It started with a bunch of binders, and a whole lot of them at that.
Cornell athletic director Andy Noel decided that the men’s basketball program needed to move in a different direction the day after the season — when he finalized the move to not renew the contract of Bill Courtney. Courtney was the man formerly at the helm of a program that had been struggling since the days of three consecutive Ivy League conference titles and that improbable Sweet 16 run in 2010.
With the decision not to renew Courtney’s contract, Noel began his first coaching search since the man who led the way to the Sweet 16, Steve Donahue, defected to head the program at Boston College. So with the help of Larry Quant — the deputy athletic director — Noel put together a binder of potential coaching candidates, looking at the coaches from every school in the Ivy League, the Patriot League and other notable mid-major programs and academic institution with high academic standards. Among those include powerhouse schools like Duke and Notre Dame, along with Vanderbilt and Northwestern.
In these binders, Noel and Quant noted each candidate’s qualifications, ranging from their playing and coaching accolades to newspaper clips from student newspapers to win-loss records. From there, the duo narrowed down their potential coaches to a group of 12 to 15 candidates and flew down to Houston for the annual convention for the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
“We wanted to make that opportunity really work for us because we could see a lot of really good people in a three or four day period, so that’s what we did,” Noel said. “Out of that group, I will tell you, not a single person failed to do a good job.”
Brian Earl, the associate head coach at Princeton, was on the prowl for his first head coaching opportunity as well, and sat down with Noel and Quant for a dinner that lasted just under two hours. Earl was a four-year starter for the Tigers as a student and started his coaching career with his alma mater in 2007.
The interviews were grueling, according to Noel. Both he and Quant spent two to two and a half hours with each of the candidates getting to know their coaching philosophy and what they would bring to the Red’s basketball program.
“[Noel and Quant] made it very cordial and comfortable and we talked some very specific Cornell and Cornell basketball things, but got to know each other a little bit as well,” Earl said. “It was nice.”
While some other programs typically spent around a half hour with their potential coaches, Noel said he wanted to be as thorough as possible. Leaving the conference in Houston, he had narrowed his list down to three finalists for the coaching job: Tom Billeter, the head coach of Augustana College, Billy Taylor, the former head coach of Ball State and Lehigh, and Earl.
The next step was to bring each of them to Ithaca.
Each of the coaching candidates brought something a little bit different to the table. Billeter brought the most experience to the table by far, having spent 14 years with Augustana and another five previously with North Dakota State. Under Billeter’s watch, the Vikings went 65-5 over the past three seasons. Additionally, Billeter also led Augustana to a national championship trophy at the NCAA Division II level while also garnering DII Coach of the Year honors.
“[Billeter] was a lot like Steve Donahue,” Noel said. “He had a path a lot like Steve Donahue because when he started [at Augustana], he had some rocky seasons because he had some rocky seasons and then he emerged and did really well.”
On the other hand, Taylor previously served as the head coach for Lehigh in the Patriot League, a similar mid-major basketball conference. Under Taylor, Lehigh won the 2004 Patriot League tournament and was named Coach of the Year in both 2003 and 2004. After his time at Lehigh, Taylor moved closed to his family at Ball State in Indiana where his team accumulated a 84-99 record. But after a new Athletic Director was brought in to run the ship in 2013, Taylor was let go. Since then, he’s been at Iowa serving as the director of operations under Fran McCaffrey.
“Unbelievably gregarious, into analytics,” Noel said of Taylor. “Knew our team inside and out. Had watched most of our games on the web. Terrific with people, highest recommendations. Great player. He was a former captain at Notre Dame. Impressive.”
Unlike the previous two candidates, Earl did not have any head coaching experience, but working in finance before serving as the associate head coach and director of recruitment under his former Tigers teammate Mitch Henderson.
“[He’s] an extremely competitive person,” Noel said. “Mild mannered on the outside, burning cauldron on the inside.”
All three individuals visited Ithaca in order. Noel accompanied each of the coaching candidates on a tour of the campus, visiting the Johnson Museum, the Cornell Store, Willard Straight Hall and the basketball facilities as highlights.
“The one thing that is very critical about being in this interviewing process and the campus visit process is that you want each candidate to have as strong a feeling for Cornell and our department and our basketball program as possible,” Noel said. “You don’t want anyone to come here and all surprised at anything because that just causes issues. You really put it out there.”
The candidates sat down again in long meetings with Noel in order for him to get a better grasp of each coach’s short-term and long-term visions for the program and how they differentiated themselves from the rest of the pack.
“It was getting to know a lot of the senior staff and understanding Cornell University and the facilities for basketball and really getting comfortable with the few aspects of the University that I hadn’t already known about,” Earl said. “I met with a lot of people and made sure that they felt comfortable with my knowledge and potential. It was a long few days, but I felt very comfortable with the people and with the University.”
As Earl toured the slopes and intricacies of the Cornell campus, he began to feel at home, which was something Noel sensed during their talks. And while he had been to Ithaca before, as both a player and a coach, the tour brought Cornell into a new light for Earl.
“In 13 years of going up there and playing against Cornell, you really only drive up to the gym and get out and play the game and get back on the bus and drive away,” Earl said. “I hadn’t been able to get out and see the University. It is very unique as the Ivy League institutions go. It’s got such a large scale and scope to everything and there’s students everywhere and a really big campus feel. There were a lot of things that you think you’re close enough to understand, but once you get there, you understand what an amazing place it is.”
But the sightseeing and the chats with Noel were just the beginning. After passing through interviews with the administration, each candidate faced the players.
The Player Interviews
Noel and Quant reached out to four players to help with the selection process in order to include an athlete’s perspective in the candidates’ evaluation. Rising seniors JoJo Fallas, Dez Fleming and David Onuorah and rising sophomore Matt Morgan joined together to help choose the coach that was in the best interest for Cornell’s program both now and in the future.
Each brought a different set of questions, issues to be considered when speaking with the candidates. How would a new coach establish the right culture? How would they continue to develop players across different positions? How would they care about the well-being of the players on and off the court? And these questions preceded considerations of on-court offensive and defensive philosophy.
“With every coach, there is some aspect they are trying to sell themselves and what they can bring to a program,” Fleming said.
For each coaching candidate, the players met in a room outside Noel’s office in Teagle Hall. First Billeter, then Taylor and finally, Earl. While the players spoke highly of all the coaching candidates, they said Earl stood out from the pack for a number of reasons.
“With Coach Earl, his understanding of the league, he was player of the year in 1999,” Morgan said. “He’s been through it. He’s coached at Princeton for the past nine years and they’ve been real successful. He understands the league.”
The players also got a sense of flexibility from Earl, a willingness to adapt and change, but also saw him as someone who could lay down a foundation for a new culture around the program.
“He’s not set on a prescribed offense or defensive system,” Fleming said. “He wants to see what tools he has here and then mold that group to a longer term vision as well as establish a culture that is self-sustaining to where, obviously as a head coach, he has control and leadership of the team, but he wants it to become an area where players are holding each other accountable and making sure everything is done in order to win a championship here.”
That flexibility, combined with his previous experience as a player in the Ivy League, certainly left an impression on Morgan.
“It was very important because we wanted someone who understood what the typical Ivy League player goes through on the daily, especially when it comes to Ivy season, those back-to-backs on the Friday and Saturday games,” Morgan said.
After the candidates finished their respective interviews with the select group of players, the athletes went to the locker room and began deliberating on a white board about who they wanted to recommend. For each of the coaches, the players created a pros-and-cons list. While there were concerns with each of the candidates, the players easily came to a consensus on which candidate they wanted to recommend. It was Earl.
“All I could think during that meeting,” Fallas said, “was that I wanted [Earl] to be my coach.”
However, in order to make sure they weren’t making a snap judgment, the players slept on their decision last Thursday. On Friday, they woke up and recommended Earl to Noel and Quant.
After finishing his interview with Cornell on Friday, Earl drove to New York City in order to work on recruitment.
“When I went up to Cornell to understand the place, I fell in love with it,” Earl said. “I was living on egg shells there for a day or two not knowing if it was me or not.”
With the recommendation from the players in mind, Noel and others spent Saturday deliberating who they wanted to offer the job to. At the end of the day, several factors separated Earl from the other candidates in Noel’s eyes.
“There was very strong support for Brian and some folks were surprised,” Noel said. “Some people went into it thinking we wanted someone who has definitely been a head coach.”
“Originally, my mindset was not to have a guy who had only been an assistant coach,” Fallas said. “[Earl] blew me away even though he I had that preconceived notion.”
There was Earl’s familiarity with the conference, both as a player and a coach. According to Noel, Earl’s experience as Princeton’s Ivy League scout not only made him familiar with the Red, but also with every other team in the conference.
“He understood the strengths of our current players, the talent level that they have and the ways that they would adjust and modify,” Noel said. “He was very optimistic about the group that we had now and he has a pretty extensive plan for moving forward.”
This sentiment was mirrored by the players as well.
“We felt like he was part of the Ivy League,” Morgan said. “There was that sense of comfort and trust that he would be able to do the job because he’s been here, not to say the other coaches weren’t great because Billeter and Taylor, both of them were great head coaches and would be great coaches at the [Division I] position, but [Earl’s] understanding of what it takes to be successful to be in the Ivy League was important.”
Noel was similarly impressed by Earl’s ability to talk about the X’s and O’s of the sport. But most of all, Earl represented someone who was a “strong basketball guy,” Noel said.
“He certainly, in my view, should not be pigeonholed as an Ivy guy,” Noel said. “He’s a basketball guy who played in the Ivy League, who coached in the Ivy League, but he has a real plan and vision for where he thinks Cornell can go.”
After considering all the factors, Noel called Earl on Sunday and offered him the job. Earl accepted and turned a new chapter in his life and for Cornell basketball by doing so.
Earl is set to be introduced to the Cornell community at a press conference on Thursday. While there will undoubtedly be fanfare and jubilation, the reality of the situation is that Cornell faces a tall task at hand. The Red finished near the bottom of the Ivy League last year and, given the national exposure Yale received in its run in the NCAA tournament and the continued development of Harvard into a powerhouse — the Crimson brings in a Top-25 recruiting class in 2016-17 — bringing Cornell back towards the top of the conference will be no easy feat.
Several issues face the team immediately. Given that every player on the current roster was brought in by Courtney, there will be a natural skepticism toward a revamp from some of the older guys on the team, according to Fleming.
“[The seniors and juniors] are excited but some people are a little tepid because it is entirely new and are no longer under the man who brought us to this school,” Fleming said. “I owe Coach Courtney so much for me being here. He was the one who gave me the opportunity to play Division I basketball, so I’ll be forever grateful for that.”
While there will be a transition period for the players, the new head coach of Red basketball will face a similar change in environment. But for Earl, the opportunity to be a head coach in the Ivy League is a dream come true.
“I want to be a head coach, but I think just I’m trying to get up there and understand, more than anything else,” Earl said. “A lot of times people want to come in and impose their will and I want to get up there and understand the situation and meet my players and get them comfortable with me and then move forward in the best way for us. A lot of it is coming in and getting a feel for the basketball situation and moving forward in the best way.”
As for switching allegiances from an Ivy League rival — trading in that Princeton orange for the Cornell carnelian — Earl said he doesn’t anticipate any issues.
“Princeton will always be a part of who I am,” Earl said. “Alma maters are always a part of whoever you are, but it will be high on my priority list to get two wins against them every year for the next few years.”
A few hours after the announcement of Earl’s hiring, Noel, John Webster, the director of athletic alumni affairs, and Jesse Saldana, Noel’s assistant, stood around the reception desk watching an old highlight video of Earl during his college days. As Earl slashes to the hoop and drains some fadeaway jumpers, the trio laughed happily, seemingly reminded of the endless potential ceiling any new coaching hiring brings to any athletic program.
The previous failures, the disappointment all fade away. A new coach means a new generation of endless potential success. And hey, maybe even a return to the glory days of the Sweet 16 run is now in play. Nothing seems impossible, until, of course, the first tip-off of the new season, when reality sets in.
As video of Earl draining a 3-pointer plays in the background, Noel turns with a big smile, like that of a first grader who’s just gotten a new toy to bring into show-and-tell, and chuckles.
“That Brian Earl,” Noel says, tongue in cheek, “he looks like he’d be a pretty good coaching candidate for this Cornell basketball job.”