When George Fox head coach Scott Rueck accepted the top post at his alma mater Oregon State, he became the second coach this offseason to make the jump directly from Division III to Division I head coach. Vermont selected Lori Gear McBride of Colby to be its next women’s basketball coach in May.
The contemporary standard bearer for making that jump successfully is UW-Madison coach Bo Ryan. Ryan won four national titles with UW-Platteville and then moved to UW-Milwaukee before taking over the Badgers. At a lower profile Tony Shaver has done a nice job developing the William & Mary program since leaving Hampden-Sydney. Glenn Miller went from Conn College to Brown after leading the Camels to the Division III national semifinals. Miller did well at Brown, winning more games in his first six years there any previous Bears coach. Then he moved to Penn where he got fired after a 0-7 start to last season.
Here’s how some others have fared recently:
* Division I Bucknell likes them some D3 coaches. That’s understandable since Pat Flannery, who took over the Bison program in 1994, won 234 games there. Flannery arrived in Lewisburg after winning the national championship with Lebanon Valley that same year. So when Flannery retired in April 2008, Bucknell picked another Division III coach as his successor, Williams Dave Paulsen. Paulsen hasn’t taken the Bison to the same heights yet. They went 7-23 in Paulsen’s second season and 14-17 in the second.
* Speaking of the Patriot League, Stefanie Pemper left Bowdoin after a long, successful run in Maine for slightly warmer climes in 2008 when she became the head coach at Navy. The Mids have turned things around nicely under her, from 7-23 pre-Pemper in 2007-2008 to 16-15 post-Pemper in 2008-2009. Navy sustained that momentum last season by going 17-14.
* Around the same time as Paulsen’s and Pemper’s moves, Don Friday made the jump from Lycoming to St. Francis (Pa.). He took over a Red Flash program that had won just 18 games in three seasons. St. Francis kept slogging at that pace with a six win campaign in 2008-2009 but nearly doubled the win total last season by going 11-19.
This is far too small a sample to make any generalizations but it does highlight a couple things.
First, has any Division III coach made as big a jump as Rueck? Not to denigrate the Ivy League, Patriot League, American East or NEC, but they aren’t on the same level athletically as the Pac 12, um 10, er whatever. To give you a sense of scale how big the jump is, George Fox spent $81,909 during its undefeated championship run in 2008-2009 according to Federal government data. Oregon State spent five times as much – $419,465 – in a season where the Beavers went 20-12.
How will Rueck’s style translate at that level? Apparently he had the same question before taking the job. According to The Oregonian, Rueck called Oregon State football coach Mike Riley who also coached in the NWC at Linfield. Riley’s words encouraged Rueck to make the jump. An OSU assistant baseball coach who is also a former George Fox coach says, “”If you can coach at D-III you can coach anywhere.”
What happens to the teams these coaches leave behind? It’s a mixed bag. The Williams men reached last year’s national championship game post-Paulsen. The Bowdoin women aren’t as dominant as they used to be, but that may have more to do with GP Gromacki’s arrival at Amherst than Pemper’s departure. UW-Platteville and Hampden-Sydney aren’t as successful as they were under Ryan and Shaver, but they are competitive in really tough leagues. And Conn College has not fared well in the NESCAC since Miller left.
As for George Fox, having a roster with young talent, including freshman phenom Hannah Munger, certainly won’t hurt. Nor will it hurt that Puget Sound, the Bruins closest rival, will be going through a similar process after head coach Suzy Barcomb left for Division II. That’s the recipe for sustaining the success that Rueck established at George Fox over the short term. Choosing the right head coach to replace Rueck will go a long way toward sustaining it over the long term.