Butler’s Brad Stevens and VCU’s Shaka Smart are two of the best storylines in this year’s Final Four and share two striking similarities – they both coach at mid-major programs and they’re both very young to be so successful so early.
Stevens is 34 and is taking the Butler Bulldogs, with its 4,400-student enrollment, to the school’s second consecutive Final Four. Smart is only 33 and has taken the VCU Rams, a school that was ridiculed for even making the tournament, through an absolute gauntlet, slaying five-BCS conference opponents in convincing fashion along the way to Houston.
So why should Lamar fans take notice?
Because the Cardinals have a potential prodigy a mere 15 miles south of the Montagne Center – Lamar State Head Coach Matt Cross.
“He’s a very mature young coach, and he’s got great character,” said Dr. Billy C. Hawkins, the president at Talladega College in Talladega, Ala. Hawkins gave Cross his first head coaching job at Texas College in 2006 and then brought Cross with him to Talladega where the two revived an athletics program that had been dormant for six years, with Cross winning a small college national championship in 2009.
“Everywhere he’s been, he’s done nothing but win,” Hawkins said.
And it’s not a surprise because the soon to be 28-year-old Cross is a basketball junkie. The guy lives, eats and breathes basketball and has a passion for the game that is evident when you watch him on the sideline. A native of Shreveport, La., Cross has been coaching basketball since he got out of high school and was a graduate assistant under former Lamar Head Coach Mike Newell at the University of Arkansas-Monticello for three years.
Cross left UA-M in 2006 to be an assistant at Texas College, an NAIA school in Tyler where the then 23-year-old Cross found himself thrust into the head coach spot after a 1-11 start forced previous head coach to resign. The Steers went 5-7 under Cross and qualified for the Conference Tournament where they upset the conference’s No. 1 seed, Houston Baptist, before bowing out in the second round. Baptist was in its last year as an NAIA member before it started play as a Division I school the next season.
The next season Cross led the Steers to a 21-13 record and the school’s first Red River Conference Championship.
Then Cross left with Hawkins to take over as athletics director, head basketball and golf coach at Talladega, where the program, thanks to the great foundation laid by Cross, is now an NAIA school and has won another championship in men’s basketball in 2010.
If there was ever any question as to whether Cross can make the jump to Division I from the JUCO ranks, Hawkins said debating that argument is futile.
“At Talladega, he beat almost every school in the SWAC, and those are all Division I programs,” Hawkins said, “so that shows you what type of athlete he recruits, because they competed and won against Division I competition.”
And at Lamar State the last two seasons, Cross followed up a 20-11 first year with an incredible 26-11 season this season that included a Region 14 Conference Tournament Championship and a trip to the JUCO National Tournament in Hutchison, Kan., a feat that Larry Cooper, CEO of The Premier Sports Network, called the “most improbable run in JUCO sports history.”
So what makes Matt Cross a good fit at Lamar?
For one, the guy is a relentless recruiter. Hawkins raved about Cross’ ability to relate to young athletes, and having watched him interact with his Seahawk players and talking to those guys, they respect Cross because he is driven and dedicated to what he does. “I’m crazy when it comes to recruiting, I don’t take no for an answer,” Cross told me last week.
He’s also a disciplinarian, a self-described old-schooler who is committed to getting young men to perform at their best on the court and in the classroom. He appreciates hard work, and in May he’s traveling back for Talladega’s commencement ceremony to watch several of his former players graduate.
While it’s easy to highlight Cross’ ability to recruit and coach up the Xs and Os, and it’s great to point out that Cross has won everywhere he’s been, what makes Cross the ultimate pick is his attention to detail and the way his teams play defense. That’s right; Cross coaches defense, a trait that was sorely lacking the last three years.
I’m not guaranteeing that hiring Matt Cross means Lamar has the next Shaka Smart or Brad Stevens. But this much I do know, outside of Terry Evans, the names that have been floated as Roc’s replacements, their track records speak for themselves. Pat Knight, the alleged leader in the coaching-search clubhouse, couldn’t win at Texas Tech, his teams played a boring brand of basketball and it’s not like other schools are beating down his door.
So if you’re Larry Tidwell and you want to reenergize your fan base and send a message to the community that the school is serious about winning, you drive down to Port Arthur, pick up Matt Cross, schedule a press conference and introduce him as the next head basketball coach at Lamar University. You generate some national buzz because you’ve hired the youngest coach in Division I basketball, put a couple seasoned veteran coaches alongside him and then you let Matt Cross loose on the rest of the Southland Conference as he puts Beaumont back on the basketball map.