It has now been 15 days since reports came out that Joey James would not be returning as the head coach of the University of South Dakota men’s basketball team.
James was promoted as interim head coach Sept. 6 shortly after long-time coach Dave Boots announced he was retiring. He was hoping the interim tag would be removed at some point, but when athletic director David Herbster announced right after the season that the school would begin a coaching search, James declined to be a candidate.
“I just felt like I interviewed for the job with my body of work over the last five months,” James said. “If I was who they wanted, I think they would’ve known.”
James, who played for the Coyotes from 1997-99 and has coached here for another 11 seasons, said he’s disappointed he won’t be able to coach for a program that he’s so passionate about.
“I’m very disappointed that I’m not continuing to lead this program,” James said. “It’s a business, but there’s definitely a sense of disappointment.”
Herbster said the conversation he had with James right after the season-ending loss to Denver March 9 wasn’t easy, but he was sticking to the process he set forward at the beginning of the season.
“We planned on opening a coaching search at the beginning of the season but didn’t have enough time. Regardless if we won 28 games or two games this year, we were going to have to do some form of a search,” Herbster said. “I asked and encouraged (Joey) to be part of the search but he declined.”
Herbster said he liked the development of James but never had a preconceived notion if he was or wasn’t the right guy because he wanted to know who else was out there. But Herbster, who has been friends with James for several years, said it was difficult to learn he wanted to take his name out of the hat.
“I understood the disappointment. That’s the coach in him, the passion he has,” Herbster said.
James was given the interim tag with very difficult circumstances. He only had two months to prepare for the season opener against St. Bonaventure. At the end of the season, the team ended up winning more conference games (six), than they had in their first two years in the Summit League. When asked what more he could’ve done, James said it’s tough to say.
“I don’t know what enough is,” James said. “We were predicted to finish seventh in the Summit, we finished fifth. We had the most wins we’ve ever had in the Summit. We did a ton of work in the community. We made progress in everything.”
He was hoping his body of work had shown enough to continue doing what he loves.
“I was hoping it was good enough for a couple more years here so that we could continue making progress,” James said.
James went on to say his group didn’t overachieve this season, but he was pleased with the amount of progress they did make. He also made it known that he didn’t let the interim tag be a cloud over his head throughout the season.
“When you’re on a one-year contract you always have pressure and in this business, pressure will always follow you. You just have to know how to deal with it,” James said. “I never felt over-pressured (being in the interim role).”
Junior guard Brandon Bos, who scored a team-high 13 points in the loss to Denver, said he was surprised to learn James won’t be his coach for his senior season.
“I was quite surprised,” Bos said. “I thought we improved in multiple areas from last year and with the number of guys we have returning, I thought the coaching staff would do an even better job with us next year.”
Senior Trevor Gruis, who along with Bos, was an honorable mention for the All-Summit team, said it was difficult to learn the program won’t be led by James next year.
“It was surprising to me, and I think it was surprising to everyone for that matter,” Gruis said. “I played for coach for four years and really learned a lot from him and think he will make a great coach wherever he goes next.”
Gruis said he found out the next day just like everybody else and didn’t get the sense that after the Denver loss, James was making his final post-game speech to the players.
“I didn’t find out until the next day, while most of the guys were home on spring break,” Gruis said. “He just thanked us for the great year we gave him in his first coaching experience. It was a pretty generic speech.”
The potential setback to having a new coach is having players transfer to other schools, but as of now, Bos said that’s not much of a concern.
“I’m not worried about our guys transferring because I don’t expect anyone will,” Bos said. “We’re a close-knit group that wants to stick together. Obviously things will be different with a new head coach but that’s something we’ll have to adjust to. That’s just the way it goes.”
James said he doesn’t know quite yet what his future holds.
“Not exactly sure yet. I’ve had talks with coaches at different levels, including Division I and II,” James said. “But I’ll have to decide if I want to be an assistant or find somewhere that I can be a head coach. Hopefully I’ll know within the next 3-5 weeks.”