Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

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AD on Mullins: “We haven’t seen that trajectory” towards tournament-worthy play

SIU+athletic+director+Tim+Leonard+writes+in+a+notebook+Sept.+7%2C+2022+at+Lingle+Hall+in+Carbondale%2C+Illinois.
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SIU athletic director Tim Leonard writes in a notebook Sept. 7, 2022 at Lingle Hall in Carbondale, Illinois.

When SIU athletic director Tim Leonard informed men’s basketball head coach Bryan Mullins that he would not be returning after five years on the job, the decision was not taken lightly.

“I haven’t slept in a week because I knew it was coming and I was dreading it,” Leonard said.

Leonard said Mullins had requested a meeting on the morning of Friday, March 8, less than 24 hours after the Salukis’ upset loss to UIC in double-overtime to end their season in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, to inform him of his future with the program, and whether his contract would be extended or not.

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Mullins had one year left on his original contract after this season, but was essentially working on a “contract year,” meaning the school would choose between extending or moving on after this season.

“We knew that this was a contract year, and Bryan knew that,” Leonard said. “We had to have a good year from him, and show progress.”

While the Salukis had a winning record for the fourth time in five years under Mullins, the late-season results fell short of overall program expectations. The team finished 19-13, adding to Mullins’ overall record of 86-68.

Among the factors going into the decision was SIU’s lack of NCAA Tournament appearances. Although the school touts a rich history of postseason success, it has experienced a 17-year drought of missing the big dance dating back to Mullins’ playing days.

“I think what our expectations are is that we will go to the [NCAA] Tournament every couple of years, and in the off years, we’re still gonna be competitive, we’re gonna still be fighting for a top-four seed, and be in those top four, and able to beat the top teams in the league,” Leonard said. “We haven’t seen that trajectory.”

During his press conference after the season-ending loss to UIC, Mullins echoed those expectations, as he had throughout his tenure.

“Our goal is to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Mullins said. “This is a championship program. Those are the standards. Those are the expectations. Those are what our guys work for every single day.”

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Recent trends have made it difficult for mid-major schools to make the tournament on merit alone, as evidenced by Indiana State becoming the highest-ever NET-ranked team to miss the tournament. Being in the Missouri Valley Conference essentially requires a conference tournament win to obtain an automatic bid into March Madness, which Southern has not come close to during most of its drought.

Leonard said that Southern’s upset loss to 11 seed UIC in the opening round of Arch Madness was not a “defining factor” in the decision to move on from Mullins, but it “certainly emphasized the decision.”

“One of the things that we had looked at was performance in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St. Louis,” Leonard said. “That’s when coaches earn their salary. And in five years, in five tournaments, we’ve had two wins. That’s it, we’ve only won two games, and never more than one game in a tournament. And that was a pretty eye-opening stat right there.”

Another area that was scrutinized was Southern’s record against the top three teams in the Valley in each year. In Mullins’ five years, the team had a record of 5-27 cumulatively against teams that placed in the top three in the MVC standings each season.

“And I get it, because those are the best teams in the league. But we want to be one of the best teams in the league, and we haven’t seen that ability to beat the best teams on a more consistent basis,” Leonard said.

Against particular teams, the numbers continue to be lopsided against the Salukis, going 1-7 against Drake and 1-5 against Bradley and Northern Iowa each across the past three years.

“We were beating the teams that are in the lower part of the Valley, but our record against the top part of the Valley was not very good,” Leonard said.

Player development and recruiting was touched upon as well. The program produced future Big Ten stars Marcus Domask and Lance Jones, as well as one of the nation’s top scorers in Xavier Johnson, but never saw more than a third place finish during their Saluki runs as it leaned heavily on their contributions.

“I feel like we had good pieces, but we didn’t have all the pieces,” Leonard said. “And again, everybody’s trying to do that, right? If it were easy, everybody would have it. But we were never able to get a team that had all of the pieces together.”

Despite the end results not matching lofty expectations for the program, Leonard still recognized what Mullins undoubtedly did right while leading the program. The Saluki Hall of Famer expressed passion for his alma mater and established a positive culture in the locker room and the community.

“You look at the type of kids he’s bringing in here, quality kids, great kids that graduate, they were never problems,” Leonard said. “Bryan was unbelievable to work with. He’s a legend around the area. And just as quality of a human being as you can find. But I think we expect a little bit more than that at SIU.”

In terms of what comes next, Leonard almost immediately began a search for the next head coach. It seems that Saluki nation can expect a decision relatively soon, especially in the fast-moving world of college athletics as the landscape shifts almost daily.

When asked what he was looking for, Leonard summarized it in two words: “a winner.”

“Somebody who has been around winning a lot, who’s had experience winning a lot,” Leonard continued. “I think, ideally, I’d like to get somebody that’s got a lot of skins on the wall, somebody who’s either currently a head coach or has been a head coach. And I’m less concerned about, what conference is it, is it Division I, Division II, Division III, whatever. I want a coach. I want somebody who knows how to win and sustain it.”

Many popular picks among the fanbase include former Salukis. Mullins already had a Hall of Fame career as the team’s point guard before becoming head coach of the program in 2019.

But Leonard said Saluki ties will not be a factor in the decision, but more of a bonus if applicable to whoever the top candidate ends up being.

More importantly, Carbondale’s rural setting, the university’s limited resources compared to Power Five schools, and the fanbase’s high expectations will all be considered in terms of how the next head coach would handle them. While a former Saluki would likely find that transition easier, it does not also guarantee success.

“It’s a unique place, and they’re gonna have to understand… it’s a challenge to get to, and somebody has to enjoy living that type of lifestyle, but with a very passionate and knowledgeable fanbase,” Leonard said. “If all you’ve experienced is competing at the Power Five level where you have unlimited resources all the time, chances are, you’re not going to be successful at this level.”

In the wake of Mullins’ departure, most of the Saluki players with remaining eligibility entered the transfer portal in recent days, as is typical when a coaching change happens in modern college basketball. While it’s possible not all of those players leave the program, it will likely look dramatically different when the Dawgs take the court in November 2024.

Leonard drew comparisons to Indiana State, this season’s MVC regular season champion, which saw much roster turnover en route to back-to-back 20-win seasons in years two and three of head coach Josh Schertz’s tenure.

“That’s the environment we’re in now,” Leonard said. “You lose players, but you can build quickly as well.”

Southern Illinois could face a down year or two in men’s basketball as it looks to rebuild the program, but Leonard expects the Salukis to be competitive again sooner rather than later. He once again took inspiration from the Indiana State model, citing the 2026-27 season as a soft target.

“I definitely think by year three, we should be seeing signs [that] we’re headed in the right direction,” Leonard said.

Saluki men’s basketball is at an inflection point now as it looks to pick up the pieces and move forward. Several have voiced their opinions both for and against moving on from Mullins, but more than anything, that passionate Saluki fanbase agrees on wanting a winning program.

“I mean, that’s what I love about this place is the people care about it,” Leonard said. “I’ve been in places where nobody cares about it, and that’s really bad. But here, people are passionate, and that’s why I get it, that some people were excited we made the change, some people are upset we made the change. The most important thing is people care.”

Managing editor Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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    Michael MorinMar 19, 2024 at 10:37 am

    Leonard is a hack…period… . He has not been at SIU long enough to really understand the rich basketball history at SIU . It’s a business’ is what this man is all about. Forget about the ‘rural’ fans who flock to games just to see the Dawgs compete in a tough but entertaining league or enjoy the Dawg Pound…all attributes Mullins knew how to nourish. How does a winning coach with a positive‘trajectory’ (18 games over 500) get fired? How are students and local fans supposed to react when our remaining starters hit the portal?…Leonard is not a Saluki…he is a hack that will likely move on to bigger and better opportunities soon enough. As an alum and long time Saluki I am shocked and saddened by this decision.

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