With the search for a new Penn State basketball coach entering its second week a clear frontrunner has yet to emerge. We did learn late last week, however, that former Michigan State assistant and Utah head coach Jim Boylen is one of the names under consideration. Boylen has a lot of experience in the NBA and worked under Tom Izzo in East Lansing before landing the job in Salt Lake City. The high point of his time in Utah was leading the Utes to a five seed in the NCAA Tournament. He suffered back to back losing seasons in 2010 and 2011, however, and was let go by the athletic department there.
To get a better perspective on his Utah career, we've enlisted the help of Sean Reynolds from SB Nation's Utah blog "Block U,' who was gracious enough to do a quick Q and A session. Here are his responses to some of our questions. He put in a lot of effort here, so mad props to him.
1. What worked for Boylen at Utah in his first two seasons?
The team Jim Boylen inherited had underperformed under the last coaching staff and I think Boylen was able to improve the consistency right out of the gate. In his first season, he took a losing program and won 18 games, which had most Ute fans excited about the future of the basketball program. Much of the success came in the preseason, as Utah actually only improved their conference record by a game (they still finished below .500 in Mountain West play at 7-9 and actually finished below their preseason prediction of fourth in the conference).
In his second season, the talent returned and I think the basic nature of having a senior-laden team played out. The Utes won a share of the Mountain West Conference championship, won the conference tournament championship and received a five-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, and maybe a sign of things to come, the team struggled in its NCAA game and lost to Arizona - who many felt maybe didn't even deserve an at-large berth that season.
When there was talent, Boylen's teams played well enough. I won't say he looked spectacular in his first two seasons, because he didn't. There were a handful of awful losses, especially one to a Division II program to start the 2009 season, that really put a damper on the success we saw. At the time, we didn't think too much of it because the success outweighed the bad. Hiccups happen and the team obviously overcame those issues each time to finish with a respectable record.
It only became an issue when the talent recruited by the last coaching staff left the program and Boylen had to build his own team.
2. What went wrong for him in his last two seasons there before his firing?
Not much went right in Boylen's final two seasons. The Utes lost a lot of games, and worse, regressed from Boylen's third season to his fourth. The way he handled the rebuild set the program back a few seasons and ultimately doomed any chance of him remaining Utah's head coach.
What happened in the latter two seasons is that the Utes really were inconsistent. I mentioned earlier that they had dropped games against bad programs in his first two seasons, but managed to bounce back - this time around, it was different. There was no bouncing back. They would lose to an abysmal team and then do it again a week later. So what could have been respectable rebuilding years were plagued with erratic and ugly play against lower programs and it cost 'em. They lost 17 and 18 games his final two years here and that wasn't just because they were dropping contests to good teams.
In the last two seasons, Utah lost to the following opponents:
Idaho - at home
Seattle University - at home
Oklahoma - at home
Illinois State - at home
Colorado State (four times, actually, with two at home)
Oral Roberts - at home
Air Force (Utah lost to them at home and on the road last season)
That's a staggering amount of losses to bad teams over the last two seasons. Especially when you consider 8 of those losses came at home.
So while we accepted rebuilding, it was hard to accept the results on the court because they were losing to equally bad, if not worse, teams that they should have beat on a more consistent basis. Had they done that, Utah basketball most likely gets through that difficult two-year stretch and Jim Boylen is still coaching in Salt Lake City.
But of course, that didn't happen. What's more, after his third season, there was a massive player defection. Utah lost a great deal of its talent from that 14-17 team and, once again, had to overhaul their roster heading into last season.
3. What can you tell us about elements of his coaching style like defensive philosophy, tempo, etc.?
Jim Boylen ran a pro-style offense here at Utah, which was obviously heavily influenced by his coaching days in the NBA. I'm guessing, as is done at Michigan State, he would continue to run a more pro-style offense if he were to get a new head gig somewhere else.
He emphasized bigs and when he came to Utah, we loved the idea that he worked with Yao Ming and other NBA centers because the Utes' best player, Luke Nevill, was an unpolished center. We really thought he would be able to structure an offense that went inside out and really played to the strength of our bigs. There was hope that he could improve Nevill's offensive game and turn him into a poorer man's Andrew Bogut .
What he did was improve the defense of Nevill, but his offense regressed and he never really was capable of being a dominant center. When Nevill graduated after Boylen's second season, any aspect of an inside game graduated with him.
That might be the most disappointing thing about Boylen. He was a big-man coach and that was consistently the program's biggest weakness his last two years here. There was absolutely no inside game and with the offense he was trying to run, the lack of a scoring threat inside undermined everything he was trying to do at Utah.
4. Some of the YouTube videos out there of him paint him as a pretty fiery guy. How did that factor into his tenure at Utah?
Boylen is very enthusiastic and passionate about the game. That's what endeared him to the fans at first because the last coach we had was kind of a cold fish. He came in, shook things up and had us believing that this program would return to its glory days of the 1990s when another highly charged head coach, Rick Majerus, was roaming the sidelines.
I think that helped him initially because the players invested into what he was doing those first two years. I truly believe they would go to war for the guy and the fans would too. After his initial press conference, I felt like running through a brick wall. That's how fired up I was.
But I also think the team took on the shape of its coach. He was up and down throughout every game and much of the season. Not coincidentally, the team started taking on that characteristic. They would play up and down depending on the day. The team, like Boylen, was a yo-yo.
In the end, there was no calming, grounded force that kept the team focused. I think that ultimately played a role in why they were so inconsistent. You know, some coaches are great at not allowing their emotions to drive an entire season - not Boylen. Majerus was the master of this. He could be a raving maniac on the sidelines, but most of the time, he never really let it affect the flow of the game.
5. How was Boylen as a recruiter? What did he do well and what could he have done better?
I don't think anyone knows how Boylen was as a recruiter. His first two teams were mainly built of players recruited by the last coaching staff and many of the players during his third season weren't around for last season. Last year's roster was a quick build because of the player defections seen at the end of the 2010 season and some of those players were junior college transfers, so even then, you're looking at a limited picture here.
And I'm not sure we'll ever know if Boylen was a good recruiter, at least here, because only four Boylen recruits have returned to the program since his firing.
So I'll have to really pass on that one.
6. Any general thoughts on the coach?
Boylen is a great guy - that isn't up for debate. I think every Ute hated that he failed and that most of us wanted him fired. Generally, when a coach is in that position, the fans can't get rid of him fast enough and it's a celebration when he's finally forced out. Not so this time. Most Utah fans were very disappointed that it didn't work out. But you don't hire a head coach just because he's a nice guy. As great as he was, he wasn't a great head coach. I think he's a good assistant, a valuable asset to the community, but he's not a good coach.
Then again, maybe I'm wrong and he just didn't have the commitment of the athletic department here at Utah to succeed. I hope he gets a chance at another gig to prove all of us wrong - but if I were an AD at a Power Conference school, I don't see how you can justify hiring him. >