COLUMN: Northern Kentucky University basketball coach John Brannen sure to become hot commodity

Other schools will notice big turnaround

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- Northern Kentucky University fans certainly don’t want to hear it.

Not while they’re basking in one of the real feel-good stories of this men’s basketball season -- a team in its first year of eligibility to make the NCAA tournament doing just that, winning the Horizon League tournament for an automatic bid.

It’s also a team that cracked 20 wins for the first time since moving to Division I in 2012. The team has improved its win total by 15 and counting from last season. Yes, everything is looking up in Highland Heights.

Except there is one thing that happens when your team gets good.

Yes, a nasty byproduct of winning is inevitable --- your coach becomes the shiny object that catches the attention of other programs’ eyes. And NKU coach John Brannen has all the makings of someone who will make the short list for bigger programs in need.

At 43, Brannen is young and not a retread who has bounced from program to program. He also has an excellent basketball pedigree: He played for Billy Donovan at Marshall University. Donovan, a Rick Pitino disciple himself, went on to win two national championships as Florida’s head coach. Brannen also served as a top assistant for Anthony Grant at Virginia Commonwealth and Alabama.

Along the way, Brannen has established himself as a terrific recruiter. He’s already shown that in his first two seasons at NKU, nabbing Kentucky's Mr. Basketball Carson Williams and finalist Mason Faulkner, among other decorated high school stars.

But what will be noticed the most by other schools is the turnaround NKU has had this season -- the second-biggest turnaround wins-wise in Division I behind Minnesota. It was strong enough to earn Brannen the Horizon League Coach of the Year Award.

It should be noted that Brannen himself has shown no indication that he’s looking to be on the move. There’s plenty of reason why he would want to settle in here. He’s a native of Alexandria, so his family is here, including a brother who coaches high school hoops at Walton-Verona. He’s also a Newport Central Catholic graduate. In fact, Brannen is in the Thoroughbreds’ athletic hall of fame for his hoops career there.

Regardless of his intentions, the vultures will start poking around about Brannen. It’s nothing new to other schools in our area.

Miami University is called the Cradle of Coaches for producing some of the greatest college football coaches of all time, including Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian and Bo Schembechler. They ended up legends at Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan, respectively.

The University of Cincinnati has had its fair share of coaches poached. In football, Bearcats fans watched Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones build up the program to a nationally prominent level, only to move on to Michigan State, Notre Dame and Tennessee, respectively. (It should be noted, UC took both Kelly and Jones from Central Michigan, so don’t feel too sorry for the Bearcats.)

UC basketball has been more stable, but Bob Huggins was constantly rumored to be courted by his alma mater West Virginia while employed by UC, and current coach Mick Cronin as recently as last year was reportedly getting heavy interest from Nevada-Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, Xavier would be most suited to tell NKU what we’re talking about here: Musketeers basketball fans have watched a succession of Pete Gillen (Virginia), Skip Prosser (Wake Forest), Thad Matta (Ohio State) and Sean Miller (Arizona) all parlay great success at Xavier into big-time jobs.

Current Xavier coach Chris Mack has kept the winning tradition going, but hasn’t jumped at the high-profile jobs linked to him. Rest assured though, they’ll keep coming for Mack. He's a local guy -- like Brannen and Cronin -- so Muskie fans can cross their fingers that hometown favoritism will keep Mack here.

NKU fans have their fingers crossed for the same with Brannen. But if Missouri or North Carolina State comes calling, it might be hard to say no. At a school where you not only have to vie with UC and Xavier for attention locally, but also have to share a state with the Kentucky Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals, it might be nice to be a big fish in another pond.

Also, while the Horizon League is a solid mid-major conference, it would be nice to be in a league that gets more than one tournament berth.

And the paycheck has to be considered -- you can’t fault a coach for building financial security for his family.

Regardless of what the future holds, Norse Nation should enjoy what’s happening right now. This is a program swiftly on the rise and is validating the move to DI.

Win or lose the rest of this postseason, the future is bright and that’s largely due to John Brannen’s brilliance.

Just know, though, that brilliance will be noticed far beyond Highland Heights.

Dave Niinemets is a Digital Enterprise Editor at WCPO.com and oversees sports content for the digital team.

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