By Joe Henricksen
The struggles of the many Division I college basketball programs in Illinois have been well documented over the past couple of years. Illinois State took a step in assuring its basketball program keeps winning and doesn’t add to the recent problems of other programs in this state with the strong hire of Vanderbilt assistant Dan Muller this week.
Muller, who starred at ISU in the late 1990s when he was a part of two NCAA Tournament teams and Missouri Valley Conference championships, takes over a roster that returns its nucleus. The program isn’t in shambles or one that is in a rebuilding mode. It’s built to win now and compete for a Missouri Valley Conference championship, though the latter took a hit with the departure of freshman point guard Nic Moore on Wednesday. The program is stable with experience returning and young talent in place. Now it has a bright, up-and-coming coach prepared to take ISU basketball to another level.
“I truly believe in this program, what it is and what it can become,” Muller said when the Hoops Report caught up with the busy coach earlier this week. “I know what the potential this program has.”
While at Vanderbilt under coach Kevin Stallings, Muller prepared for this day in a multitude of ways. He was part of a rebuilding stage in those early years in Nashville. Vanderbilt isn’t the easiest college basketball job or place to recruit to with its high academic standards while playing in the tough SEC with the likes of Florida and Kentucky. But Muller helped take Vandy basketball to a higher level. While Vanderbilt was always competitive under C.M Newton, Eddie Fogler and Jan van Breda Kolff, it never maintained a high level of consistency or relevance that Stallings and his staff led the Commodores to over the past decade.
Muller has been a part of six NCAA Tournament teams in the last nine years, including two Sweet 16 appearances. Vandy has averaged 22 wins a year over the last nine seasons, including a SEC Tournament title this past season. Muller has been front and center of both a rebuilding project and maintaining a high-level, winning program in a big-time conference.
In addition, Muller has recruited at a high level at Vanderbilt. The Commodores currently have three players–John Jenkins, Festus Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor–poised to be picked in next month’s NBA Draft. Muller was integral in landing that talent as Vandy’s recruiting coordinator since 2006. Since 2008, Muller and Vandy have landed seven players ranked among the top 150 players in the country, including Jenkins, a Parade All-American.
“There is no question we will focus on the state of Illinois,” Muller says of ISU’s immediate and future recruiting. “Without a doubt we will target this state. But I think this is a job where you can attract players from around the Midwest and even other regions. We’ll be selective and smart.”
Ask anyone about Muller, or spend some time with him, and it’s easy to walk away impressed. First, he’s respected and recognized as being extremely disciplined and prepared. He’s sharp and oozes integrity. He’s intelligent (academic All-American and a Bone Student Scholar, the highest academic award at the university, while playing at ISU), tough-minded (two-time MVC Defensive Player of the Year) and extremely cool, poised and composed. Aside from a lack of head coaching experience, Muller brings a vast and impressive overall package.
Then there is the fact Muller is a former Redbird. Every coach is elated and excited about their first head coaching opportunity. The 36-year-old Muller wanted to be a head coach, but when talking with him you could see and hear that it was THIS job he wanted in the worst way. While it certainly doesn’t always work out for a college program to hire one of its own, if a quality candidate who is the right fit at the right time is available, it’s a big plus and coup. Muller is that guy.
Muller had looked at and even interviewed other jobs, but the ISU job — in all sincerity and for a multitude of reasons — is different for the former Redbird.
“There was a clear separation,” Muller says of the ISU job and other coaching jobs. “Being that it’s my alma mater, knowing how great the program is and can be, I did have a better feel and comfort level for this job. There was a higher excitement level. With any program you look at you think there is potential there. But this was the job that I knew and truly believed what that potential is.”
Yes, any capable, energetic and easy-to-like coach can sell its basketball program no matter where he’s from. But Muller will be able to sell ISU and its basketball program to players and their parents from a different perspective than most. He lived it, obviously wholeheartedly believes in it and is proof of all that is Illinois State and Redbird basketball.
While so many college programs in Illinois have struggled, Illinois State has been steady and consistent under former coach Tim Jankovich. ISU won 21 games and reached the NIT a year ago, beating Ole Miss before falling to Stanford in overtime. The Redbirds have not been able to get over the hump and reach the NCAA Tournament in Jankovich’s five years, losing three MVC title games, including two in overtime, but they have won 20-plus games in four of the past five seasons (averaging 21 wins a season) and reached four NITs.
With all that being said, this was an important hire for Illinois State. They made a good one.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport