March 27, 2013 12:02:01 AM
Matthew Stevens - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- After 18 years as an assistant coach at the Division 1 level, Phil Cunningham is ready to make that critical move one chair over.
Troy University announced Tuesday afternoon the former Mississippi State University assistant coach as its next men's basketball head coach after being under the control of the same man for over three decades.
Cunningham has been tutored throughout his career by Division II national champion Wayne Chapman, National Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Lefty Driesel and MSU's all-time winningest coach Rick Stansbury.
"I'm so thankful I got to work with some of the most successful head coaches in the game," Cunningham said. "It shaped my career in the right way."
Cunningham spent 11 seasons with the MSU basketball program resulting in six NCAA tournament appearances. He worked primarily with the Bulldog guards and had a heavy hand in the program's recruiting efforts and helped land players such as Jarvis Varnado, Jamont Gordon, Arnett Moultrie and also Monta Ellis, who wound up going directly to the NBA out of high school.
"From a basketball standpoint, the catch phrase I will use with the players is that in the areas we can control, we've got to have an effort level that is off the charts," Cunningham said. "We have to have an effort level that is always 10-for-10. 5-for-10 we are not going to be able to get it, 7-for-10 is not going to cut it.
"Recruiting is effort. There are 24 hours a day and however many we've got to work to get the best players we can get we've got to do it."
Cunningham, who was promoted to Driesell's associate head coach his final two seasons at GSU, was instrumental in helping transform the Panthers into one of the winningest basketball programs in the Atlantic Sun Conference. His recruiting efforts at Georgia State proved pivotal in the Panthers landing successive conference player of the year recipients Thomas Terrell and Shernard Long.
"When I hired him at JMU he had already been a head coach near his hometown in Kentucky, I was really impressed with his knowledge of the game," Driesell said. "He knows basketball, he knows how to recruit, he's an excellent teacher (and) Troy got a steal. He's terrific. I'm surprised nobody has hired him before now."
Troy athletics director John Hartwell was familiar with Cunningham after working with in the athletic department at University of Mississippi. Hartwell found his candidate after reports claimed the MSU assistant and former University of North Carolina at Charlotte head coach Bobby Lutz were interviewed for the opening. Don Maestri retired earlier in the month after leading the Trojans program for the past 31 seasons and left as the school's all-time wins leader.
"As we looked at candidates that spanned assistant coaches and head coaches from across the nation, we wanted someone who fit a part of the Troy family," Hartwell said. "As I heard Phil talk to the team at the 7 a.m. meeting this morning, he said we will not have any 'me' in this team, we will have 'we'. That's what Troy is about, no one is bigger than Troy itself. I'm very excited about the future of Troy men's basketball and it being in the hands of coach Phil Cunningham."
Cunningham spent the past season at Western Kentucky University where the Hilltoppers made it to the 2013 NCAA tournament and were leading top-seed Kansas at halftime of the second round game.
Cunningham will take over a program that has only reached the NCAA Tournament once in school history but just opened a state-of-the-art Trojan Arena this past season.
"It's one of the places where we'd go through my time as an assistant and thought 'this is a place I'd really be able to be successful at'," Cunningham said.
Cunningham was known in his time at MSU for molding the guard play with the Bulldogs program and allowing the perimeter play to have more offensive freedom to create dribble penetration.
"John Hartwell deserves a lot of credit for going out and hiring one of the best young assistant coaches in the country," Stansbury said. "He has a great ability to evaluate and develop relationships with young men and will have the ability to figure out which kids will fit in best at Troy and help him win championships."
During his time at MSU, Cunningham was recognized was recently named one of the top 25 assistant coaches in the NCAA band was recognized by Rivals.com and was recognized by The Hoop Scoop recruiting publication as one of the top NCAA Division I men's basketball assistant coaches.
"What really stands out to me about Phil is that he has a real knack for identifying talent and locking in on the decision makers and getting after the guy he wants," ESPN.com recruiting analyst Dave Telep said. "He's one of those guys that quietly goes about his business and is always in contention for the best players. He has one of the better eyes for talent and has a real knack for closing situations."
After an 18-year stint as an NCAA Division I assistant coach was preceded by a three-year stay as head basketball coach at Sue Bennett College in London, Ky., Cunningham stood at the podium at Trojan Arena fully prepared for the future ahead of him.
"I didn't feel it necessary to just take a job to become a Division I head coach," Cunningham said. "This is right place for me and I think they feel the same about me as well. It's a perfect fit."
MSU to play non-conference game in Tupelo vs. Southeast Louisiana
For only the fourth time in school history the MSU men's basketball program will play in the BancorpSouth Arena in Tupelo. The last time the Bulldogs have visited Tupelo was in a 77-59 win against University of New Orleans on Dec. 13, 2003.
The first outing in Tupelo resulted in an 80-60 win against the University of Tennesse at Martin on Dec. 20, 1997. The Bulldogs also claimed a 75-46 victory against Northwestern State University on Nov. 21, 1998.
"We are excited about bringing Mississippi State basketball to Tupelo next season," MSU coach Rick Ray said. "Tupelo has always been a supportive and very strong fan base for Mississippi State athletics, and we are glad that we are able to return the favor by playing a game for those fans in Tupelo. My hope would be to alternate games every season between Tupelo and Jackson in order to reach out to Mississippi State supporters in both communities."
The non-conference neutral site game in the Magnolia state has been traditionally in the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson but since taking the job last year Ray has made it a goal to take that game across the state.
The BancorpSouth Arena, which seats 8,000 for basketball, is currently undergoing a $1.6 million renovation. The facility has played host to numerous collegiate basketball, hockey and indoor football games, in addition to concerts, rodeos, circuses and wrestling events.
"We're thrilled to welcome Mississippi State basketball back to the BancorpSouth Arena as part of our 20th anniversary season," said Todd Hunt, the arena's executive director. "Our first regular season NCAA basketball game saw MSU defeat UT-Martin back in 1998. Since then the Bulldogs have made two more appearances in Tupelo, winning both.
"We're hoping that Coach Ray can continue that winning streak in his first trip to Tupelo."
Tip-off time and ticket information will be made available at a later date.