Leader Blues

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

SPORTS >> Not too late for debate on coaches in the state

Leader sports editor

They had a neat promotional gimmick at the Sun Belt Conference basketball tournament in Hot Springs.

Fans could take cell phone photos of themselves in the stands, submit them, and soon see their photos posted on the big screens in Summit Arena.

Of course we jokesters on press row immediately saw the possibilities. A fellow sportswriter toyed with the idea of submitting a picture of Arkansas Razorbacks coach John Pelphrey, and I dared him, just because I wanted to hear the boos from the Arkansas State and UALR fans or, for that matter, any Hardwood Hogs fans present.

But it wasn’t the place to talk about Pelphrey — whose Razorbacks limped into this week’s SEC Tournament on a five-game losing streak — especially when the two best college coaches in Arkansas were busy plying their trade live and in person.

In fact, it became something of a debate last week over who was better, Arkansas State men’s coach John Brady or UALR women’s coach Joe Foley.

In his second season, Brady is the Sun Belt men’s coach of the year based on the Red Wolves’ turnaround from 13-17 in 2008-09 to 17-14. Arkansas State’s run included an overtime victory over UALR inthe Sun Belt tournament and a 65-64 loss to Western Kentucky in a quarterfinal thriller.

Foley, in his seventh season at UALR, is the Sun Belt women’s coach of the year after the Trojans charged into the tournament on a 19-game winning streak, which they improved to 20 with a first-round victory over Arkansas State and to 21 with a resounding semifinal victory over New Orleans on Monday.

UALR (26-5) faced Middle Tennessee for the second consecutive time in its second consecutive championship game appearance.

Foley, 129-82 at UALR, is a product of Central Arkansas who built a national caliber program at NCAA Division II Arkansas Tech. His teams are talented but willing to win ugly, grinding opponents down on offense and wearing them out on defense.

Foley’s supporters like to talk about the horrid state of the program before he arrived. Under Tracy Stewart-Lange, UALR played in a high school-style gym and lost an average 21.5 games a year.

Based on this, one Foley fan said he was the best college coach in Arkansas, bar none.

That brought out the Brady people.

Brady, of McComb, Miss., was 89-77 at Samford and 192-139 at LSU, where his team reached the 2006 Final Four. His principles involve defending without fouling, proper rebounding technique, limiting turnovers and quality possessions.

Those are things any coach would like to see, but the successful ones have a way of making it happen.

Brady’s supporters point out the Red Wolves were 10-20 under Dickey Nutt and ended Brady’s first year on a 10-game losing streak. To Brady’s fans, that makes this year’s record, accomplished despite injuries and with a brand new starting five, that much more special.

Each coach has recruited all-conference talent. UALR’s Chastity Reed, averaging 25.1 points a game, is a first-team all-Sun Belt selection and Arkansas State’s Brandon Reed, averaging 15.1 points a game, is freshman of the year.

Also, Foley and Brady were smart enough to recruit players from my town of Cabot, a cozy little place I fondly like to think of as “Pull Out in Front of You-ville.”

Former Panthers scoring wiz Adam Sterrenberg is a Red Wolves freshman while Cabot’s Kim Sitzmann, in her final season, is a third-team all-Sun Belt pick.

Outside the locker room, at least, Foley is low-key while Brady has a way of saying what he thinks, and often getting away with it.

Noting the 64 fouls and Arkansas State’s record number of free throws and attempts in the UALR victory (43 of 58), Brady said, “I don’t know what we pay refs in the Sun Belt but those guys feel underpaid tonight, as hard as they worked.”

Not that Foley lacks humor. Jokingly asked which coach he thought was better, Foley grinned and said, “Everyone knows women’s coaches are better than men’s coaches.”

Foley got closer to the NCAA Tournament than Brady did this year. The Trojans lost to Middle Tennessee, 70-68, in overtime in Tuesday’s Sun Belt Tournament final.

Brady’s Bunch may be a year away, assuming he is back next season. The hot rumor at the Sun Belt Tournament was that Auburn is interested, and it’s the kind of rumor Arkansas State fans will have to get used to, until either a long extension is signed or Brady departs.

One thing is certain. Each coach has left his program better than when he found it, and that’s all anyone can ask.