Jeff Jacobs: CCSU basketball job is a tough one, but it's essential the school makes the right hire

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Central Connecticut State coach Donyell Marshall talks to his team during a timeout against UConn in a 2020 game.

Central Connecticut State coach Donyell Marshall talks to his team during a timeout against UConn in a 2020 game.

David Butler II / USA Today

There are ties to Connecticut and Central Connecticut State University among the finalists for its basketball head coaching job. That’s a good thing.

What Central can’t do is tie itself in knots. That’s what it did last time, and the school botched the hire.

Former athletic director Paul Schlickman and the search committee wanted to hire Jay Young, then assistant under Steve Pikiell at Stony Brook, to replace retiring Howie Dickenman in 2016. The top administrators led by Richard Bachoo, chief administrative officer, wanted Donyell Marshall.

We saw who won that battle, and we saw how that worked out.

Back for an encore are Patrick Sellers, now an assistant under Young at Fairfield, and Steve Curran, associate head coach at St. Bonaventure. Marshall, Young and Sellers were the three finalists last time. Curran was among the final seven.

The other finalists coming in for interviews, according to multiple sources, are Kelvin Jefferson, head coach of Division II Gannon; T.J. Sorrentine, associate head coach at Brown; and Grant Billmeier, assistant at Seton Hall.

Central went with a name with star power in Connecticut in 2016. Central didn’t go with the best coach who wanted the job. Marshall was a great basketball player at UConn. He had a long and illustrious NBA career. Central thought he could cash in on his name to recruit players and attract interest in the program. While Marshall’s name certainly still resonates around the state, he had been retired as a player seven years by the time he took the job in New Britain.

That’s a lifetime to a 17-year-old recruit. You know who current UConn players associate with a distinguished veteran alum of their school? Kemba Walker. Jake Voskuhl could be Wes Bialosuknia to them.

Marshall, unlike a lot of the NBA’s top players, was willing to work his way up and give back to the game that saw him earn $72 million in the NBA. That is admirable. He had been an assistant at George Washington, the Maine Red Claws in the G League, Rider and Buffalo, yet Marshall neither screamed the coaching experience/acumen of Young nor the hunger of Jared Grasso or Shaheen Holloway.

Those who know Donyell personally clapped their hands and shouted “Good luck!” Those who didn’t rolled their eyes at the hiring.

Marshal left Central in March after a 40-104 record in five seasons, including 9-43 over the past two. Terrible numbers.

In Donyell’s defense, he inherited a program that was 46-103 in Dickenman’s final five seasons, including 9-51 in his final two. The terrible numbers are eerily similar.

The years between 1999 and 2007 were something to behold at Detrick Gym. The Blue Devils had some national success at Division II. Yet it wasn’t until Dickenman, who had been a star player at Central, left Jim Calhoun’s staff at UConn for New Britain that the Blue Devils made any Division I noise. Howie took Central to three NCAA Tournament appearances. Connecticut is filled with Central grads and, for them, it was a time of considerable athletic pride.

The Blues Devils haven’t had a winning season since 2012-13, and the 86-207 record over the past decade is haunting. It is no exaggeration to say the next coach is inheriting one of the most difficult jobs in Division I college basketball.

The job demands great energy — tremendous energy — and a greater ability to recruit. Transfer portal. Transfers from Division II — do not laugh — top kids at II are better than so many bench-warmers at DI. The new coach has to look everywhere from New Britain to Great Britain, from New Zealand to New Haven.

The school cannot dangle huge money in front of a coach. This is a state school, an NEC school. The last check of the USA Today NCAA Division I finances (2018-19) showed Central with a $16.98 million athletic budget and $14.6 million subsidized by — in USA Today’s methodology — student fees, direct and indirect institutional support or state money allocated to the athletics department. The 85.97 percent support was the 12th highest in the nation among the 227 schools surveyed. UConn’s $43.8 million subsidy was second highest in dollar amounts, the 54.2 percent subsidy was 85th.

As a private school, the University of Hartford, which has made headlines for considering a drop from Division I to Division III, was not on the list. A CarrSports study commissioned by the school showed UHart athletics lost $13.057 million on a budget of $15.246 million in 2020. Central is not rowing a different boat.

The most Dickenman made coaching Central in 20 years was $310,822 in 2015 and $278,567 in 2016. According to public records, Marshall made $193,994 in 2020, the most $216,533 in 2018.

Still, Central, all things considered, has put together a heck of a list.

I am surprised Mike Donnelly, a state guy, isn’t one of the finalists. A starting point guard at Central before transferring to Sacred Heart, he has had DII coaching success at Southern Connecticut and Florida Southern. He coached SCSU to a 35-3 record in 2014 and three times has taken Florida Southern to the NCAA Tournament.

With Central there always seem to be a lot of cooks involved. Too many non-athletic people can mean a lot of folks giving different weight to different agenda and, thus, a different final decision..

For what’s it worth, once source is telling me it’s 1. Sellers and 2. Jefferson. Another is saying either Sellers or Curran. A third source said don’t waste your time, it’s Sellers. Take your pick.

Jefferson, from Norwalk, was head coach at South Kent prep for eight years and produced all sorts of DI players including Tremont Waters. He also has been a Division I assistant for a dozen. He played for Southern Connecticut.

Jefferson most recently arrived at Gannon in Erie, Pennsylvania, after three years at Old Dominion. At one of his stops in Vermont, he recruited a heck of a guard named T.J. Sorrentine. Remember Gus Johnson’s NCAA Tournament call between Vermont and Syracuse? “Sorrentine hit that one from the parking lot.” Yes, that T.J. After playing three years abroad and in the G League, Sorrentine has coached at Brown since 2008.

Curran was an assistant under Dickenman from 2005-10, including the third NCAA Tournament team in 2007. He has been with St. Bonaventure since 2010. I’d look long and hard at this guy. The Bonnies have gotten into the NCAA Tournament in recent years. I don’t know him personally, but he is known as a tireless recruiter who has landed significant talent out of the goldmine at Putnam Science Academy.

Billmeier, who played at Seton Hall and has coached at Seton Hall, must be considered the wild card. In 2020, he was ranked second among his peers as the best assistant coach in the Big East. Substantial. If he’s all in on Central, no kicking tires … like we said, Central has put together a heck of a list.

Should it matter if someone with a hot future comes in, coaches for four, five years, finds some success and leaves? At this point, absolutely not. The program needs a huge jolt in any legal way possible.

Sellers played at Central, he coached at Central, with the Blue Devils getting to the NCAA twice while he was assistant. He has coached at UMass, UConn from 2004-10, Hofstra, Creighton, DePaul, FDU and Fairfield. He helped recruit Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier, Roscoe Smith and Tyler Olander to UConn. He was cited by the NCAA for misleading investigators in 2010 during the Nate Miles scandal. Sellers headed to China as an assistant coach for Shanxi Zhongyu and while he was there he was notified in February 2011 that he had been exonerated by the NCAA. No sanctions.

Still, it bothers me to hear people talking like Sellers already has the job, or is one of two. He may well be the right guy. But you look at the final seven last time, you see his name, Young’s name, Curran’s name. Central could have picked Grasso, who has gone on to do a strong job at Bryant. Ditto Holloway, who has brought life back to St. Peter’s program. Central didn’t pick them.

No preconceived notions. No last-minute hijinks. Grill the spit out of these guys. Get it right this time.

Bring Central back.

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123