The Florida Gators’ search for a new women’s basketball coach appeared to have taken a big hit early Monday afternoon, with San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon reportedly turning the Gators down.
But by night, Florida had its coach — and its man.
That man is former Belmont coach Cameron Newbauer, whose hiring Florida announced in a release early Monday evening. Only Gators and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 each reported the news prior to Florida’s official announcement — with the latter getting a somewhat surreal interview with Newbauer about being hired on Belmont’s floor, with Newbauer still wearing a Bruins logo on his polo shirt.
Florida writer Chris Harry quotes both Newbauer and athletic director Scott Stricklin in the Gators’ piece.
"It's the University of Florida, that's the excitement for me," Newbauer said Monday. "A national brand. One of the most revered athletic programs in the nation. What those coaches and [former AD] Jeremy Foley have built is incredible, and in spending time with Scott Stricklin I know he's the right leader in that department for the program. It's just an incredible place for my family and I to take this next step, and I couldn't be more grateful."
"It's kind of hard to find the words right now. It's surreal, an absolute dream come true for me. I've worked and been blessed and fortunate to have opportunities come my way. This is one that is going to take a lot of hard work and diligence, but it's one I'm proud to have in front of me."
Stricklin said Newbauer, 38, was the best fit among a pool of candidates to succeed Amanda Butler, who was released this month after 10 seasons, a 190-136 overall record and 71-85 mark in Southeastern Conference play.
"There was never a doubt that Cam wanted to be in the SEC, at this level," Stricklin said. "Of all the people we had intensive conversations with, he was the most prepared and ready to come in and be successful in this league."
Stricklin mentioning “intensive conversations” would seem to lend some credence to the reporting that Florida had other candidates — perhaps including Hammon, and/or Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer and Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell, and reportedly, per Swish Appeal, including Elon coach Charlotte Smith and Stetson coach Lynn Bria — in mind to replace Butler. That mix of established names and less-recognized coaches suggests a wide net cast by the Gators — and Stricklin’s admission that Florida had “intensive conversations” with multiple candidates is an departure from past protocol for the athletic department, which often presented hires as first-choice candidates under Jeremy Foley.
The coach that the Gators ultimately hired has experience at both David- and Goliath-sized schools..
Newbauer’s Bruins swept the Ohio Valley Conference’s regular-season and tournament titles over each of the last two years, making two of the three NCAA Tournament appearances in program history as a result. His team finished 27-6 this year and with just the fourth undefeated season in OVC play, and narrowly missed upsetting No. 4 Kentucky — in Lexington — as a No. 13 seed, falling in a 73-70 game.
It was another near-miss as a No. 13 seed in the 2015 NCAA Tournament — this time, against a No. 4 Michigan State team that was displaced to Starkville by scheduling conflicts in East Lansing that led to No. 5 Mississippi State hosting regional play — that got the attention of the then-Mississippi State AD, per Florida’s release.
From a spot on press row, Scott Stricklin watched the Bruins throw a second-half scare into the Spartans before Big Ten athleticism took over down the stretch. Stricklin was impressed by the energy of the coach on the Belmont sideline and was equally struck by the presence and personality exuded in the post-game media session.
"I thought he was a guy who someone should pay attention to. Maybe someone I'd look out for and recommend to my AD friends looking for a basketball coach," Stricklin said. "So he was a guy I'd already been tracking."
Two years later, he’s Stricklin’s guy.
Newbauer came to Belmont from Louisville, where he had been an assistant under the well-respected Jeff Walz, and came to Louisville from Georgia, where he served as an assistant under legendary head coach Andy Landers — getting hired for that role from a position as director of basketball operations for Georgia’s men’s team.
He is also an Indiana native, hailing from Fort Wayne — which is, whether intentional or coincidental, perhaps something that would help the Gators reel star recruit Karissa McLaughlin, Indiana’s Gatorade Player of the Year, back into the fold.
McLaughlin reopened her recruitment after Butler’s departure, and was granted a release to contact other schools by Florida. But she is also still considering remaining with Florida, and bound to the Gators by a National Letter of Intent — which is why her name could show up in Harry’s piece, in the context of what Newbauer inherits...
An incoming freshman class of fives players will be headlined by Indiana Gatorade Player of the Year Karissa McLaughlin, a career 2,500-point scorer who led her Fort Wayne prep team to the state championship last month.
"We're going to get on the phone with those kids ASAP and begin building relationships and see where their hearts are," Newbauer said. "This is a tough time. When young people go through change, they don't always understand the growth that can come from it."
...and in a tweet from the program on Monday.
Already a bond! It would be an amazing start with those two together! https://t.co/24NfRRUojC— Gators WBasketball (@GatorsWBK) March 28, 2017
Newbauer had success recruiting Indianans to Belmont — 2016 Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year Darby Maggard and Indiana transfer Maura Muensterman were the two on the Bruins’ 2016-17 roster — and had success, generally, without much runway to work with in Nashville. The Bruins went 51-15 over their last two seasons, but while they finished under .500 overall in each of the first two years of Newbauer’s tenure, they also went 10-6 and 11-7 in OVC play in those years, finishing no lower than third in the conference over Newbauer’s stint in town.
And while Belmont took most of its lumps in non-conference play over the last two seasons, those lumps weren’t big — and the win streaks were. The Bruins did not lose by double digits after Thanksgiving in the 2016-17 season, and entered the NCAA Tournament on a 23-game winning streak; in 2015-16, only trips to Ohio State and Western Kentucky (in Belmont’s first post-Christmas break game) produced non-conference losses by double digits, and the Bruins lost just twice after January 5.
Newbauer will assuredly find having similar success in the SEC a challenge. But he will be the next coach who gets the opportunity to do so — and the first man to ever lead Florida’s women’s basketball program, previously helmed by nine women since its debut as a varsity sport in 1975.
It’s a brave new world for the Gators, indeed.