The Illinois regular season is over, and the Illini are once again on the outside of the NCAA tournament discussion. What Josh Whitman has to do next seems fairly straightforward, but who are the options on his list of potential replacement candidates? As part of a TCR mega-series, today we’re examining current Florida Gulf Coast head coach Joe Dooley, and his chances of potentially becoming the next men’s basketball coach at the University of Illinois.
Dooley was born in New Jersey and played for the local St. Benedicts prep school, where he scored 1,140 career points (near the top of the school’s all-time list). From there he went on to play for George Washington in college from 1984 to 1988. He was a starter for two years and was named the team’s captain during his senior season. Following his mediocre playing career, Dooley was hired as an assistant coach on the South Carolina staff later in 1988. He remained in Columbia for three years before accepting a similar position on the East Carolina coaching staff.
After four years as an assistant for East Carolina, Dooley got his first head coaching opportunity and took over the Pirates program. He led the team to three winning seasons in his four years there, including a 17-10 record in 1997 that gave the Pirates a second-place finish in the CAA. He never took the team to an NCAA tournament or postseason berth of any kind, which eventually resulted in his dismissal in 1999. Dooley returned to an assistant coach role on the New Mexico staff under Fran Fraschilla for three seasons before making the leap to Kansas.
After Bill Self’s hiring, Dooley was selected as Self’s top assistant. He remained with the Jayhawks for a decade and was apart of their 2008 national championship run. When Florida Gulf Coast approached him in 2013 about taking over after Andy Enfield bolted for USC, Dooley said Self was a big factor in his decision:
I wanted his blessing. We would talk about things, and (Self) is always a great person to run things by and get some ideas from and maybe vent about some things. He did a great job of advising me and talking me through things.
Dooley ultimately accepted the FGCU job, and has coached them to tremendous success in his four seasons in Fort Myers. His first two campaigns saw identical 22-11 records, and both resulted in postseason appearances (the NIT and CIT respectively). In 2015-16, the Eagles finished second in the Atlantic Sun and received an NCAA tournament bid after winning the conference tournament. This year Florida Gulf Coast once again won the conference tournament, meaning another NCAA appearance for Dooley and company.
Bill Self is the only loose connection here. When Self joined Kansas in 2003, he hand-picked Dooley away from New Mexico to be his top assistant. When Dooley was interested in the FGCU job in 2013, he said he talked extensively with Self about what he thought he should do. Dooley admitted he didn’t want to take the job without Self’s blessing, which, if you’d really like to read into things, could be a factor if he still feels this way and is approached about the Illinois position. Self has always spoken well about his time in Champaign and he could help Dooley if an Illini offer came calling.
1. Success at FGCU
Usually it takes a few years to turn a smaller program like FGCU around. Especially considering they just lost their coach to a power-five job and their two best players graduated. But credit to Dooley; he immediately kept the Eagles as contenders, sending them to two postseason appearances in his first two years on the job. Granted, they were the NIT and the CIT, but keeping the program’s name in the national spotlight and on ESPN is a tricky thing to do at a place like Florida Gulf Coast. Dooley has been able to do that remarkably quickly given the circumstances, and has the Eagles primed for another NCAA tournament run this season.
2. Bill Self coaching tree
Not a bad tree to branch off of. Self took Dooley under his wing in 2003 and he remained Self’s top assistant for nearly a decade. Both Self and former players from the Kansas program (Mario Chalmers among others) have voiced their support for Dooley and his coaching style. He likes to play up-tempo and has brought the “Dunk City” nickname back to the Eagles this year. Bill Self is one of the best coaches in the country, so nabbing one of his favorite assistants wouldn’t be a bad move at all.
Probably the biggest thing Dooley has going for him. He’s paid $225,000 a year at FGCU, which is by far the most manageable contract to deal with and buyout if you’re Josh Whitman. Compared to some of the other names on our list, you’d be pretty assured that Dooley would pick up the phone if Illinois came calling. While he’s experienced success in Fort Myers, I’m sure he’d love to jump up to the power-five coaching game sometime soon. Maybe Illinois is the opportunity he’s been waiting for.
1. Time at East Carolina
It was a strange four-year period for Dooley at East Carolina. The team had winning records, but they consistently finished second, third or fourth in their conference and never won their conference tournament, therefore never making it to the postseason. He’s clearly done a 180 with Florida Gulf Coast, taking them to two straight NCAA tournaments. But it is a little questionable that Dooley is a candidate for the Illinois job if he couldn’t ever finish better than third in the Colonial Athletic.
2. Low on people’s radar
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth pointing out. No offense to Dooley, but if he is hired as Illinois’ next head coach, someone else higher up on Whitman’s list has said no. To be perfectly honest, Dooley looks like more of a backup option. He’s still compiled a good amount of wins for a relatively young couch, but I really don’t think this will be one of the first guys Whitman calls when he’s looking for a new coach. Dooley doesn’t pass the “Google test.” In other words, most of Illini nation would have to Google his name before they knew anything about him.
3. Never been a power-five head coach
You’ve got to start somewhere, but for Dooley it’s fair to question whether or not his resume currently suits him for the Illinois job. Even though many Illini fans seem to forget this, Illinois is still one of the best jobs in the country with a rich basketball history and a rabid fan base when the team is doing well. Pretty much every TV analyst has said that Illinois is a top 25 destination gig. So it’s fair to say that Dooley’s resume, while impressive for a mid-major coach, isn’t quite up to snuff with some of the others on this list. It might be too big a jump for Dooley to go from East Carolina and FGCU to a premiere Big Ten program, but that remains to be seen.
Russell Steinberg of the SBNation site Mid Major Madness weighed in on the likelihood of Dooley moving on from Florida Gulf Coast:
Dooley would be a good target for Illinois. He’s had head coaching success at the mid-major level and plenty of experience as an assistant with Kansas. Barring another miraculous tournament run, he probably won’t be as high on peoples’ radar as someone like Keatts, so I’d say the Illini have a good shot if they want him. Beating his current $225K salary shouldn’t be an issue either.
I like Dooley, don’t get me wrong. But as mentioned above, he’s not the top name on anyone’s list. He’s had some mild success at Florida Gulf Coast and comes from an impressive coaching tree under Bill Self at Kansas, but truth be told there are much better candidates out there for Illinois to pursue. He’s worth keeping tabs on, especially if the bigger-name guys turn down Whitman’s offers, but for now I think Dooley is more of a backup plan than a frontrunner.
Have thoughts on Joe Dooley’s chances of becoming the next head coach at Illinois? Drop by in the comments section below and let us know what you think!