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

Dominique Martinez-Powell | dmartinez_powell.photography
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Column: Mullins decision one SIU will live to regret

Bryan+Mullins
Brian Munoz | @BrianMMunoz
Bryan Mullins

After five seasons as the head coach of the men’s basketball program, SIU and Saluki Hall of Famer Bryan Mullins have parted ways. 

Jeff Goodman of The Field of 68 was the first to report the news, which broke on the afternoon of March 8, less than 24 hours after a massively disappointing loss to the UIC Flames in the first round of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. 

Point blank: I don’t like this decision for the Salukis, but if they were going to let him go, this was the time. Mullins’ contract had yet to be extended past his original deal, and with only one year left on his contract, SIU is not left in too bad of a financial position. They thankfully don’t owe him millions to not coach the team.

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This raises a question though; why wasn’t Mullins extended? His resume as a coach certainly doesn’t indicate he should have been fired . He owned an 86-68 record during his five seasons as head coach, good for a 55.8% win percentage. His worst year came during the 2020-21 season, when the Dawgs went 12-14. His best came in 2022-23, when future Big10 basketball stars Lance Jones (Purdue) and Marcus Domask (Illinois) were at the height of their powers.

Recently, SIU coaches haven’t had to do that well to earn an extension, with Football coach Nick Hill being a prime example. Hill, who is well into his second contract with the Salukis and entering his ninth season as head coach, still has a career record of 45-47, even after going 22-15 in the past three years. Like Mullins, Hill also has never finished above third in the MVC.

But Hill has a job at SIU. He signed a five year extension prior to the 2022 season despite at the time having a 31-36, and will be with SIU through at least 2026. 

This is not meant to disparage Hill and the job he has done with Saluki football, and it brings up a key point; there is a direction for the gridiron program, something that Mullins and the basketball program lacked. 

This lack of direction is likely a big part of what cost Mullins his job; losing first-team all-MVC guard Xavier Johnson to graduation and veteran presence Trent Brown leaves the team noticeably shallow, even more so than they were this season. It’s difficult to see what the future for the Salukis is. And while pundits may be correct in saying that SIU is in a bad place, may I remind you that they said the same thing heading into this season. 

In the preseason poll, SIU was picked to finish ninth in the MVC. Most fans were expecting a down season too; losing Domask and Jones would hurt any team, anywhere. 

These expectations quickly changed to win-it-all-or-bust when the Salukis rampaged through their non-conference schedule, led by the emergence of Johnson as an elite scorer who also played standout defense. This success recalibrated expectations for this season, and they really shouldn’t have changed. While Johnson was significantly outplaying expectations, the rest of the team was still very average to below average. There’s a reason that Mullins ran with a seven man rotation most of the season; there simply weren’t enough MVC-quality players to put on the floor.

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You may say that this is Mullins’ fault, and that he can’t recruit. I’d tell you that’s completely false. Mullins and his staff brought in Marcus Domask, who was Wisconsin Mr. Basketball in 2019. Troy D’Amico and Scottie Ebube ranked within the top 10 players in Illinois in their class. Foster Wonders was the Michigan Mr. Basketball runner-up in his class

You also can’t say Mullins couldn’t recruit the transfer portal. Players like Ben Coupet, Clarence Rupert, and AJ Ferguson, who quietly had a stellar second year at SIU, and even Johnson, were all transfer students.

Mullins, who recognized the importance of recruiting and how SIU could be left behind if it didn’t continue to do a good job, even brought in Jerrance Howard, who is widely regarded as one of the top recruiters in the country, to help bolster his recruiting prowess.

Ferguson and Kennard Davis were the main players on the court from this year’s recruiting class, while Sheridan Sharp, also expected to be an impact player before a preseason injury essentially ended his season, was in the class. 

Critics would say that it was a bad class, but there haven’t been many players who come in and have a major impact in their first year, especially at the mid-major level; they’ve needed time to develop. If you want proof of this, just look at the MVC’s All-Conference teams; only five of the 15 players on the first, second and third teams, are underclassmen, and none are freshman. Even three of the five players on the All-Newcomer team are upperclassmen.

I also don’t want to hear the argument that Mullins can’t develop players. Mullins has finished in the top three of voting for MVC coach of the year multiple times, including this season. And If you want three great examples of player development, look at Jones, Domask and Johnson. 

Jones was an unranked recruit who blossomed into one of the best defenders in the MVC and a highly effective scorer before transferring and becoming one of the top players on the number one team in the country, Purdue. 

Domask, though highly touted before coming to SIU, exceeded expectations and developed into a highly sought-after player in last year’s transfer portal before landing at the University of Illinois, where he has been one of the best players in the Big 10.

Johnson’s development has happened before SIU fans’ eyes. While he was an MVC All-Defensive team selection in his first season, Johnson averaged only 7 points per game. This season, he averaged 22 and was named the most improved player in the MVC.

With the departure of Mullins, SIU is in a rough place; it wouldn’t be surprising if several players entered the transfer portal, as the coach they committed to play for is gone. And even if all of them stay, the cupboard still isn’t exactly chock full of exciting talent. D’Amico, Rupert, Ferguson and Davis are the only players who’ve proved their worth as major-minute players in the MVC, though they are far from stars. Hensley and Ebube still have major question marks as to what kind of players they will be. The same goes for Sharp and Cade Hornecker, who have been hurt for the majority of their SIU careers.

SIU is unlikely to attract a proven head coach, and understandably so. The roster is pretty bare, and while I love southern Illinois, it isn’t the most exciting place to move to. The new coach will probably have strong backing from administration, as they want as badly as anyone to build a winner, but who is to say the next coach will be better than Mullins?

This time, there is one crucial factor that must be kept in mind with the hiring of any coach; NIL money, and how they will leverage it. Recruiting players has never been more difficult, as they rightfully want to be paid, and if they aren’t being paid, they can easily leave. Unfortunately, southern Illinois doesn’t have a plethora of NIL opportunities, making it more difficult for players to want to come here and even more difficult for them to stay here. I don’t know how Mullins would have continued to approach this challenge, but now we have to find out if a new coach can do any better, which doesn’t seem like a risk worth taking at this point in time.

I also don’t know if SIU will be able to find someone who fits southern Illinois better than Mullins did. He was a hall of famer who loved the area and has deep personal ties to the school. If we’re going to give someone a year too long, Mullins is the type of guy you give it to. 

While the ceiling with Mullins may have seemed limited, I don’t see how it gets any better with another coach in place. The same limitations are likely to be a factor, and now we have to find a coach who can maybe reach the heights that Mullins has. There’s far from a guarantee that the next coach will be better.

In 20 years, maybe SIU won’t regret the decision to part ways with Mullins. But in the next five years, when the program has sunk to levels reminiscent of the end of Chris Lowery’s tenure, fans will be longing for the days of Bryan Mullins on the sidelines.

Buckle up, Saluki fans. We’re in for a rough ride ahead.

 

Sports reporter Ryan Grieser can be reached at [email protected]. To stay up to date on all your southern Illinois news, be sure to follow The Daily Egyptian on Facebook and on X @dailyegyptian.

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  • K

    Kurtis RobinsonMar 25, 2024 at 4:49 pm

    It certainly hurts to see Mullins go, and by simply looking at his overall record it seems odd that he would be fired. However, my two biggest gripes with him are only having two tournament wins in 5 years and a very underwhelming record against the top 3 or so teams.

    Reply
  • G

    Gail SteckMar 23, 2024 at 12:33 pm

    I was shocked when Bryan was let go!! And now 8 players have left. What coach will want to take all that on? Big mistake! Well, it remains to be seen… on a personal note, I’ll sure miss seeing Mullins on the sidelines and the former Saluki team on the floor (and the bench).

    Reply
  • W

    WanMar 23, 2024 at 12:26 pm

    Spot on. My feelings exactly. I would add…if we do get an outsider who has some success…doesn’t he just leave and we start over again? Nick Hill better update his resume…

    Reply
  • E

    Eric EganMar 22, 2024 at 8:53 pm

    Good article and I agree. Whether it is sports or business, everyone wants immediate results. However, sometimes leadership is playing the short game when they should be focused on the long game. They tend to ignore the critical success factors, such as NIL opportunities, location, and culture.

    Reply
  • N

    NickMar 22, 2024 at 4:36 pm

    Didn’t Barry Hinson recruit Domask?

    Reply