brian Earl recognized what’s happening and adjusted accordingly.

    I hope Cornell can also adjust.

  2. Great article and comment. But lets not forget that Jon Jacques was also on the Cornell Sweet 16 team as a player and starter his senior year, so also has the knowledge from playing under the Sweet 16 coach Steve Donahue, a great coach now coaching on Penn. So in short, Jon Jacques is definitely the man for the job, and knows the team and can keep players from transferring. Give him a shot-he deserves it.And if it doesn’t work out, no harm done-then go for a bigger name. But it will work out and he will lead us to another sweet 16, and due to his deep Cornell roots, won’t leave for another mid major school, though I don’t blame Brian Earl for cashing in-he did a wonderful job.

  3. Agreed Jacques is the right choice for this position. He has served a long apprenticeship under Kyle Smith, Bill Courtney, and Brian Earl. His time has arrived.

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