A new era for men’s basketball

Let’s take a trip into the future for a moment.

It’s a crisp February day, and USF is buzzing with anticipation. The basketball team is preparing to host a Big East powerhouse in a game that will have a huge impact not only on the Big East, but on the NCAA Tournament as well. As tip-off approaches, thousands of fans dressed in Bulls gear file into the Sun Dome, filling the 10,411-seat arena to capacity.

With the arrival of USF’s newest head basketball coach, Stan Heath, that could become a reality sooner than you think.

Considering a conference record of 4-28 since entering the Big East two years ago, and the departure of head coach Robert McCullum this off-season, the Bulls needed to make a drastic change. The basketball team was in desperate need of a coach who would bring excitement and a sense of possibility to USF.

Heath fits the bill perfectly.

In less than two months he’s already become the face of the program. Just hours after the press conference announcing his hiring, Heath was at Red McEwen Field throwing out the first pitch as the Bulls battled UCF. During a Tampa Bay Lightning playoff game against the New Jersey Devils, Heath and his family were introduced in front of the crowd.

“I’m real humbled by those things,” Heath said of all the attention he’s received since arriving in Tampa. “I’m not necessarily the kind of person that’s in their comfort zone when your name is being called and recognized, but I do realize that I’m the head coach at South Florida and that’s something to be proud about. I definitely want to be front and center along with our players and coaches.”

So Stan Heath sounds like a great guy off the court, but how is he as a basketball coach?

In five seasons as an assistant under legendary coach Tom Izzo at Michigan State, Heath helped the Spartans compile an overall record of 132-37. During his tenure, the Detroit native helped guide Michigan State to the Final Four on three occasions, culminating with a national championship in 2000.

Heath’s hand in the Spartans’ national title is impressive, but helping a Tom Izzo-coached team succeed isn’t exactly mind blowing.

Far more impressive is what Heath did after leaving Michigan State.

In 2001, Heath took his first Division I head coaching position at Kent State. In just one season, he turned a small, mid-major program into a legitimate NCAA Tournament threat.

Heath guided the Golden Flashes to a Mid-American conference tournament title and the school’s first-ever Elite Eight appearance. Kent State went 12-0 at home that season and posted its best average attendance since 1970. The 30-6 record compiled by Kent State that season broke the MAC conference record for wins in a season.

Heath’s one-year transformation of Kent State into a tournament contender could be a preview of what he has in store for USF. While the Mid-American Conference is a far cry from the Big East, you can be sure Heath’s ability to motivate players and produce game plans hasn’t changed.

Heath comes to USF after serving as head coach at the University of Arkansas for the past five seasons. In that time, he guided the Razorbacks to two NCAA Tournament appearances and an overall record of 82-71. Arkansas’ 2006-07 campaign was highlighted by a run to the Southeastern Conference championship game against Florida.

Heath’s success in the SEC helps to erase any doubts about the coach’s ability to succeed in major conference play.

Recruiting plays an enormous part in the success of a college program, and Heath has proven his proficiency in that arena as well.

While at Arkansas, his recruiting classes were ranked in the top 15 in the nation three times by national media outlets.

In his short time at USF, Heath has already demonstrated his recruiting abilities. Since his hiring on April 4, Heath has signed two impressive recruits: Florida All-State forward Orane Chin and junior-college standout Mobolaji Ajayi.

With a history of success at every level of collegiate basketball, you can be sure that Heath will make an immediate difference at USF.

It’s only a matter of time before the Bulls will be mentioned in the same sentence with the Huskies, the Hoyas and other premier basketball programs around the nation.