You’ve heard of Bo Ryan, the one-time Division III men’s basketball coach who has built a perennial winner at Wisconsin.
You probably don’t know Doug Davalos, who tried to make a similar leap and is now coaching a girls’ high school team.
It can be a perilous path from small-college basketball to success at the top division. Maine, which hired Bob Walsh as its new coach last week, is the latest to try.
Walsh arrived in Orono after a successful nine-year run at Rhode Island College. He became just the ninth men’s basketball head coach in the past 15 years to move directly from Division III to Division I, according to research by d3hoops.com.
“It’s been difficult for coaches to make that direct jump because I think it’s hard for an athletic director to put his or her seal of approval behind that in case he doesn’t succeed,” said Pat Coleman, executive editor of the small-college basketball web site since 1997.
“A D-I administrator probably has one legitimate question – Can you recruit kids with scholarships? The D-III coach would counter that, ‘Hey, I can recruit kids without scholarships. That’s much harder.’ ”
And so it goes. Walsh, 42, spent seven years as an assistant coach at Providence before taking over at Rhode Island College. After turning that program into a winner, he started looking at Division I jobs. He got interviews at Manhattan in 2011, Canisius in 2012 and Marist in 2013. All dead ends.
“There is a stigma there and it’s completely unfair,” Walsh said. “The best-kept secret in college basketball is the level of talent and the level of coaching at the D-III level. It’s very high-level. I don’t think people understand it. It’s really unfortunate.”
Maine, which cut ties with Coach Ted Woodward on April 14, finally offered Walsh a chance. Out of more than 100 applicants, he was one of the eight chosen to interview with Athletic Director Karlton Creech and his search committee via Skype. Two candidates – Northeastern assistant Dave McLaughlin was the other – were summoned to Orono for interviews. Walsh was offered the job May 2 and signed a four-year contract Tuesday.
Creech said it was the combination of Walsh’s time as a Division I assistant, plus his success as the leader of a college program at some level that pushed him to the top. Creech even called former Maine coach John Giannini, now at La Salle, for insight into making the transition from the lowest to highest division in NCAA basketball. Giannini had been at Rowan University in New Jersey before taking over the Black Bears in 1996.
“I think good coaches are good coaches. Bob was in a situation where he had proven beyond a doubt that he could be a head coach and build a program and have success,” Creech said.
“(Giannini) felt he was prepared for the Maine job because of his head coaching experience, just having sat in the seat and been in charge.”
Walsh said he was delighted to find that for the first time in his attempts to move up as a head coach, the Division III issue didn’t come up during his interview at Maine.
“I didn’t hear one person from the committee talk like, ‘Wow, how are you going to make the transition?’ ” he said. “It just seemed like they wanted what’s going to be the best fit for the university.”
The recent coaches to make the move from Division III to Division I offer a mixed bag of results. Ryan was at Wisconsin-Platteville when Wisconsin-Milwaukee hired him in 1999. After two 15-win seasons there, he hit the big time with Wisconsin of the Big Ten. The Badgers have won 321 games in his 13 seasons, reaching the NCAA tournament in each and the Final Four this year.
Dave Paulsen has taken Bucknell to two NCAA tournaments in six seasons since leaving Division III Williams. For Bucknell, it was the second consecutive time plucking a coach from the small-college ranks after hiring Pat Flannery from Lebanon Valley in 1994.
Then there are coaches like Davalos and Don Friday, who found the transition much rockier.
Davalos left Sul Ross State to take over Texas State in 2006, went 92-107 in seven seasons and was fired. He is coaching a girls’ high school team in Texas now.
Friday, a former assistant to Flannery, moved from Lycoming to St. Francis (Pennsylvania) in 2008 but never won more than 11 games there. He was let go after four seasons and now coaches Penn State-Harrisburg.
Davalos and Friday landed in some tough spots, Coleman said.
“If a school is willing to consider a guy who’s a D-III coach, often that’s a program with some problems. The coach is stepping into a situation where he is not really set up to succeed. I can’t imagine what would have been the road map to success at St. Francis for Don Friday. Doug Davalos, what was the ceiling of the Texas State program?” he said.
The biggest problem for coaches moving up two levels of competition is fighting the perception they may not belong, Coleman said.
“They may not get the respect from fellow coaches in the conference or even other coaches in their own athletic department,” he said. “I would assume that’s something that’s going to be used against him on the recruiting trail for a while.”
Maine, which finished 6-23 a year ago and never has reached the NCAA tournament, would seem to be a situation where success on the court, let alone respect, will be difficult to attain for Walsh.
One thing working in his favor is that unlike many Division III coaches, he appears to have a national profile. News of his hiring at Maine brought congratulatory tweets from the likes of radio host Doug Gottlieb, former coach and ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, and current Minnesota coach Richard Pitino.
Walsh has built a brand through active use of Twitter (he has 2,835 followers), a robust blog he maintains with stories about basketball and leadership, constant appearances at basketball tournaments and clinics through the Hoop Group, and frequent public-speaking engagements. Walsh even formed the Leadership Academy in Providence last year, a series of lectures designed to help young basketball coaches advance in their craft. This year’s program is scheduled to include former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy.
“It just makes me kind of think about the game in a different way and look at different perspectives. It’s a way to brand your program,” Walsh said of those efforts. “I want to run a transparent program that the people in the state want to be a part of.”
Walsh may not have been a household name among basketball fans, but he’s hardly obscure in the inner circles of that sport.
And one of his former bosses has no doubts that Walsh will move seamlessly from Division III to Division I.
“He will gain the respect of his players quickly,” said Brad Holland, who mentored Walsh for one season as an assistant at San Diego.
“Bob Walsh knows what he’s doing. There’s not going to be a huge adjustment for him. It’s basketball and it’s team-building and it’s putting the right players on the floor at the right time, stuff that good coaches do. And he’s good.”
Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: