Earlier last week, the Binghamton University athletics department announced that men’s basketball coach Tommy Dempsey would not have his expiring contract renewed for the upcoming season. While the decision doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise, the execution of the search for a new coach has taken an unexpected turn. Rather than using the offseason to spend time interviewing and reaching out to prospective hires, the BU athletics department has decided to look within and hire former assistant coach Levell Sanders as an interim coach for the 2021-2022 season. Director of Athletics Patrick Elliott has stated that the athletics department will conduct a formal search for a permanent coach in 2022.
Dempsey’s nine-year career at BU culminated in a 71-194 overall record, with a 33-109 record in America East (AE) Conference competition. When he arrived at BU, he inherited a team in turmoil due to off-court problems, and to his credit he was able to turn around the character of the team. However, he was never able to build success or retain star players. This was best evidenced by the transfer of guard Sam Sessoms last year.
If next year’s coaching search doesn’t result in Sanders being offered the job on a permanent basis, the BU men’s basketball team will have had three different coaches in the course of three seasons. However, with a new voice in the locker room, next season presents opportunities BU fans haven’t experienced since winning the AE championship in 2009. For the first time in 12 years, the Bearcats stand a chance at winning the AE conference. The team has been built up to a formidable group of young players, and its conference is as weak as it has been in recent memory from top-to-bottom.
Sanders met with both Elliott and BU President Harvey Stenger regarding the decision. He is an interesting choice, as he has only two years of college coaching experience, both coming from the last two seasons as an assistant to Dempsey. Prior to that, he spent 20 years coaching and playing in Europe. The Seton Hall University graduate, an alma mater he shares with Elliott, was also awarded the All-Czech Republic League Coach of the Year in 2017.
This news comes alongside the fact that the University at Albany parted ways with its men’s basketball coach, though the University at Albany is following through on a long term search to help boost their team in the upcoming season. Will Brown served as Albany’s head coach for 20 years and won five AE championships.
As is common with a changing coaches, there are concerns that players could leave and transfer to another school in favor of a more stable environment. BU’s leading scorer, sophomore guard Brenton Mills, has already entered the transfer portal as of Wednesday. Mills could seek out different opinions and still ultimately decide to remain at BU, but it’s not looking good. With no new recruits for the team lined up, and more potential transfers on the line, there’s a lot not boding well for the men’s basketball team. Naming a relatively unknown interim coach has the potential to scare off new recruits and transfers, and it’s unclear what connections Sanders has to bring in new players.
Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems odd that the lack of a search for a new coach has been chalked up to travel restrictions and health concerns, as Elliott told the media last week. It was well known that Dempsey’s contract would be expiring, so if the plan to not renew was already in motion, the typical four- to six-week hiring process could’ve begun long ago. Interviews conducted over Zoom and research on coaches’ experience could’ve played a part, even if it ended up taking more time before the start of the season. Elliott also claims that finances had no impact on the decision to name an interim head coach and postpone a coaching search. With every option on the table, this still seems like the riskiest choice, going directly against Elliott’s near constant calls for “consistency” during difficult times. Who knows what will happen in a year?
Ultimately, Sanders has been handed a good team and the potential for a winning season. With 12 years of losing behind them, it makes sense that BU fans may not feel confident in this decision. There is a lot of pressure of Sanders’ shoulders, and the future of the program rests on his ability to capitalize on next season. While letting Dempsey go was clearly the right choice, the priorities of the athletics department aren’t clear. For essentially everyone involved, it’s safe to say that BU is hoping that Elliott made the right choice in picking Sanders as the team’s next head coach. There’s a lot riding on the next season. Let’s hope Elliott and the athletics department don’t miss this opportunity.