New basketball coach Stan Heath: Eastern Michigan is a 'sleeping giant'
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Heath's base salary likely exceeding $300,000, not $400,000 as previously reported.
Calling Eastern Michigan men's basketball a "sleeping giant," new head coach Stan Heath was officially introduced — OK, reintroduced — to the university community Tuesday.
Heath this week was named the program's 30th head basketball coach, after 13 years as a head coach at Kent State, Arkansas and South Florida.
Heath played at Eastern Michigan from 1984-87, after a prep career at Detroit Catholic Central.
"We're going to be good. We're going to have great success," said Heath, who takes over a program that's made four NCAA Tournament appearances, the last one in 1998 — the longest drought of any Division I men's program in the state.
"You will see that very quickly. It's not going to take a long time."
Heath, 56, emerged as Eastern Michigan's new coach from a candidate pool that began in the dozens, as athletic director Scott Wetherbee went looking for a replacement for Rob Murphy. Murphy was head coach for 10 seasons, his contract runs out this summer, and there was no extension. Murphy took a job as general manager and president of the Detroit Pistons' new G League team, the Motor City Cruise.
Wetherbee thanked Murphy, saying "he left the program in a better place than he found it."
But the best is yet to come, Wetherbee and university president James M. Smith suggested Tuesday. Heath received a five-year deal. Financial terms haven't been disclosed, but he's expected to earn more than $300,000 a year in base pay.
Smith said "there might've been mention about an NCAA run or two" in his preliminary talks with Heath, but that winning, while important, wasn't the defining characteristic about the ideal candidate.
"We talked about recruitment of good athletes, recruitment of good men and recruitment of men that will walk across that stage and receive their degree," Smith said during Tuesday's introductory gala attended by several dignitaries, including regents, former players and current players.
"We know the importance of developing young men into great leaders in the future."
Wetherbee, making his first major hire since becoming Eastern Michigan's athletic director in 2017, acknowledged the slow process. It's been nearly a month since Eastern Michigan and Murphy parted ways.
"I wanted to get it right," Wetherbee said. "And I think we did that."
In searching for Eastern Michigan's next coach, Wetherbee said he considered the opinions of several factions, including current student-athletes, former Eastern Michigan athletes like George "Iceman" Gervin (from Texas), and former head coach Ben Braun (from California), who is the winningest coach in program history and who took Eastern Michigan to three of its four NCAA Tournament appearances. Football coach Chris Creighton and women's basketball coach Fred Castro also were significantly involved in the search. Fans and donors weighed in, too.
What he kept hearing, Wetherbee said, was the importance of relationships, character, integrity and a connection to the university. Mostly, though, somebody who will build a culture.
"These are a lot of boxes to check," Wetherbee said. "They wanted somebody with experience, somebody that's been there and done that. Coach Heath has been there and done that."
Heath, as a head coach, has made four NCAA Tournament appearances, including an Elite Eight appearance with Kent State in 2002. He made it twice with Arkansas and once with South Florida. Wetherbee stressed having a coach with head-coaching experience; that put Heath, a favorite from the start, with a leg up on other candidates such as Michigan State assistant Dwayne Stephens and Duquesne assistant Charles Thomas, another former Eastern Michigan basketball player.
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He also has a lengthy assistant-coaching resume, getting his big break with Michigan State, with which he made three Final Fours and won a national championship in 2000. He's also been an assistant at Boston College, Bowling Green, Wayne State and Albion, making up 17 years of a 30-year college coaching career.
He comes from the Lakeland Magic, Orlando's G League team, which he's coached since 2017, and won a championship this past season.
At Eastern Michigan, Heath promises an up-tempo offense, man-to-man defense and extreme preparation in taking over a team that was 6-12 this past season — albeit, a season interrupted by a three-week-plus COVID-19 pause. The Eagles haven't won a Mid-American Conference championship since 2012, Murphy's first season. The Eagles have four players in the transfer portal, including starting forward Ty Groce and starting point guard Bryce McBride.
Heath, 209-206 as a head coach, also has another big goal: Getting the tarps removed from the upper deck at Convocation Center.
"This arena needs to be filled," said Heath, his green mask matching his green tie, adding that takes winning, community involvement and university outreach — and former players getting involved with and being around the program, more than he did, admittedly, after he graduated. "This is not just a one-man job. This takes everybody involved, everybody in this room and people outside this room. This is a sleeping giant.
"I started here as a Huron, and I'm back as an Eagle. That's pretty cool, in my eyes.
"One of the models I try to follow, I always tell this to my team, is never forget where you came from, and never forget who helped you get there."