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There’s usually a certain chaotic cadence to a Division I men’s basketball coaching search.
After the incumbent exits, either because a coach left for a different job or was dismissed, the fanbase immerses itself in message board innuendo and social media gossiping. As the search nears its conclusion, fans and analysts alike scour flight data to see which candidates might be flying in for a final interview or stake out restaurants and hotels near campus hoping to catch a glimpse of the likely new hire.
Then, of course, there’s the festive introductory press conference attended by well-heeled alumni and the players the new coach is inheriting. The new guy explains why this is the best job in the nation and everyone heads out into a spring afternoon convinced he is going to get his new school back into the NCAA Tournament within two seasons. The late spring, summer, and early fall are all filled with firsts such as community functions, practices, and the hype-filled buildup to the new season.
Except, of course, this is 2020, and nothing is normal in these pandemic times. And so Mark Byington may as well have been auditioning for an adult-centered remake of “Home Alone” as he closed in on accepting the James Madison job in late March.
“It was strange — we did a phone interview and there was a search committee involved and I came to an empty campus,” Byington said during CAA media day last week. “A lot of times, you’ve got to sneak the head coach in and out of town and everything else. But I checked into a hotel here, Hotel Madison — and it’s a beautiful hotel — and I might have been the only guest in the entire hotel. So we didn’t have to worry about keeping things under the radar.”
The CAA’s other first-year head coach, UNC Wilmington’s Takayo Siddle, had a bit more normal experience in his interview process. Still, as members of an unusually small fraternity, Byington and Siddle will have plenty to talk about if their teams are able to meet as scheduled the weekend of Jan. 9.
With university athletic budgets as well as the 2020-21 season mired in uncertainty because of the pandemic, the coaching carousel was far quieter than usual this spring. Byington and Siddle are two of the just 21 Division I coaches hired in March or April. There were 60 coaching changes between the start of the 2018-19 and 2019-20 campaigns.
The CAA is one of five leagues with two new coaches, along with the Horizon (Green Bay and Illinois-Chicago), Mountain West (Air Force and Wyoming), Southern (East Tennessee State and Samford), and Southwestern Athletic (Alabama State and Alcorn State).
Like most of the schools that made springtime changes this year, UNC Wilmington and James Madison were already in transition mode before the pandemic brought sports to a screeching days before the NCAA Tournament was scheduled to begin.
UNC Wilmington got a head start on the search process by firing C.B. McGrath on Jan. 13. While interim head coach Rob Burke won over fans and made a compelling case to keep the job by directing the Seahawks to a 5-8 record the rest of the way, the administration made it clear it would conduct a wide-ranging search for McGrath’s permanent replacement.
Siddle, who was an assistant to Kevin Keatts when the latter led UNC Wilmington to back-to-back CAA titles in 2016-17 before accompanying Keatts to North Carolina State, had his first interview back when things were still fairly normal.
“It was still early, it was about maybe three weeks before everything really started to get crazy,” Siddle said. “I had to sneak on campus; I was kind of sneaking around town.”
By the time James Madison headed into CAA Tournament play, it was clear its next loss would bring an end to the Louis Rowe era. The Dukes were among five teams to receive a first-place vote in the preseason poll but went 2-16 in league play.
Rowe and Burke coached their final games within hours of each other on March 7, when UNC Wilmington fell to Drexel, 66-55, in the first opening-round game of the CAA Tournament before James Madison lost to Elon, 63-61, in the nightcap.
Rowe and James Madison agreed to part ways two days later, but with Byington still coaching Georgia Southern — the Eagles became one of the teams to win their final game without knowing they’d just played their final game on Mar. 11, when they advanced to the Sun Belt semifinals with an 81-62 win over Georgia State — the dalliance between Byington and the Dukes couldn’t start until after the shutdown.
In the meantime, Siddle became the first new CAA head coach when he was hired on March 13. That was just one day after the NCAA Tournament was canceled, so Siddle already understood his first few weeks and months would be like no other.
“When I took the job, it was crazy,” Siddle said. “I had to connect with my players over Zoom calls and FaceTime and text messaging. So that was a little crazy. I had to get used to that. But yeah, it was definitely a challenging time for me.”
The challenges of taking a new job in the midst of a pandemic were also clear to Byington by Mar. 20, when he agreed to terms with James Madison. And while things haven’t gotten much more "normal" in the subsequent eight months, the season is approaching, which means Byington got a recent taste of what the introductory process used to be like for a new head coach.
“I do like the fact (that) I walked into Walmart the other day (and) the person that greeted me asked if I was the coach,” Byington said. “They said, ‘Well, I sure hope that you’re good.’
“And I told them back, I said, ‘Well, so do I. So we’re on the same page with that.’”
Jerry Beach has covered Hofstra sports since arriving on campus in the fall of 1993, when Wayne Chrebet was a junior wide receiver wearing No. 3, Butch van Breda Kolff was the men’s basketball coach for the East Coast Conference champions and Jay Wright was a little-known yet surely well-dressed UNLV assistant coach. Check out Jerry’s book about the 2000 World Series here and follow him on Twitter at @JerryBeach73.