CARBONDALE — The jury is still out for Patrick Ewing's return to Georgetown, Penny Hardaway's run at Memphis and the impending Juwan Howard era at Michigan, but for every Eddie Jordan, Chris Mullin and Marty Simmons, there is a Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams and Matt Painter.
And, possibly, a Bryan Mullins. Mullins, 32, returned to his alma mater in March when he was hired to bring SIU back to the NCAA Tournament. A Hall of Fame point guard from 2005 to 2009, Mullins helped Loyola reach the 2018 Final Four as an assistant coach and mentored the Missouri Valley Conference's last two players of the year. But great players don't always make great coaches.
"I was a good player," Mullins said. "If I was a great player, maybe I'd have some concerns. I love coaching. I knew I wanted to coach when I was playing here. I love the relationship aspect of it. In terms of the work ethic, I think if you're passionate about something and you work extremely hard at something, you'll be successful, and for coaching, that's kind of my attitude and how I go about it."
Jordan, a standout player for Rutgers in the 1970s that took the Scarlet Knights to the 1976 Final Four, lasted only three years as the head men's basketball coach of his alma mater. Mullin, a 6-foot-7 shooting guard for the Dream Team in 1992, led St. John's to its first winning season in his four years as coach this past season. He stepped down with two years left on his contract following the death of his older brother, Roddy, who battled cancer.
St. John's went 59-73 under Mullin, including 20-52 in the Big East Conference, and did not reach the NCAA Tournament until this year.
Simmons, a Hall of Fame player at Evansville, led the Purple Aces to three 20-win seasons and 184 victories between 2007-18. They won the Collegeinsider.com tournament in 2015 and lost in the finals of the 2016 MVC tournament when Northern Iowa's Wes Washpun rolled in a short jumper at the buzzer. Evansville never reached the NIT or the NCAA Tournament when Simmons was the head coach, and parted ways with him after the 2017-18 season.
Mullins set SIU's school record for assists and would have set the steals record if not for back-to-back, season-ending injuries his final two years. Darren Brooks, another SIU Hall of Famer, has 258 steals in 134 games to Mullins' 254 in 122. Mullins was never his team's leading scorer, but was a two-time league defensive player of the year, and turned himself into a great perimeter shooter. His freshman year, he shot 39.8% from the field and 30% from the 3-point line. His junior year he canned 41% from behind the arc and hiked it to 43.4% his senior year.
"Bryan's success hasn't been easy for him," his dad, Mike Mullins, said. "It's been a result of his hard work and discipline. I think he often says about himself, that he wasn't always the most gifted athlete or the most talented player on any of the teams he played on in college, or as a professional, but he made himself valuable. He's a guy that's never cared about credit. He only cares about winning."
In the four years Mullins was an assistant coach/associate head coach, Loyola finished eighth, fifth, first and first in the Valley. The Downers Grove native was the director of basketball operations when the Ramblers won the College Basketball Invitational in 2015, and was promoted to associate head coach in 2018 after their Final Four run. Loyola won a school-record 32 games, won the Valley in their fifth season in the league, and finished with a No. 7 national ranking.
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Freshman center Cameron Krutwig won the league's freshman of the year award, and Clayton Custer, a transfer from Iowa State who sat out the previous season, was named the MVC player of the year. Mullins also coached guard Marques Townes, this past season's Valley player of the year.
"He's always had great relationships with the guys in the locker room," former Loyola assistant coach Emanuel Dildy said. "And they all respected his voice. When he spoke in the locker room, everybody listened, because he was able to command a room with young guys, even as an assistant coach. And then Bryan was always the first guy in the office and the last one to leave, whether that was reading books, working guys out, watching film. He was always training for this opportunity right now."
Brendan Mullins, Bryan's older brother who joined him on the SIU staff, was part of a reboot at Wright State when Billy Donlon was promoted to head coach in 2010. Brendan said he saw a lot of similarities between Donlon and Bryan. Donlon, a former assistant with the Raiders, led them to three 20-win seasons in six years as the head coach and three appearances in the Horizon League tournament championship game.
"Bryan, he never stops thinkin' and never turns it off, and is just so thought out in every decision he makes," Brendan said. "It's gonna make him a great coach. Defensively, Billy was the best defensive coach I've ever worked for, and Bryan will be right there. Basketball-wise and recruiting-wise, they'll try to go after the same tough-minded, winning kids."
In just over three months, Bryan and his staff added seven newcomers, including two graduate transfers and one Power Five conference transfer. Barret Benson, a 6-10 center from Northwestern, could step into a starting role after the Salukis graduated starting center Kavion Pippen, backup 5-man Thik Bol and second team all-conference guard/forward Armon Fletcher. SIU also added forward Malik William from Clemson and former Bradley guard Ronnie Suggs, a 6-6 graduate transfer from Missouri, on Friday.
Three of the seven spring signees won at least one state championship (freshman guard Trent Brown won two at Pinnacle High School in Arizona) and guard Lance Jones, a freshman guard from Evanston Township High School, lost in the Class 4A state title game to Ohio State signee E.J. Liddell and Belleville West. Junior forward Brendon Gooch was the only Saluki on the roster last season that won a state championship.
Ten years after leaving for a pro career, Mullins is back to bridge the gap between the Salukis' last postseason appearance (2008 NIT) and their next.
"People are excited having a guy that graduated here, and a guy who lived here for four years. It's been great," he said. "I've had people, all the time, come up and say 'We're excited about the season. We can't wait to come watch you play.' They're always asking about recruiting and they're always asking about scheduling, but the interest has been awesome."