Ranking all the MVC Coaches
In times of strength for the MVC, there is usually one common factor: strong coaches. The Valley is often made or broken by its coaches. Several big-time coaches have come through the MVC before moving onto bigger jobs, while a few have stayed and had sustained success.
With that in mind, I am going to rank the current crop of MVC head coaches. This will be very subjective. The fact is, every MVC team has reason to think highly of their coach. They all have solid backgrounds and varying degrees of success. You don’t get hired as a DI head coach without some kind of pedigree. I am going to look at things like success on the court, experience, and longevity. But I am also going to have to use my own subjective opinion.
10. Matt Lottich, Valparaiso: Matt Lottich had the unenviable task of replacing hometown hero Bryce Drew in 2016. He is the first person outside of the Drew family to coach Valpo since 1988. There are a lot of young coaches on this list with something to prove, and Lottich is the poster child for that group. A Stanford grad, the 38-year-old had little coaching experience of any kind when he took the reins at Valpo.
However, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have good basketball experience. After he graduated from Stanford, he played pro ball oversees in three countries for a total of eight seasons. After he retired from playing, he became an assistant at Valpo under Bryce Drew for three years. That was his only coaching experience when he was hired. Lottich led Valpo to a Horizon League title in his first season, but the Crusaders have finished in the bottom half of the league in each of his three years in the MVC. That isn’t an entirely fair criticism, as it typically takes teams a few years to adjust to a new league and they did make one of the best runs in Arch Madness history last year when they went to the final as a 7-seed.
Lottich’s Arch Madness run probably kept him off the hot seat for now, but he needs to start producing better results if he wants to continue to be head coach. Valpo is a school that is used to winning basketball games, and it is on him to prove that they didn’t make a mistake by hiring a young guy with little experience. If he does end up falling short at Valpo, he is likely to get another chance somewhere down the road as he is still quite young.
9. Todd Lickliter, Evansville: Todd Lickliter has a strong pedigree. The 65-year-old from Indiana has been National Coach of the Year, has NBA experience, and was a head coach in the Big Ten. He is one of the men responsible for Butler’s rise from the Horizon League to the Big East, as he took them to the Sweet Sixteen twice as head coach.
Unfortunately, it has been a while since he has been that guy. Lickliter parlayed his run at Butler into the head job at Iowa. His three years at the helm were a disaster. He never finished above 8th place, nor did he have a winning record. After he lost his job at Iowa, he was an assistant at Miami Ohio, then head coach at NAIA Marian, then an NBA scout. Two years ago, he was hired as an assistant at Evansville under Walter McCarty. After the McCarty scandal, Lickliter ended up being promoted to head coach.
Lickliter getting the job at UE is a great story. And the guy has proven he can coach at the mid-major level. He did it as well as anyone in his time at Butler. His 0-16 start at Evansville cannot be entirely blamed on him due to the circumstances that surrounded his hire, and he will need some time to rebuild that program. But it has been quite some time since Lickliter was at the helm of a winner. Can he do at Evansville what he did at Butler? If he can, he will rocket up this list in a hurry. For now, he sits at #9.
8. Dana Ford, Missouri State: Dana Ford is another young, relatively inexperienced, up-and-coming head coach in a conference that is full of them. Hiring a young coach with little experience is often a roll of the dice. You could end up with the next John Wooden on his way up the ladder, or you might end up with a guy that wasn’t ready for his opportunity. Unlike six of his MVC contemporaries, Dana Ford had head coaching experience before he came to Springfield to replace Paul Lusk. He spent four mediocre seasons as the head man at Tennessee State. He was 5-26 his first year (inheriting a team that went 5-25 the year before), but the Tigers improved to 20-11 and second place in year two. He hovered around .500 the next two seasons before being brought on at MSU.
While his previous coaching experience was at Tennesee State, Dana Ford is very much an MVC guy. That is likely part of the reason he was brought on at MSU. He played at Illinois State, and was an assistant at Wichita under Gregg Marshall and also served as an assistant at his Alma Mater before being hired at Tennessee State.
Ford is a likable guy and a good recruiter, which is another reason he was likely hired at MSU despite just an average record at Tennessee State. In his first season, his Bears were in the running for the MVC title into the final week of the season before finishing fourth. For year two, he assembled an extremely talented group, that was a virtually unanimous pick to win the MVC. Unfortunately, his squad struggled to a sixth-place finish. As of this writing, Coach Ford has an exactly .500 record at MSU.
That is the rub with Coach Ford. There is no question he can recruit, and he can probably raise a lot of money too. But can he be a consistent winner? On that question, the jury is still out. He has spent most of his career hovering around the .500 mark, but he hasn’t had a chance to fully establish himself either. Ford still has every chance to turn MSU into a winner, but the make-or-break time will come sooner rather than later. If MSU isn’t in the upper tier of the Valley in the next three years, the clock may run out on Ford. But there isn’t any reason why he can’t do it.
7. Greg Lansing, Indiana State: Greg Lansing is a real tough one to place on this list. He has the second longest tenure of any current MVC coach, but his results have been a mixed bag. Lansing has an NCAA and two NIT appearances in the last decade. That is superior to several MVC programs with better resources. Unfortunately, the Trees haven’t been able to muster much up at all in the last five years. So where do you put this guy?
Lansing paid his dues prior to his hire at ISU. A Des Moines native, he played and graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1990. From there he was an assistant at South Dakota, Indiana State, Iowa, and again at Indiana State (with a short stint as a high school coach in Iowa) over the next twenty years. Finally, in 2011 Lansing got the job at Indiana State, his first head coaching gig.
He was an immediate success at ISU. In his first season, the Sycamores finished third in the MVC and won Arch Madness, just two years removed from a 9th place 11-win season. Unfortunately, it was the only NCAA Tournament Lansing’s Sycamores have experienced to date, although they remained a top-half MVC team and went to two NITs in the first half of the decade. ISU has spent most of the second half of the 2010s in the bottom of the league, usually with a losing record, and haven’t won an Arch Madness game since 2016 (although they did finish 3rd last year).
Lansing is probably the toughest coach to rank on this list. He has himself has admitted, “If they had the money, they would have bought me out three years ago”. He sort of lives in that zone between good and bad and keeps his head above water, but has been unable to deliver consistent success. Easier said than done at Indiana State. Ultimately, I put him here, but had I done this list on another day, the ranking might have been entirely different.
6. Bryan Mullins, Southern Illinois: Saluki nation is thrilled about their coach, and with good reason. Mullins represents SIU’s glory days. As a player, he played on the last two SIU NCAA Tournament teams and most recent NIT team. He helped SIU get to the Sweet 16 in 2007. After graduation, he embarked on a four-year professional career overseas before coming back stateside to be an assistant at Loyola. He rose from director of operations to associate head coach over six years while working for Porter Moser and was the #2 man on the bench for the Ramblers’ Final Four run. His coaching trajectory has been a vertical arrow. Two years ago, he was hired as the head coach of his alma mater at age 32.
Mullins represents a mentality that has led SIU to a ton of success historically, but that they have gone away from in recent years. It is defense, toughness, not backing down, and not yielding an inch. In Mullins’ playing days no one relished playing SIU and their smothering, tough defense. Saluki fans are hopeful that he will bring back that toughness to Carbondale, which was their differentiator and their competitive advantage in their glory days in the 90s and early aughts. There is no reason to think he won’t be successful.
The rub for Mullins, like many MVC coaches, is his lack of experience. But he has been a consistent winner wherever he has been and has brought success to SIU immediately. Picked to finish at or near the bottom of the league last year, Mullins had SIU in the title conversation into the final weeks of the season before the squad finished fifth. This year, SIU already has relatively high expectations and one of the league’s most exciting players in Marcus Domask. Of the triumvirate of very young inexperienced MVC coaches (Lottich, Ford, Mullins) I think Mullins is in the most likely to be successful (not that they all can’t be).
5. Dan Muller, Illinois State: Muller is yet another MVC coach whose only experience as a head coach is at his current job. However, he has been at it longer than most of the others. He is coaching at his alma mater and, in fact, Muller has Illinois State to thank for almost his entire career in the sport. The 44-year-old Indiana native played his college ball at ISU, scoring the game winning shot for the Redbirds in an NCAA Tournament game in 1998. He was an assistant coach for twelve years at Vanderbilt under Kevin Stallings who was his coach as a player at ISU. He specialized as a recruiter at Vanderbilt, which seems to be a big theme among MVC hires.
Muller has now been the head coach in Normal for eight seasons (plus this year). His results have been mixed. Until last year, when the team went 10-21 and finished ninth, ISU had never finished below .500 under Muller and hadn’t finished below .500 in the league since his first season. Muller’s Redbirds have played in three MVC title games, and two NITs in his eight seasons. They finished 17-1 and shared the MVC title in 2017. But they have not been able to end the Valley’s longest NCAA Tournament drought.
That is a problem, because Illinois State should be more of a player in the MVC. It isn’t that they haven’t been in the thick of things under Muller, though. From 2015 through 2018 ISU never finished worse than 3rd and won a league title. Things were trending correctly for the Redbirds. But the last two seasons have been rough. ISU has played on Thursday each of the last two years, losing this year. And the prognosis does not appear to be any better this season.
If this list had been done a couple years ago, Muller would probably be higher. But recently his stock has fallen. The question is whether it will be a temporary blip or a sign of things to come. Illinois State needs to better than they are right now, for Muller, for Redbird fans and for the league. Is Muller the guy to bring it back? Personally, I think he can.
4. Darian DeVries, Drake: Devries is yet another coach whose current head opportunity is his first. However, Devries comes into his role at Drake with a little more relevant experience than some of his peers. After his career at UNI ended, Devries signed on as a graduate manager at Creighton. He ended up coaching there as an assistant for twenty years, including his two years as a manager. He worked under Dana Altman initially and stayed at CU when Altman moved on to Oregon and Greg McDermott was hired.
When Drake finally hired DeVries it was truly an “its about time” situation. It was known the Iowa native coveted the job, but was passed over for Mark Phelps, Ray Giacoletti and Niko Medved. Finally, he was handed the reins in time for the 2018-19 season and he made an immediate impact. He led the Bulldogs to just their second MVC title in almost a half century despite dealing with several injuries to key players. Last year Drake fell to 8th but managed 20 wins, and this year the Bulldogs are off to their best start in 40 years.
DeVries doesn’t have any more head coaching experience than a lot of guys lower on this list, but I have him ranked this high because I think his years at Creighton have left him uniquely suited to be the guy at Drake. DU has not been a consistent winner for a long time. And if DeVries can build Drake into a team that consistently finishes in the top half and competes for MVC titles he will have done something no one has succeeded in doing since Maury John in the 60s. I think he can do it, and I am looking forward to the future in Des Moines.
3. Brian Wardle, Bradley: Brian Wardle builds, and Brian Wardle wins. That is what the Illinois native’s resume as a head coach tells us about him. After finishing his playing career at Marquette, Wardle played two years of pro ball in the D-League and CBA before joining has alma mater as an assistant in 2003. After two years with Marquette, he became and assistant at UW-Green Bay under Tod Kowalczyk. With Wardle on his team Kowalczyk turned the Phoenix from also-rans into contenders. When Kowalczyk left Green Bay for Toledo, Wardle was hired and became the youngest head coach in DI. At Green Bay, Wardle hovered around .500 his first three years before winning the Horizon League in year four and finishing second in year five, getting NIT bids both times. The Phoenix ended up qualifying for the NCAAs the season after he left.
When Wardle arrived in Peoria, Bradley had suffered losing seasons in four out of the last five years and were coming off a last place 9-24 season. In his first year, the Braves roster consisted almost entirely of newcomers, most of whom were freshmen. They finished 5-27. The next year they improved to 13-20. Over the next three years Wardle’s Braves finished with at least 20 wins each year, and won two Arch Madness titles, and played in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. His failure to win the Horizon League Tournament at Green Bay was one of the weaknesses on Wardle’s resume, but he has quashed that with gusto in the last two years with Bradley’s performance at Arch Madness.
Wardle has done two things consistently in his two coaching jobs. He has built a program, and he has won. He has shown he can do that. Bradley has had a lot of success the last couple seasons, but they still have one more hurdle to jump before Wardle can hop into the next echelon of MVC coaches: they have to contend for (and ideally win) a Valley regular season title. The Braves’ two Arch Madness wins came as a four and five seed. Bradley hasn’t finished above a 4-seed at Arch Madness since 2001. He was able to get Green Bay a regular season title, so there is no reason to think he can’t do it with Bradley. Once he does, the biggest question will be whether Bradley can hold on to him.
2. Porter Moser, Loyola: Yet another Valley lifer (or at least pretty close), Porter Moser was raised in the Chicago suburbs, and graduated from Creighton in 1990. After graduation he bounced around a bit for ten years as an assistant. He started at his alma mater for his playing coach Tony Barone, following Barone to Texas A&M where he stayed for four more years, leaving for one year at Milwaukee before returning for two more years with Barone at A&M. He then moved to Arkansas-Little Rock where he was an assistant for two coaches in two years before getting the head job.
At UALR, Moser took a 4-24 team to an 18-11 record his first season. He was very consistent at Little Rock where his teams finished with 18 wins each year. His performance and status as a Valley alum was enough to get him the job at Illinois State. If these rankings had been done during Moser’s tenue at ISU, he would be ranked much lower. In four seasons he never finished higher than 6th in the MVC and finished last twice, losing nearly 70% of his MVC games. The run got him fired from ISU and he became an assistant coach at Saint Louis under Rick Majerus for four seasons.
His successful run at SLU was enough to get him a second chance at the big chair. Loyola hired Moser in 2011 to rejuvenate their struggling team. Loyola was in the Horizon League when Moser was hired, but the MVC found its way back to him. The Ramblers jumped to the Valley before Moser’s third season. His first three years in Rogers Park were rough, but Loyola had started to turn the corner in 2015. They won the CBI title that season. It would be three more years, however, before Moser established himself and Loyola as one of the power players in the MVC. In 2017-18, the Ramblers won the MVC regular season and tournament titles. We all know what happened next. Loyola’s Final Four run strengthened the program, its standing in Chicago, its standing in the league and it also strengthened Moser’s otherwise mediocre coaching resume. Since then, Moser’s Ramblers have been the top program in the league. Loyola won another league title the next season and finished second the following year (although they faltered at Arch Madness both times). They’re favorites to reclaim their title this year.
There can be no doubt that Porter Moser has become one of the best coaches in the MVC. Loyola’s trophy case is a testament to that. Moser is now the kind of coach whose name comes up when power six openings are discussed, and he is recruiting Chicago much more successfully than any of his predecessors were able to. But he is also a cautionary tale when looking at many other coaches in this league. In his time at ISU, Moser’s resume didn’t look a lot different than a Matt Lottich, Dana Ford or even a Brian Wardle when he first signed up at Bradley. In fact, it was probably worse. It took some time and experience before Moser was ready to lead an MVC program. But once he got his seasoning, he was able to build Loyola up to be arguably the strongest program in the league right now. So, when you are evaluating a Lottich or Ford, or even a Mullins, DeVries or Wardle, just keep that in mind. They might not have had instant success, but they could be a Porter Moser.
1.) Ben Jacobson, Northern Iowa: There can be no question about it, Ben Jacobson is the dean of MVC coaches. The 50-year-old North Dakota native has been at the helm of the UNI Panthers for fourteen seasons. He has won four Arch Madness titles, three regular season MVC titles, been to four NCAA tournaments and an NIT, won four NCAA games, been to the Sweet 16 and has been named the MVC Coach of the Year four times. Less flashy but perhaps even more remarkable than his other accomplishments is the fact that Ben Jacobson has only coached in one MVC play-in game in his entire 14-year career. The Panthers have consistently been a top half MVC team, even in years when they were not winning titles and playing in the dance.
Like many of his contemporaries, UNI is Ben Jacobson’s first and only head coaching job. After being named “Mr. Basketball” in North Dakota, he played for the (then D2) UND Fighting Sioux. He served as an assistant coach at UND for seven years after graduating before joining Greg McDermott’s staff at North Dakota State for one season and then following him to UNI. Jake was an assistant at UNI for five seasons, assisting in UNI’s rebuild from an MVC also-ran to a team that qualified for three consecutive NCAA Tournaments. The run got McDermott the head job at Iowa State, and Jacobson considered following him there. Instead, he stayed in Cedar Falls and took the head job at UNI. The rest is history.
In his third season in 2009, Jacobson led UNI to its first regular season MVC title and second Arch Madness title. He did it again a year later, and this time the Panthers went to the Sweet 16 after beating #1 overall seed Kansas. UNI continued to be competitive in the Valley but didn’t make it back to the dance until 2015. That year they were in the top 15 most of the season and won Arch Madness after finishing 16-2 in the league (second behind 17-1 Wichita). They were a 5-seed and won an NCAA Tournament game. The next season, UNI was back in the dance as an 11-seed after winning Arch Madness. They beat #6 Texas on a half court shot before collapsing against Texas A&M in the second round.
UNI hasn’t been quite the same since the collapse at the end of the 2016 season. In 2017 they had their first losing record under Jacobson (although they still finished third in the MVC). In 2018, UNI played in their first play-in game under Jacobson. In 2019, they had a losing record again and blew a 17-point lead in the MVC title game. In 2020, however, UNI reclaimed the league title….the third under Jacobson. Unfortunately, they subsequently became the first #1 seed to lose their quarterfinal game at Arch Madness. Despite their recent setbacks, there really isn’t anyone in the MVC with anything close to the pedigree that Jacobson has. His four NCAA Tournaments appearances are just one fewer than the other nine MVC coaches combined (and one more than those coaches have at their current jobs) , and his four NCAA Tournament wins are equaled only by Porter Moser (from Loyola’s Final Four run) and Todd Lickliter (from his time at Butler). Unlike Lickliter, Moser, Wardle and Lansing…..Jacobson has rarely found himself in the bottom half of the standings in the MVC. That isn’t a knock on any of those guys. That is just to say, Jacobson has been remarkably consistent for fourteen years at UNI. That is why I have him as the #1 coach in the league.
The thing I have realized about MVC coaches after doing this is that they are very young as a group. If they can all grow together, and we can keep them in the league there is no reason why the MVC can’t continue to grow in strength. Another thing I have noticed is a lack of experience. Six out of the ten MVC coaches have never been a head coach anywhere other than their current school. Both of those factors mean that not only does this crop of coaches have potential, but there is a lot of room for them to continue to grow.
The last thing I have learned is there is not a lot that separates this group. This will probably be the most controversial list I have made simply because there are so many good arguments to be made for so many different guys. And their resumes are similar in many ways. But most of all, after doing this I have become more excited about the potential of this group and where the league is going.